False claims women are not being rescued from Afghanistan have been debunked by campaigners after cropped photos were shared online.
And activists told The Independent the altered images eradicate Afghan women’s agency by perpetuating the racist notion that women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds need rescuing by the West.
A leading columnist who writes for The Guardian, Polly Toynbee, erroneously claimed there were no women in a distressing image of a US military cargo plane jam-packed with hundreds of Afghan men, women and children striving to escape Afghan’s capital of Kabul.
It comes after Afghanistan was seized by the Taliban, who entered Kabul on Sunday.
Toynbee, who was fiercely criticised on social media for her intervention, said: “Notice anything about this picture of people escaping in a US plane? No women…odd…?”
Tell Mama, which documents anti-Muslim incidents in the UK, hit out at Toynbee as they warned pushing a “misleading” perspective perpetrates “harm”.
“The uncropped photo in the story pictures at least 10 women and girls in the front row alone,” Tell Mama warned in a statement. “Why claim otherwise? You can spot plenty of women in the main image the story uses also. Such a misleading talking point is harmful.”
Toynbee later deleted her tweet and apologised. “Apologies for previous tweet,” she said. “Appears there are some women among those in the plane, though cropped picture hid them.”
Heather Barr, of Human Rights Watch, told The Independent there may be more men forced to leave Afghanistan due to them being more likely to work in roles that face them at risk of reprisals.
She said: “Though many women are also at risk, there has always been a big gender disparity in the workforce in Afghanistan, including in military organisations. Some occupations, such as working in military translation, are almost entirely made up of men.
“Men are more likely to travel to flee than women for lots of reasons including family responsibilities and perceptions about safety.”
Huda Jawad, co-director of Musawah, a Muslim feminist organisation, warned the cropped image which surfaced on social media glossed over the “complexity” of the highly fraught situation unfolding in Afghanistan.
Claiming women are not being evacuated seems aimed at highlighting a “patriarchal situation,” Ms Jawad told The Independent. “You have got this white savour mentality of saving these wretched people from themselves and then also the reinforcement of this obsession with how women of colour are inherently oppressed by their menfolk.”
Ms Jawad, who has worked in gender-based violence and anti-racism for over a decade, added: “Erasing truth and reinforcing stereotypes is a very narrow view of feminism which removes women’s agency.
“There are secular white men who also oppress women. Patriarchy is not embodied by black and brown men. Misogyny transcends race, class, religion and all different creeds and borders. We have incel men across the western world abusing, targeting and killing women as well.
“The cropped image pushes a simplistic ultimately racist view that all black and brown men are inherently oppressive or misogynistic.”
While Ash Sarkar, a journalist who works for Novara Media, also hit out Toynbee, saying: “Time to cancel some refugees in the name of feminism! Why are there more men than women in this photo?
“1) Men are more likely to have worked assisting foreign institutions, and therefore be at immediate risk of reprisals. 2) It’s harder for women to just pick up and leave, for all sorts of (bad) reasons.
“This isn’t a situation where people are able to make careful and planned decisions. It’s a last gasp scramble, and if you were weighing up the dangers of leaving vs the dangers of staying, who’s to say that you would get it right in the eyes of some comfortable westerners?”
The controversial image, which American defence and security news site Defense One first obtained, is thought to show almost 700 people rammed into a C-17 Globemaster III. This is deemed to be among the most individuals ever transported in this type of air vehicle – with those travelling on it believed to have been taken to safety from Kabul to Qatar on Sunday.
Some residents are so desperate to escape Afghanistan that they even clung to moving aeroplanes departing from Kabul airport. At least two are reported to have died after falling from a military plane’s undercarriage just after it set off.
The Taliban launched a lightning advance across Afghanistan in recent weeks, after the gradual departure of American troops since May. Women have been some of those worst affected in the nation, with reports of them being forced to marry fighters, quit their jobs and remain at home, as well as enduring public flogging.
Female Afghan journalists and healthcare workers have been killed in a slew of attacks since peace negotiations started between the Taliban and the American-backed Afghan government last year. The Taliban denies perpetrating these attacks but government ministers held them responsible.
Experts around the world are acutely fearful some of the hard-fought rights Afghan women have won in the two decades since the Taliban were defeated could be rolled back. Women were blocked from working and girls were barred from going to school when the Taliban last ruled the country between the mid-1990s and 2001. And women had to be chaperoned by a male relative if they wanted to leave the house during this period.
On Monday, The Independent reported on the case of a womens rights activist currently trapped in the capital.
“We are lost and confused and hurt,” the activist, who cannot be named as she is well-known by the Taliban, said. “As you can imagine, in this fight between egotist men, it is women and children who get affected. Pray for us.”
The activist warned the Taliban has come to seek “revenge” this time.
Speaking on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid promised the group would honour women’s rights, but within the norms of Islamic law.