About.com, July 19, 2000

Afghan Women on the Web - Q&A

  "Unfortunately we can not hope to use the Internet to bring information to our own people. Can you use the Internet to communicate with the 11th century?"
- Sharifa, RAWA.org

By Donna Howell

A RAWA rally in Islamabad, in April protested the seizure of Kabul by fundamentalists. (Courtesy RAWA.org)

A group of women working for human rights in Afghanistan have taken their cause to the Internet, to alert the world to atrocities they say are committed in their country, complete with visual examples. Their Website - RAWA.org, isn't sugar-coated. It's perhaps one of the most dead-serious sites on the Net. The Afghan women's story is detailed in World Voices On The Web, a Net Culture feature examining how females in the Third World are overcoming technology and cultural barriers to go on the Internet.

Bear in mind that RAWA.org, from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), is a political site against Afghan fundamentalism. This is a Q & A with Sharifa, from the organization.

Why did this group of Afghan women decide to build a Website?

The main reason for having a Website is to make people around the world aware of the untold atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists in our country. Since our site came into being it has been warmly welcomed by a great many number of people. A great number of people from the outside world who did not know anything about the situation of Afghanistan got their first glance of the ugly reality through our Website.

How popular has the site become?

The importance of our Website can be judged from the number of daily visitors (approximately more than 500 people daily). Most reports which are not published or broadcast by any news agency are available on our site because we receive reliable and authentic reports directly from Afghanistan. As a case in point, no journalist could go to Mazar-i-Sharif after it fell to the Taliban. No report could be made available of the situation in regard to the massacre of thousands of civilians and the murder of Iranian diplomats. Ours was the first site to publish a report and contact Amnesty International.

Has the Internet really changed what RAWA has been able to do?

Without the www it would have been extremely difficult for us to make ourselves seen and heard by a great many people who are interested but don't know where to look. The Website has greatly promoted the dissemination of information regarding RAWA's stand and goals to people around the world. Now if you search something on Afghanistan through any search engine e.g. Yahoo or AltaVista, our site jumps to the eye as the most interesting one amongst whatever number of others there may be. The www has in effect and to a large extent had a 'liberating' effect on us. Now thanks to e-mail we are able to communicate with all the world much faster and much cheaper than we were able to in the past. Our Website allows anyone interested to access the crux of our publications in English, and Internet allows us well-nigh unrestricted scope for looking around, finding, contacting and getting to know other women's organizations and sharing our aims and objectives.

How has the site been received?

We very much believe our goals for having a Website have been achieved. We are very satisfied with the results and the achievements. Our site takes a lot of people who visit it by surprise. In a situation where the Taliban have banned almost everything for the people, in particular for women, the existence of an active women's organization struggling against such savage brutes and championing the cause of peace and prosperity is unbelievable, as are our other activities such as our rallies, functions, publications, etc. Besides our Website we always send our petitions, recent report and some statements though our mailing list to hundreds of our supporters and human rights and women's groups though out the world and they in their own part send the information to their contacts.

What do you hear from people who see the site for the first time?

We have received countless e-mails since the site went up. On average we get 60-70 messages a day. About 90% are messages of support. Sometimes they also provide useful information. We constantly exchange information with women's organizations around the world. There have been quite a number of cases of people asking us for our bank account to send donations. Through e-mail we have received donations from our supporters which included clothes, food, etc. We spend the donation for our schools, medical teams, handicraft workplace, literacy courses, orphanage etc. in refugee camps in Pakistan as well inside the country. Many orders for our publications and audiocassette recordings of patriotic songs are processed by e-mail.

Not all of the response has been positive, though. What are some of the negatives you've run into since starting the site?

We also receive hate mail through the electronic medium. Messages from Taliban and others who feel nothing but animosity towards us and our cause usually contain threats, abuse and insults. Many send us obscene material in order to insult us. These insults of the worst kind are directed at RAWA members and particularly target our martyred leader Meena. Once a counterfeit of our web site designed with pornographic pictures and script was found on the Internet at http://members.xoom.com/RAWA1. We were alerted to the existence of this slanderous site by one of our friends. We complained to the Xoom Webmaster and the page was deleted. For the second time such a dirty site against RAWA was found at http://RAWA.8m.com and this was too deleted after the complaints of our supporters. We are positive that such activities are conducted by individuals/groups who are associated with entities like the Taliban or other fundamentalists who can never bear an Afghan women's organization raising the call for freedom, democracy and women's rights even on the Internet.

How did RAWA.org get started?

We started working on our web site on 1996 at the suggestion of RAWA leadership. We were the first political organization in Afghanistan to go onto the Internet. The Taliban and other fundamentalist parties got on the Web as a kind of reaction to our presence on the Internet. At first when we started running our site we were required to pay $150 to register our own domain name (RAWA.org) and pay $30-35 monthly for web hosting, something which we couldn't afford to pay. That is why we started with free Web space at Geocities.com. Later on one of our American friends who has a Web hosting company became very interested after he visited our site and kindly donated the registration of our domain name and the hosting of our page. That is how we now have our own domain (Rawa.org). The hosting costs is paid by RAWA supporters every year.

How did you cope with the other costs of technology to go online?

We initially did not have the kind of computer that was needed for maintaining a site on the Web, so we had to buy one at about Rs.100,000 (approx. $2,500 at the then-rate of exchange). The required funds were contributed by sympathizers and well-wishers. Now all our work on our site and all our electronic correspondence is conducted from just one computer workstation. At the beginning we had to scan our pictures against payment in the market which was quite expensive. We have now bought a scanner from funds raised from the same sources. We pay about Rs.3,000 per month (approx. $50) for our Internet connection.

How did you learn to construct a Website?

The staff working on the site started from scratch. Some members had had some coaching on essential Web skills and after we got our own computer they started to practice day and night and simultaneously work on the site. Technically we are now nearly totally self-sufficient and our experienced team can solve almost any software problems. Also some RAWA supporters around world who are Web and graphic designers help us with our site. Maintenance of our site and computer work in general is a function of our Cultural Committee. Material that needs to be put on the site is selected by members of the RAWA Cultural Committee. The graphic reports we receive from Afghanistan are put up on the site immediately after translation (which can sometimes take a long time, depending on the availability of a good translator) and are also sent to Amnesty International and some news agencies.

Where do you get some of the material that appears on the site?

Almost all reports from Afghanistan are sent to us through our sympathizers or other who then post them to us. There is no proper telephone or fax in Afghanistan let alone Internet. That is why we receive reports and news very late.

You mentioned that you can't use the Net to bring information to your own people. Do you go low-tech to accomplish that?

It doesn't mean that we have stopped our activities in local communities. For our own people we have our quarterly magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message) which gives voice to their anguish and reflects and chronicles their situation and the fundamentalists' record of infamy.

From: http://netculture.about.com/library/weekly/aa071900a.htm

About.com, July 10, 2000

World Voices On The Web
Women of the Global Village

Afghani women have started their own site - but it's no Women.com or Webgrrrls with catchy graphics. Instead, RAWA.org pictures a forlorn Salehah, who was later burned to death by her husband. And it shows the amputations that take place for crimes like robbery.

RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, is a dead-serious voice that proclaims to be struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women's rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan.

[Interview of Minnesota University] [Interview with New York Times Magazine]
[RAWA web site on CNN] [RAWA web site in Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine]