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Gary Younge
Under a veil of deceit

Having endured the racist carping of some of the women, compounded by the sexist buffoonery of many of the men, it was left to her to spell out that their selective and discriminatory notions of femininity excluded her and millions of black women. In a now famous speech, which drew resounding applause, she said: "I have borne 13 children and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain't I a woman?"

It is a question Feriba Ahmadi could well have asked last week as she was whisked away from Harmondsworth detention centre to a chartered plane in which she, her husband Farid and their two children were deported.

Feriba is a woman - an Afghan woman at that. In November, when the US and Britain were bombing Afghanistan to oblivion, there was a great deal of high-minded talk about the need to defend her rights. Peering through a burka for the cameras, Cherie Booth, the prime minister's wife, railed against the Taliban for their vicious treatment of women. "For women to make a contribution they need opportunities, self-esteem and esteem in the eyes of their society," she argued.

In a carefully coordinated offensive, the first lady Laura Bush took over her husband's weekly radio address to back the use of B-52s and smart bombs to defend women's honour. "The fight against terrorism is also the fight for the rights and dignities of women," she said. "Women have been denied access to doctors when they are sick ... the plight of women and children in Afghanistan [is] a matter of deliberate human cruelty," where "small displays of joy are outlawed" and "children are not allowed to fly kites".

It's strange then that there would have been so little support for Feriba from the British and American governments. For she once had self-esteem and was keen to make a contribution. Having fled the Taliban and arrived here, via Germany, she dreamed of becoming a doctor or nurse. But as she wept in the back of a police car on Wednesday morning, her sense of self-worth had all but evaporated.

She has had two breakdowns and been prescribed antidepressants. It had already been determined that her mental health would deteriorate if she were sent back to Germany, where the family knew no one. But somehow that did not qualify for compassionate grounds to remain. One can only assume that the policemen who rammed down the door of the mosque a few weeks earlier in Lye, near Stourbridge, where she and her family were seeking sanctuary, did little for her "esteem in the eyes of society".

Having been denied medication for her depression as the state abducted and incarcerated her children, leaving them with few displays of joy and not a kite in sight - "There aren't any toys in here. It's horrible," said her six-year-old daughter Hadia - Feriba's last few days in Britain bear a startling resemblance to Laura Bush's description of life for women under the Taliban.

The discrepancy between the apparent concern of the first ladies for Afghan women on one hand and the actual treatment of Feriba on the other, illustrates the hypocrisy, ethical impoverishment and cynicism that run like a stick of rock from the Home Office to the Foreign Office. It is a disingenuity best exemplified by attitudes to Afghan women but experienced by Afghan men, children, Kosovans, Kurds and, soon, Iraqis.

Just as civilising "the natives" became the pretext for stealing land and labour and denying basic human rights under colonialism, so our government expresses most apparent concern for people just as we are about to bomb them. "It's worth pointing out that the people who would rejoice most at Saddam Hussein leaving office are the Iraqi people themselves," Tony Blair said in April. "Our argument is not with the Afghan people," he stated in October.

Once the war drums stop beating, their commitment to these issues quickly wanes. True, Afghanistan's new regime appointed a women's minister in December, but by May she had received none of the promised funding from the west. And by June she had resigned the post for fear of her life, after she went before the country's Supreme Court charged with blasphemy because of her opposition to Sharia Law. Meanwhile most Afghan women are still in their burkas, many living under warlords whose record of mass rape and repression is every bit as bad as the Taliban's - facts which curiously evade the attention of their self-proclaimed saviours in the White House and Downing Street.

Those fighting for democracy and against repression should be supported whether they live in the West Bank or Riyadh. But their liberation should be determined by them, not decided by us. There are no popular and progressive forces in Iraq calling for the bombing of Baghdad. Similarly, the principal woman's organisation in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan, opposed the war.

But then what do they know about their own self-interest? So we murder and maim in the name of the common good - not so much a war as a humanitarian effort with the unfortunate side effects of death and destruction. And should those whom we seek to protect arrive on our shores, all apparent concern evaporates in a haze of xenophobic bellicosity. Whatever compassion may have been expressed previously is confiscated at the border. As soon as they touch foot on British soil they go from being a cause to be championed to a problem to be dealt with. We may flout international law abroad, but God forbid any one who should breach immigration law here. It makes sense for us to spend millions going to foreign parts to wreak havoc with missiles, but not for foreigners to come here with nothing and look for low-paid work.

All of which suggests that cruelty begins at home; charity is something we export in the barrel of a gun. We love them so we bomb them; we loathe them so we deport them. So runs the morally flawed logic that runs from our asylum legislation to our foreign policy and back again.

If such an approach is contradictory in its ethics it is consistent in its application. Be it trade policy, arms dealing or the environment, the British government sticks to a course that contributes to mass impoverishment and suffering, which in turn prompts mass migration and displacement. By attacking regimes and movements they once supported, such as Iraq and the Taliban, and backing governments with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, it behaves as though the past has no legacy and the present has no consequences.

The government's twin priorities seem to be to create chaos abroad and to insulate itself from the fallout at home. Not content with screaming fire in a crowded cinema, it wants to close all the emergency exits too. Those who perish inside get sympathy; those, like Feriba, who manage to escape get scapegoated.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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