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From worker-brc-news@lists.tao.ca Mon Mar 12 04:32:43 2001
From: Green Left Weekly <glw@greenleft.org.au>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Afghanistan: Repression and RAWA
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Date: Sun, 11 Mar 2001 16:02:46 -0500 (EST)
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[Moderator's Note: for additional background information go to:


Repression and RAWA

By Meena Nanji, Green Left Weekly, no. 433,
24 January 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- I am buzzing through the streets in an auto rickshaw with a woman whose real name I do not know. She has no fixed address and cannot tell me where we are going. The woman accompanying me was a member of RAWA, an Afghan women's right group. Known to me as Sahar, she was my guide, and interpreter, and became a very close friend.

I was in Pakistan for six weeks and was able to interview many people from different walks of life; from prostitutes and beggars to politicians and journalists, Marxists to mullahs, refugees to ambassadors and consuls.

But the women of RAWA are the real heroines of this story. Their work, their courage is remarkable; what they achieve with few resources, working under such adverse conditions, is quite unbelievable. They have positively affected the lives of hundreds of women and their families, and provide, in my opinion, one of the only rays of hope in an otherwise bleak situation.

RAWA stands for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Apparently the word revolutionary is problematic for a lot of people: too radical, extreme, militant. Sahar is baffled by this response. It's very simple why we call ourselves revolutionary, she says earnestly. What we want is full human rights for women; we want women to be recognised as human beings; in Afghanistan, this in itself is considered `revolutionary'. We want a secular, democratic government, with freedom of thought, speech and religion for everybody: this too is revolutionary.

People call us `radical' because we remind them that all the Jehadi parties are fundamentalists with a distorted interpretation of Islam, that they have all committed heinous atrocities against their own people, and therefore should not be included in any future government for Afghanistan. We have to be radical.

Founded in 1977 by a highly charismatic woman, Meena Keshwar Kamal, the group has weathered the storms of 22 years of war and struggle. Even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Meena, a committed feminist, poet and health worker, campaigned for women's rights in Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded, the work became more crucial, and she and her supporters opened schools, hostels and hospitals for the Afghan freedom fighters. Ten years after founding the organisation, Meena was assassinated. It is still uncertain whether she was killed by KGB agents, or the Hizb-e-Islami. Even in death, however, Meena exerts a powerful influence, inspiring women to continue the work she began.

Taliban regime

RAWA's struggle is even greater now under the brutal regime of the Taliban, who are denying people, women especially, basic human rights. The litany of laws restricting the lives of women in Afghanistan are common knowledge now: they are not allowed to work, not allowed to go to school, must live in houses with darkened windows lest they be seen from the outside, cannot go outside without a close male relative, cannot be treated by male doctors so that, since women doctors are virtually non-existent, they cannot be treated if sick. If they are caught breaking these laws, they can be severely beaten, imprisoned or even killed. Beating, rape, even murder of women goes unpunished. Under Taliban law their very existence, it seems, is immoral.

A large proportion of women suffer from serious depression and isolation, and many have chosen to take their own lives rather than exist under the Taliban.

RAWA has about 2000 active members within Pakistan and Afghanistan. With very limited resources they manage to provide a broad range of services in their aim to educate women. They run schools for girls that go up to grade 12. They run mobile health clinics, have nurse-training courses, literacy courses for women who missed out on early education. They also promote self-generating income projects, such as providing chickens to women so that they can sell eggs in the market. Handicrafts, sewing, embroidery, carpet weaving are also encouraged. RAWA also gives help and support to prostitutes, recognising that thousands of women, mostly war-widows, have been forced into prostitution, as working is banned and begging cannot feed them and their children.

All these services are provided at great risk to the members' personal safety, especially in Afghanistan. There, everything must be undercover. If discovered by the Taliban, they would be put to death immediately. Sahar says It is the only way our women can get an education, can get health care, we have to do this.

The Taliban and other Jehadi parties have issued decrees for the death of any RAWA member by stoning, equating them with prostitutes. This is why they must work in secrecy, use aliases, and why they cannot stay in one place for too long. They are the only Afghan women's group working within Afghanistan itself.

RAWA also holds rallies, protests and demonstrations in Pakistan to draw attention to the plight of Afghan women. These are usually well attended, drawing crowds of up to five thousand. Their male supporters act as bodyguards and escorts and are fully supportive of their aims. RAWA also publishes a magazine and holds cultural events, and, increasingly, members are invited to attend international conferences and seminars.

Recently RAWA has begun a new project, that of video documentation. In November 1999 a woman in Kabul was sentenced to death for suspected adultery. All the women of Kabul were summoned to watch the execution, which took place in a large sports stadium in the centre of the city. A RAWA member smuggled in a video camera under her burqa and managed to record the entire proceedings. Since then other punishments have been recorded: amputations, a hanging, death by throat slitting. No news company will buy or air the footage however, and RAWA is wondering how best to show the world what is happening in their country. There are no easy answers.

Because of their political beliefs, they cannot qualify as an NGO, so funding is difficult to come by in spite of the humanitarian work they do. Recently they had asked the Pakistan government if they could distribute blankets to the thousands of Afghans who are stuck at the border, which Pakistan recently closed at Torkham. Permission was denied because of their unoffcial status. They rely on private donations from individuals for their funding, and on income from magazine sales, and are working on other self-generating income projects.

Education crucial

RAWA's emphasis on education is central. People need to be educated, they need to be made aware of their condition, that they don't have to live like this, says Sahar. The Talibs and Jehadis don't know anything about the history and culture of Afghanistan. They are denying the people education because they want them to be ignorant, so that they can be controlled.

While many women welcome their efforts, it is still tough going for RAWA to convince the population of their strong belief in education. Before we can speak to the women, we must first convince their husbands to allow us to even talk to them. Many times, the husbands call their wives `half-wits' and do not see the need for their education, says Sahar.

Still she is hopeful. She says many Afghans are fed up with the fighting and the war, but they are more fed up with the Taliban and their version of Islam. Even the men, she says, do not support the Taliban. The men suffer as well. They are severely beaten if they have no beard or if it is too short. If they do not close their shops to pray five times a day, they may be imprisoned. This is not Islam. Islam clearly says women can be educated, can work. Islam clearly states `there can be no compulsion in religion'. There are few job opportunities, there's no infrastructure, and even school for boys is difficult as there are no facilities. Who can live under these conditions?

I heard countless tales of loss, suffering and hardship. Every Afghan I met had lost at least one, usually more, members of his or her family, to rocket shelling, landmines, combat, torture, rape -- the list is endless. Amidst this horror, RAWA's work stands out as having a very real impact on the lives of people around them. Not only are they affecting them materially, but morally too: they provide hope, so vital for a war-weary people.

RAWA is also impacting world opinion. With the launch of their website (<http://www.rawa.org>), they have reached millions of people around the world, gaining tremendous support, some of which translates monetarily. If someone contributes one dollar, it helps, because that dollar can put a girl in school for a month. Every little bit helps.

We hope that the world will hear our message. We hope that world can hear our stifled voices, and join together with us so that our voices will ring loud and strong against our oppressors. We want to return home to our country, for if we have lost our country, we have lost ourselves. We will work for peace, freedom and democracy in Afghanistan, no matter how long it takes or how many sacrifices we must make, we know that eventually we will win. It is what the people want.

There are no easy answers, no quick fixes; the refugees will probably not be able to go home for a very long time. Yet there is something in Sahar's statement that rings true, and eventually, one hopes, will bear out.