It was meant to be a cross-cultural celebration of International Women’s Day, a chance for women who had defied social taboos in their own country to meet their supporters and fans in Britain.
But the UK Border Agency in Delhi refused visas to the Afghan female boxing team on Wednesday evening, sending them back to Afghanistan without the chance to compete against female boxers in the Britain in a move that has been labelled “at odds with the ideals of the Olympic legacy“.
Now a delegation from Women in Sport who organised the trip – which was to culminate in several bouts between Afghan and British fighters on Saturday – are instead planning to visit the women in Kabul to train and educate the fighters with skills that could help other budding female sportswomen in the country.
Sadaf Rahimi, Fahima Mohammad and Shabnam Rahman were due to arrive in Britain to mark International Women’s Day on Friday.
Foreign Office officials in Kabul had supported the trip and the women had provided letters of identification as well as a letter of support from the Centre of Peace and Unity. But despite the visa applications being reconsidered, they were refused entry for a second time.
It was a “bitterly disappointing” situation, said Margaret Pope, founder of Women in Sport, which raised funds for the women’s visit. “We are made to believe that avenues, especially here in the UK, are opening up to people such as Sadaf Rahimi, Fahima Mohammad and Shabnam Rahman, who are trying to pursue their sporting dreams. There has been much talk of the legacy of the Olympics and rights for women in sport, but today, it is not the case for these women.”
They were refused entry because they could not show their financial circumstances in Afghanistan and concerns from the high commission that they may not return to Afghanistan after their visit to the UK.
Melanie Brown, a former aid worker who has made a documentary about the young women, said the boxers had already overcome huge hurdles to pursue their chosen sport in their own country only to be thwarted by bureaucracy.
“They have continued boxing, reaching excellence and representing their country internationally. However, in the face of bureaucracy they are powerless. This visa refusal will come as a bitter disappointment to them,” she said. “They may as well have a big tickbox saying: ‘Are you from Afghanistan? Don’t bother.'”
Debbie Mills, who met the three when she was working as a security consultant protecting diplomats in the Middle East, and is part of the team responsible for the UK visit, said by refusing the trip the Border Agency was standing in the way of other young girls in Afghanistan learning from their experience.
“The whole point of the visit was to train the girls and their coach, not just in boxing qualifications but also key life skills such as first aid so that they could return to Afghanistan more qualified and equipped to train other women and encourage development which would potentially lead to financial independence,” she said.
A UK Border Agency spokesperson said it did not comment on individual cases: “Every visa application is considered on its individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. It is the responsibility of the applicant to ensure they provide the required evidence to support their application. In exceptional circumstances we will review applications but if the appropriate information is still not provided we are left with no option but to refuse.”