UK charity offers an oasis of calm for traumatised Afghan women

Female empowerment workshops aim to equip women with the skills needed to thrive in fast-paced London

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Afghan women in west London are singing the praises of female empowerment workshops set up to boost their confidence and offer a fresh perspective on life in Britain.

Twice a week, dozens of women congregate at the Afghan and Central Asian Association’s centre in Feltham to chat over lunch, learn new skills and reconnect with their culture.

The hub serves as an oasis of peace and hope for the women, some of whom arrived in Britain last August under the UK’s Operation Pitting, in which more than 15,000 vulnerable Afghans and UK citizens were flown from Kabul by the UK’s armed forces.

Women are taught dance, art, yoga and mindfulness, and exchange advice on how to establish themselves in London.

Latifa Sekandar, 61, said that when she arrived in a hotel, having been flown from Kabul last summer, she could barely muster enough energy to wash her face. Separated from her three children, she was overcome with loneliness and found it difficult to find her feet.

Latifa Sekandar, a mother of three, was separated from her family in the rush to leave Afghanistan last August. She says her relatives have gone into hiding for fear of Taliban-related attacks. Photo: The National

But after taking part in her first workshop, her spirit was lifted and she has not looked back.

“I really enjoy coming here,” she told The National. “I even walked here one day and was so disappointed that the centre was closed. Now, I want to live in the Feltham area to be close to [the charity].”

The sessions are led by Linda Duberley, a former journalist whose career spanned ITV, Sky News, Fox News and CNBC Asia. With more than two decades of live television experience, she knows it takes more to empower women than mere words of affirmation, particularly if their husbands object to them socialising outside the home.

“You cannot teach them to be empowered,” she said. “You have to put them in an environment through which they can empower themselves.

“Afghans are very creative people,” she said. “They like to embroider, sew and paint. The workshops give them a creative outlet. This kind of thing makes a huge difference. It is lifting their souls.”

Some Afghan women who have lived in Britain for decades have taken the new arrivals under their wings, particularly if they are struggling to learn English.

They exchange advice on an array of subjects, from child care and languages to job hunting.

Homa Sarajzada, 46, left Afghanistan in 1999 after life under the Taliban became “unbearable”. She was forced to quit her job in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, and left Kabul in search of a new life in Britain.

Now married and living in London with her husband and three children, she is determined to reach out to other women in similar situations because she has walked their path and knows how daunting it can be.

“Life is good in the UK, but before I came to ACAA life was very stressful for me because I didn’t know a word of English,” she recounted. “It was so difficult for me day by day, but I started learning English and I built up my confidence. I adapted myself to life in the UK.

Fashion illustrator Kathy Whyte attends a women's empowerment workshop run by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association in west London to paint some of the women. Photo: Victoria Pertusa / The National

“I can see a difference in these women. When ladies get together and they meet someone who can speak English, it influences them. It’s very useful. They overcome fear.

“Since they have been coming they are improving day by day and some now say they think they can get a job.”

The ACAA is funded by donors and trusts in Britain such as BBC Children in Need, Big Lottery Fund and City Bridge Trust. The charity does not receive state funding and is run by 14 staff members and 95 volunteers.

Among the handful of non-Afghans attending the women’s empowerment sessions is Niloufar Fouladpour, 47, a native of Tehran who works as the charity’s education co-ordinator.

She teaches traditional and modern dance at the workshops and runs supplementary education classes for children who may feel overwhelmed by the English school curriculum.

Niloufar Fouladpour, an education co-ordinator at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association in west London, vowed to continue fighting for the rights and empowerment of women. Photo: Victoria Pertusa / The National

Even though she is focused on taking the women forwards, she believes that having a strong connection to one’s culture is important and offers Farsi classes to children born in Britain to native speakers so that they “know their mother language”.

Ms Fouladpour believes any investment in women is an investment in an entire family.

“To have a great family, they need to have a good and strong personality,” she said. “If I can be a strong woman, my daughter can see me as an example and a very powerful mother. When the young girls see their mothers fighting for life, fighting for issues, fighting for more education, it is going to affect them and they will follow in that path as well.

“If the women are coming out and networking with others, then they are definitely going to be more confident at home and can raise their children.”

Ms Fouladpour’s work continues outside the centre, for she finds herself having to challenge outdated attitudes and break down taboos about women dancing. But despite facing opposition, she is unwavering in her commitment to using the arts to bring women out of their shells.

“In our cultures, sometimes people say dancing is not good for women and they want to put down the women, but dancing shows and encourages women to show their real personality,” she said. “It’s about feeling free and getting more energy.

“Dance and art give me strength. They want to take [women’s] power and strength and they want to control women. But for 20 years I’ve been fighting for my rights. I am not going to give up.”

Updated: February 09, 2022, 7:00 AM
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