Being inhuman

Denmark’s right-wing government rejects the asylum pleas of an elderly Afghan woman with dementia and now seeks to deport her, even as Europe is gripped by a deeply racist attitude to immigration.

Published : Jun 08, 2019 12:30 IST

  Zarmena Waziri  at home in Denmark in 2019.

Zarmena Waziri at home in Denmark in 2019.

Zarmena Waziri is a 72-year-old Afghan woman who struggles with advanced dementia. She lives on the outskirts of Aarhus, Denmark, with her daughter, Marzia Waziri, who owns a small grocery store and has two children of Danish nationality. Over the past few years, Zarmena Waziri has fought off the Danish state, which has rejected her asylum pleas and now seeks to deport her. Marzia Waziri says that her mother can no longer walk around the apartment and that she chokes on her food and must wear a diaper. 

To age is a challenge, to age with dementia is supremely difficult, but to age with a government seeking to deport you is impossible. Marzia Waziri says that she will not take her mother to the deportation centre. If the government wants Zarmena Waziri, they will have to come and arrest her.

Zarmena Waziri’s granddaughter Hosna tells me that her grandmother was a trailblazer. She had met her in Quetta (Pakistan) in 1998 and then again in 2006, before Zarmena Waziri moved to Denmark in 2012. Stories follow a woman like Zarmena Waziri. But sadly, Hosna says, “because of her dementia, I haven’t heard directly from her” in recent years. As Zarmena Waziri’s memories recede into her, so do the stories of Afghan women’s movement in the consciousness of the world.

Afghanistan has a long and proud tradition of women’s rights activists, and Zarmena Waziri is one of them. It is important to remember that Afghan women won the right to vote in 1919, just four years after women in Denmark earned their franchise. The Afghan Constitution of 1964 had no barrier for women to enter political life. It was based on this Constitution that a young Zarmena Waziri ran—unsuccessfully—for political office. Denmark’s Constitution, only a decade older (1953), also gave women the right to political office. In those decades, Zarmena Waziri would have seen much in common between the country where she grew up and the country where she now seeks to live.

Denmark’s right-wing government, however, has turned its back on whatever values guided the country in the last century. Inger Stojberg, the Immigration Minister, has made strong comments against immigration, and Denmark has walked away from its obligations to the United Nations Refugees Convention, which it ratified in 1952, one of the first countries to do so. It no longer takes its annual quota of refugees and has begun to deport aggressively asylum seekers and refugees even if they are minors. “We will do the most to make Denmark an unattractive destination,” said Inger Stojberg. Denmark, she says, will have the “toughest asylum policy compared with countries around us”. Inger Stojberg has made negative comments about Muslims who fast during Ramzan and has encouraged a new policy to force new citizens to shake hands. This is patently against anyone from a culture that is uncomfortable with such intimacy. It is racism disguised as fellowship.

Zarmena Waziri had a richer history than the suffocation enforced by Inger Stojberg. Between the Women’s Welfare Association (1946) and the Democratic Organisation of Afghan Women (1965), Afghan women fought to end female illiteracy, ban forced marriages, and do away with bride price. On March 8, 1965, the members of the Democratic Organisation, led by Dr Anahita Ratebzad, held the first celebration of International Women’s Day in the country. Anahita Ratebzad, as Minister of Social Affairs in the Marxist government, pushed for women to have equal education, equal rights in the family and equal access to health care. Zarmena Waziri comes from that tradition of advocates and fighters for women’s rights. She set up a school for girls in the town of Girishk (Helmand province). Women such as Anahita Ratebzad and Zarmena Waziri intervened in their own society to fix its problems. They shook hands openly, but did not want to be forced into it either.

The Danish government says that Zarmena Waziri, a feminist, should be deported to Afghanistan into the care of her nephew, a member of the Taliban. There is no humour here, no irony. This is the plain fact of the situation.

Denmark was one of the founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949. No wonder then that Danish troops are to be found in Afghanistan as part of that unforgiving and seemingly endless war. Denmark would like to offer the facade that its soldiers in Afghanistan are only there for peacekeeping and to train the Afghan police and army. Denmark’s former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen left his post to become the Secretary General of NATO from 2009 to 2014, at which time Denmark’s forces were fighting in Afghanistan. Rasmussen had fully backed the United States’ war on Iraq in 2003 and was subsequently behind NATO’s war in Afghanistan and Libya. There was little of the patina of peacekeeping in Rasmussen’s tenure as head of NATO.

The sniff of superior European values that so often rests on the heads of Scandinavians in particular wafted aside by two pieces of film-making.

In 2010, the young Danish film-maker Janus Metz released a documentary called Armadillo, named for a forward operating base in Helmand province that is manned by British and Danish soldiers. The film recalls an incident from 2009 in which the troops at Armadillo engaged Taliban fighters. Towards the end of the documentary, there is a very delicate situation. One solider says that the Danish and British soldiers “liquidated wounded people and piled up the dead to take pictures of ourselves as heroes”. An investigation of the incident—after the controversy created by the film—cleared the soldiers of any war crimes.

Danish troops, along with other Europeans, had been part of the ghastly Helmand province campaign that ran from 2006 through 2009. Helmand is Zarmena Waziri’s former home. Thousands of Taliban fighters and hundreds of NATO and Afghan fighters died in this bloody period, including at the ugly battle of Musa Qala. Not much was gained from it, since the Taliban now controls most of Helmand province. What comes across in Armadillo is the banality of the violence. It is what provoked the Danish film-maker Tobias Lindholm to make the spectacular film A War (2015). This feature tells the story of a Danish military company in Helmand which conducts a clear war crime. Captain Claud Michael Pedersen is sent back home, where he faces trial for the murder of 11 civilians. He is exonerated, but the memory of the death of children haunts him when he puts his own children to sleep in the comfort of their home.


Over the past several years, hundreds of Afghans have come to Denmark seeking asylum. They have been fleeing this war that has lasted 18 years, with peace a distant dream. Talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have evaporated. The Taliban has no appetite to open talks with the government of Ashraf Ghani. Not only has the war continued, but the Taliban has now begun to attack the offices of international aid organisations.

It is not easy for an Afghan refugee or asylum seeker to reach Europe, let alone Denmark. The European border now seems everywhere. It is along the Sahel region of Africa, with French and U.S. troops on patrol along the rim of the Sahara Desert. European countries have made arrangements with Libyan militia groups to prevent the passage of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea. Of every nine people who try to cross the Mediterranean from Libya or Turkey or more perilously from Egypt, one dies. Those who make it across the waters are met with hostile Italian authorities not only on the coastline but as far north as the Brenner Pass at the border of Italy and Austria.

Compassion is hard to find as Europe drifts into the grip of a deeply racist attitude. Aid agencies struggle to raise funds to help asylum seekers and refugees. State support has dwindled. Inger Stojberg has said she wants to make Denmark inhospitable. That means it should not assist its asylum seekers. Zarmena Waziri is very ill. The state will not assist in her treatment or bear its cost. Her daughter does not have the means, and in the long run, nor will aid agencies.

Denmark, like other European countries, has been sending funds to refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. They would prefer that the refugees remain there and not come to Europe. The Danish Ministry of Defence offers the clearest slogan of the real European values: “Secure Denmark. If we do not solve the problems in Afghanistan, the problems will come to us.”

For them, Zarmena Waziri, the veteran feminist, is a problem. She has to be sent home.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment