Why the UK needs to help deliver on women’s rights in Afghanistan

Caroline Wright tells the story of a fellow gynaecologist, “Dr D”, an Afghan health professional who has experienced death threats and attacks on her family in Afghanistan.

When I was asked if I wanted to be involved in a short film about women’s rights in Afghanistan for Amnesty, I absolutely leapt at the chance. Although the prospect of being filmed was slightly daunting - I have absolutely no TV or film experience - Amnesty’s campaign is something I could immediately relate to, both as a doctor and as a woman.

I have never met Doctor D, the Afghan gynaecologist whose tale I told, but I know by her story that we have a lot in common.

I know that we are both passionate about a woman’s right to access healthcare. In the UK we’re incredibly fortunate. Everybody is able to access high-quality healthcare, something we often take for granted. As women we’re able to make choices about our health, about contraception and pregnancy. If we’re expecting a baby, we know that in the vast majority of cases we, and our unborn babies, will make it safely through labour and delivery. In much of the developing world, this is often not the case. Through my work I’ve travelled to teach medical skills in Asia and Africa and have been stunned by the challenges faced by those trying to provide healthcare to women. Where care is needed most, it always seems to be least available. Sadly I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, but Doctor D’s story tells me that healthcare is not just absent in many cases in Afghanistan, it is actively prevented by threats and violence. I admire Doctor D’s passion for steadfastly continuing with her much-needed work despite the personal horrors she’s had to face.

Doctor D and myself have much in common. Like me she went to medical school, she worked hard, she passed her exams. She took on a life role that gives you an extraordinary gift. You have the skills and knowledge to stop pain and relieve suffering, to help and to heal. Placed in the position we both are, I understand why it’s not possible for her to turn her back despite the dangers. Whatever the cost, we have a duty to help. The cost for me might be long hours, endless exams, missed birthdays and weddings and never having a lunch break! But I’ve never had to face threats, attacks on my family or paralysing fear. The costs for me are so laughable in comparison and make me realise how fortunate I am to do the job that I love and not be targeted in any way for it.

In the course of Doctor D’s work she’s looked into the eyes of a girl who has been raped and seen nothing but bleakness and fear. When I worked as a forensic physician my role was similarly to treat women and girls who had been raped. Like myself, Doctor D has sought to help them, to encourage them to stay positive, to let them know that with time the pain would fade and they would eventually start to feel normal again. So we’ve taken on very similar roles, yet in many ways Doctor D and myself are worlds apart: I’ve received praise for my work, she’s had death threats.

I know that Doctor D is someone who has a strong work ethic. My own mother was a working mum, bringing up myself and my three sisters as well as doing a full-time job. I’ve always known that life is not handed to you on a plate. Doctor D inspires me as strong woman balancing work and family in the toughest of circumstances. When we hear so many negative stories about Afghanistan she’s a beacon of light, a positive role model for women across the world and a fantastic source of inspiration for her own children. I know she loves her children and family dearly and when I read her words I felt some of the pain she must have felt when her son was injured and her brother killed. Yet she goes on. I deeply admire her strength and her courage.

I don’t know why some of us are fortunate enough to be born into a life where we’re safe and free, while others are given a different, far harder path. From telling this story I know that Doctor D has seen and felt many of the same things as myself. And as a doctor, as a woman, but most fundamentally as a fellow human being, I know there’s something that I can do to help to bring change. There’s something we all can do.

Dr Caroline Wright is a gynaecologist at the Epsom General Hospital in Surrey

  • To support women’s rights in Afghanistan - including the provision of shelters for women and girls raped in Afghanistan - see this page
  • Amnesty is also running a “contact your MP” campaign on women’s rights in Afghanistan. See this page for more details

 

Dr Caroline Wright is a gynaecologist at the Epsom General Hospital in Surrey

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I am an immigrant – and I believe “migrant” is a far from neutral term

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.