, August 15, 2001

Afghan Women Reach Out

Web Gives Way to Communicate Internationally

By Dianne Lynch

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, are covertly fighting for women suffering under the regime of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.

Aug. 15 : Imagine it: You can't work. You can't go to school. You can't leave home without a male guardian, and even then, you must be shrouded in a veil from head to toe.

You can't laugh or talk aloud in public, and even your shoes must make no sound. Wearing cosmetics or showing your ankles is punishable by whipping; women have had their fingers amputated for wearing nail polish.

You paint the windows of your house black so you cannot be seen from the outside. You are forbidden from walking on your balcony or in your backyard. It has been years since the sun shone on your face. And all public references to you have disappeared.

You are a woman in Afghanistan today, living under the regime of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.

And if you are one of the nearly 2,000 women who belong to The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, you are using the Internet to fight back.

Restrictions on Women

Founded in 1977 by Afghan feminist poet Meena, RAWA was a small but thriving human rights organization, dedicated to involving Afghan women in the fight for democracy. Throughout the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the ensuing civil war that killed millions and sent thousands more fleeing to Pakistan, RAWA worked underground to provide education and health care to Afghan women and children.

And then, in 1996, the militia group known as the Taliban which translates as "students of religion" seized control of the country. Their brand of stark fundamentalism includes bans on music, movies, television, picnics, toys, cameras, cigarettes, alcohol, magazines, newspapers, and most books.

For women, the restrictions are tighter still. It's illegal to wear jewelry, colorful clothes, heeled shoes, and even white socks. Marriages are arranged, women are chattel, and rape victims can be stoned for adultery. Before the Taliban, 40 percent of doctors were women. Today, women cannot be treated by male doctors, and there are no female physicians left.

From Secret to Covert

If RAWA was secretive about its early efforts, its operations are now completely covert. And with good reason: membership is punishable by death.

"RAWA has 23 years of experience in our struggle under unfavorable, hard and bloody conditions, so we know very well how to operate underground," explains a RAWA spokeswoman who goes by the Mehmooda. "In our protests and other public meetings, our active members that have more important roles try not to show up, or if they have to be there, they try to show up in disguise."

Even so, she says, the Taliban have identified some members of the group. "We have to confess, though even after all of the precautions we take, some of our members have been recognized by the enemy. They now lead completely secret lives and are in hiding."

Despite the penalty, RAWA continues its work. It has established schools and orphanages in Pakistani refugee camps, and home-based schools in Afghanistan. Its mobile health teams treat women and girls who cannot receive care from Afghan physicians. It helps Afghan widows find ways to feed their children.

Using the Web to Reach Out

And, since 1997, it has used the Web to share its story with a global audience, at

It's a grim tale. The site's photo gallery is a montage of horror: a grinning man holding up the amputated hands of a thief; men hanged Aug. 8 in downtown Kabul; the public execution of an Afghan woman; maimed and murdered children.

But the Web site not only shocks and appalls. It informs, and it solicits aid. Because journalists are not allowed in Afghanistan, the RAWA site often provides the only unauthorized information on conditions there. And it serves as a platform from which RAWA can plead for help.

After a RAWA spokeswoman described on the Oprah television show how its members hide cameras under their veils to capture images of public executions and whippings, viewers sent in tens of cameras. Today, the RAWA site is requesting smaller cameras small enough to be easily concealed as well as donations to finance its programs.

Mehmooda says supporters are also encouraged to invite RAWA representatives to speak at their events; to stage protests in solidarity with Afghan women; to donate medicine, stationery, footwear, medical equipment, and computers; and to write letters to the U.S. government urging it to support democracy and free elections in Afghanistan.

"If you are freedom-loving and anti-fundamentalist, you are with RAWA," the site proclaims.

And now, we have the opportunity to prove it thanks to the Web, and to the courage of the women who are using it to bring about change.

Donations can be sent to: The Afghan Women's Mission, 2460 N. Lake Ave. PMB 207, Altadena, CA 91001.

A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays


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