Women of Afghanistan: Navigating the Path to Empowerment and Entrepreneurship

Dec 1, 2023

A Conference Hosted by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association in Partnership with the Westmont Enterprise Hub

Wednesday 29th November 2023
17:30 – 21:00

“As we sit in the heart of London, and mark 16 days of activism commemorating the International Day
for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, let us be reminded of the plight of the women of Afghanistan.”
That’s how Shabnam Nasimi, former senior advisor to the Minister for Afghan Resettlement & Minister for
Refugees, and chair of the conference, commenced the evening. On 29 November 2023, the Afghanistan and
Central Asian Association (ACAA), a renowned British charity founded in 2000, hosted a conference in
partnership with the Westmont Enterprise Hub, University of West London on ‘Women of Afghanistan:
Navigating the Path to Empowerment and Entrepreneurship’.

An array of distinguished panellists engaged in a vibrant dialogue on the experiences of women of
Afghanistan both within Afghanistan and in exile, as well as the pivotal role that the UK and the broader
international community can play in championing their rights and dignity. The discussion was enriched by Aalia
Farzan, a news producer and presenter at the BBC World Service and who was featured in BBC’s Inspiring
Women in News list; Benafsha Yaqoobi, former Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commissioner,
human rights and disability activist; Shaira Karimi, a researcher specialising in civil rights, conflict, extremism
and nationalism focusing on Afghanistan and South Asia at Tony Blair Institute; Diana Nammi, an activist who
founded IKWRO and was recognised as one of the BBC 100 women in 2014; and Esther Raffell who serves as
the Policy Communications Coordinator at IMIX. After witnessing the tragic fall of Kabul in August 2021,
undermining two decades of efforts to establish a democratic country, the moderator alongside the speakers
expressed the imperative urgency to advocate for decisive measures, “our meeting is more than a conference,
it is a ‘Call for Action,’ understanding, and solidarity in these troubled times, emphasised Shabnam Nasimi.”

The first panel, titled ‘The Realities of Life of Women in Afghanistan,’ delved into the plight of women
within Afghanistan and highlighted their current realities. “Afghanistan is the only country where its women
are not treated like human beings,” said Shabnam, describing the advancement of women’s rights in
Afghanistan as a “hard-earned progress.” Shaira Karimi commended the unwavering resilience and bravery
displayed by women in Afghanistan as they continue to courageously stand against the oppressive “barbaric
regime.” She emphasised the critical need for comprehensive support for Afghanistan, underscoring that the
de facto authority has systematically excluded women from public life, subjecting them to targeted
discrimination based solely on their gender. Aalia Farzan expressed that condemning the Taliban is “not
enough,” albeit rather how to navigate forward and initiate actionable steps. All speakers agreed on the fact
that initiating action today may not yield immediate change, but its impact will resonate across generations in
the future. Women in Afghanistan are not only fighting against the Taliban, but also against terrorism,
tribalism, and patriarchy. However, “we cannot give up too easily”, emphasised Aalia Farzan.

Following the ban of education, Fatima, a visually impaired young lady was forced to marry a 68-year-
old man. Despite the persistent efforts of activists, including Benafsha Yaqoobi, to prevent this marriage, the
parents remained adamant. They justified their decision by pointing out her disability, lack of access to
education, and the challenging economic circumstances, asserting that marriage seemed to be the only option
for salvation. This story was shared by Benafsha Yaqoobi where she asked the audience to take a moment and
“think about the situation of women of Afghanistan.” She argued rightly that a percentage of Afghanistan’s
population is living with severe disability, but the available data does not reflect the actual numbers, as they
are significantly higher. Thus, the intentional erosion and subjugation of women in Afghanistan will not only
have profound implications on the generations yet to come and shape the future of the country, but also
affect the sustainability of peace in the region.

In the second panel, titled ‘Afghan Women in Refuge and Exile – The Role of the United Kingdom,’ the
panellists shed light on the experiences of women in the United Kingdom, the support systems, legal and
humanitarian aspects, and the pathways to their empowerment and integration. Refugee women encounter
numerous difficulties upon their arrival to the UK. Diana Nammi highlighted her first hand experience when
she first arrived “not knowing her entitlements in the country” and shared some of the challenges women face
upon arrival, for instance, fear of the police, being misled by their partners, financial challenges, language
barriers. However, ‘there is always light at the end of the tunnel and we are helping them at this difficult time’,
emphasised a speaker. She highlighted the importance of the role of organisations and institutes working to
support and facilitate the transition of these women and gave examples of “women who were survivors and
are now women’s rights fighters.” Moreover, Esther Raffell underscored the lack of lived experiences in the
British media and believes that there is a pressing necessity to “shift the conversation in a more positive way”
to effectively resonate with the average British individual, and how to utilise that to “explain the challenges
faced by women of Afghanistan.”

The evening ended with three speeches by refugee women from Afghanistan and Iran sharing their
experiences and highlighting how the ACAA has played a pivotal role as they embark upon their journeys and
pursue their dream careers. “I am grateful for the ACAA for providing tailored services which not only unlocked
my potential but also allowed me to give back to the community and help others in need,” said Shafiqa, a
refugee, who now works in the immigration and enforcement agency. They collectively implored the
international community and especially the United Kingdom to sustain their support and refrain from
abandoning them. “Look what women are capable of when given the appropriate platform,” said Shabnam
Nasimi, urging the educational institutions, governments and non-governmental organisations to “invest in

Whilst the conference was primarily focused on understanding the challenges faced by refugee
women from Afghanistan, there was also a general consensus among the audience that most of the issues
experienced by these women are also universal gender-based issues, affecting many women globally. The
conference proved highly successful, fostering optimism for the implementation of impactful measures that
will pave the way toward women’s empowerment.

Director’s Note, Dr. Nooralhaq Nasimi: “There are many challenges that refugee women in particular face
when they come to the UK. But the most pressing is the lack of English language skills, which not only prevents
them from finding employment, but also accessing basic mainstream services in the UK. Having experienced
first-hand challenges of integrating into new life in the UK, I established the ACAA, a community centre just 3
months after my arrival. Currently, this charity provides a range of services. I hope the wider community in
need of support accesses the services that ACAA and other community centres offer in London, because only
when they will participate in voluntary work and develop skills can their path to employment be without

By Malak Al-Kasadi

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