On 15 August 2021, the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan . Two days later, Behishta joined the movement to resist them.
A television journalist for Afghan broadcaster Noor TV, she had made a career from being outspoken on women’s rights and attracted criticism for her views.
There was the time in 2018 when she decided to run a programme on virginity testing, a barbaric practice where women are subjected to a faux medical procedure to determine their virginity. Her critics rang in to complain that such a topic was being discussed in an Islamic country.
Or the time when she ran a civil institute in Panjshir, a province in northeast Afghanistan, which brought young people together to discuss books they were reading. Her critics denounced her as inciting secularism in the region.
The time when she stood in the way of a local Taliban member, when he wanted to force a young girl into marriage. The girl fled Afghanistan and Behishta was held responsible.
And there was the time when a conservative academic objected to her reporting, telling her he “would not soil my hands in your blood” but would rather get his fanatical female students to kill her instead.
When the Taliban came to power, the men – who once only issued threats – now had guns in their hands and fighters at their control.
“On 15 August the Taliban came to power, and on the 17th the women decided to do something,” she told The Independent through a translator.
“All of us who got together were human rights or civil activists who wanted to fight for women’s rights. We came out in colourful clothing into the town. We wanted to show that we were not the women of 20 years ago. We wanted people to accept us just as we are.
“Third of September, which was a Friday, was the first day I went out to the protests. Then I went out on the 4, 5 and 7 [September].”
Pictures of the approximately hundred women carrying banners and chanting slogans in Kabul went around the world. “We want the Taliban to know that they cannot eliminate us from society”, one young woman, Arezo, said at the time.
But, despite the world watching, the authorities reacted violently, stopping the women and beating at least 10 of them during one protest. Since then, the reality for women in Afghanistan has gotten significantly worse. Women have been blocked from attending university, most teenage girls cannot get a secondary school education, and the Taliban has banned female humanitarian workers.
“Afghanistan has got many genius young minds,” Behishta said. “The way the world views Afghanistan at the moment is just because of a coincidence of history. If the time was right you would see what young minds we have in Afghanistan.”
After the first few weeks of protest, a Taliban member who Behishta knew told her she would have to stop. In fear of her life, she knew she would have to flee the country. Once she was able to get hold of a physical passport in February 2022, she made her way to Pakistan. She stayed there for nine months before managing to get a visa in October 2022 to travel to a European country, where she lives now in a government camp.
Her hope is to one day build a life in the UK, but her options for getting here are slim.
Launched in August 2021, the government’s Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS) said that it would prioritise “those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and rule of law”. It also promised to bring in “vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk”.
But the reality is that there is no functioning legal route to the UK for Afghan’s women’s rights activists. Only 4 people have been brought to the UK under the scheme since the fall of Kabul.
We wanted to show that we were not the women of 20 years ago. We wanted people to accept us just as we are
Afghan refugees cannot apply directly to the UK government for resettlement, instead they have to apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which could then send them anywhere. The UNHCR have said that they will primarily help refugees in the countries neighbouring Afghanistan and they will prioritise those at risk.
Former government officials have been pushing the Home Office to widen the criteria for those who will be accepted on the third pathway of the ACRS programme, which is currently open only to British Council, GardaWorld contractors, and Chevening alumni.
Applications are closed for the first spots on the scheme, but it will be renewed next year and campaigners hope that women activists will be prioritised.
Dr Neelam Raina, of Middlesex University London, said: “ACRS was originally designed to protect the most vulnerable members of society, including the media, press and civil rights defenders. People who were public figures.
“So the first pathway was designed for the right people, but then the reality is that it was filled by people who were already in the UK.”
It emerged last February that about a third of the places available under ACRS had been granted to Afghans who had already been relocated to Britain during Operation Pitting – the UK’s evacuation effort following the Taliban takeover in 2021.
One former government official who worked in Afghanistan, Sarah Hearn OBE, told The Independent: “For over ten years, Behishta was a successful TV and radio journalist. She used her position to oppose the Taliban’s violence against women.
“She chaired the legal defence committee to protect women journalists and she founded an NGO that helped journalists to promote human rights. Behishta defended the UK’s values and objectives in the world, but when it was time for her to flee to safety, the UK’s doors closed.”
Behistha is currently in a European country on a year-long visitor’s visa and three months have already passed. Speaking from her government dorm, she said she wasn’t sure what would happen to her next.
“The camp is for people who come through Turkey or Serbia – those who are being brought through by smugglers. We are the only three women who have visas and a passport and people know us now because we are staying here for a long time. Everyone else moves on quickly to other European countries,” she said.
“I travelled a lot in my job before but despite all the chances I had to go elsewhere I always returned to my homeland. If I wasn’t forced to leave, I would still be there. It’s just out of necessity that I have had to flee.”
A government spokesperson said: “Supporting the resettlement of eligible Afghans who may be vulnerable and at risk remains a top priority. This complex situation presents us with significant challenges, including securing safe passage out of the country for those who want to leave – and who are eligible for resettlement in the UK.
“So far we have brought almost 23,000 vulnerable people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan relocation schemes.”
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