Amnesty Now, A publication of Amnesty International, USA, Fall 2000
Women of Afghanistan educate and organize for Human Rights
OUT OF THE SHADOW
They are from a land where women have been reduced to shadows, so Sajeda Hayat and Sehar Saba, for their own safety, must remain in shadow as well. Wary of the long arm of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban government, they travel under pseudonyms and ask that photos be handled discreetly. Even so, the two young women refuse to remain silent.
Joint leaders of a non-violent, anti-Taliban resistance group, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), Hayat and Saba have lived almost their entire lives as exiles. As girls, they were forced to flee the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s for refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan. It was in these camps that they came of age and first learned of RAWA's work to raise the status of Afghan women.
At the end of a recent US tour, Hayat and Saba talked to amnesty now about their work. Afghanistan Country Specialist Margaret Ladner of Amnesty International USA's South Asia Coordination Group conducted the interview.
Amnesty Now: What is RAWA and what are the organization's goals?
Hayat: RAWA was established in 1977 to struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan, because even before the Russian invasion and before the fundamentalists, women were sold like cattle. But when our country was occupied by Russia, RAWA changed to a political organization, because we believed that while all the people didn't have their freedom, it was meaningless to talk only about women's rights. And the same is true today. We should talk of human rights, because in Afghanistan everyone is deprived of very basic rights. We believe a government should be based on secularism and democracy.
AN: You are based in Pakistan currently?
Hayat: In early 1980, RAWA transferred part of its activities to Pakistan because of the very difficult situation in Afghanistan under the puppet, Soviet-backed regime. At that time, we established school programs, we had a clinic for refugee women and children, and we established nursery courses, literacy courses and [other] courses educating women about their rights.
AN: Is RAWA still able to operate within Afghanistan?
Hayat:Of course, RAWA members -especially inside Afghanistan-take lots of risks. Even in Pakistan, our demonstration in 1998 was attacked by the Taliban. That's why we have to be very careful, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan.
In Afghanistan we have home-based classes, literacy courses for women, especially widows who don't have male relatives. We enable them to earn some money.
AN: How bad are current conditions for women in Afghanistan?
Saba: The situation was not good even before the fundamentalists [took power]. But since 1992, Afghanistan is like a big prison, for women especially. Women are banned from all outside public activists. They can't go to school or to work. They can't even go to a doctor without accompaniment by one of their male relatives. And they have to wear the burqa to cover themselves completely.
AN: You've talked about the services that you provide women, but RAWA takes political action as well.
Saba: We want to do as much as we can for women, so we have a lot of activates. For example, we hold demonstrations to mark the 28th of April, the day when the fundamentalist parties took power, as the darkest day in the history of Afghanistan.
AN: Did you accomplish what you hoped with your US visit?
Saba: It was really a great opportunity for our organization because it was the first time that RAWA had come to the United States, and we are really thankful. We were in more than 15 universities, and we talked to many supportive people. There was a girl in New Hampshire, just 16 years old, and she organized a demonstration on April 28 to condemn the human rights disaster in Afghanistan. She invited us to her high school. It was the biggest gathering that we had in two months.
AN: How, especially, can we in the United States help the people of Afghanistan?
Hayat: Not only human rights activists, but other people all over the world can do a lot. Of course human rights organization like Amnesty International can do more, since they are active in these fields. But Americans as individuals, for example, can help RAWA's difference projects. A dollar can make a difference in a student's life in Afghanistan or Pakistan, because a dollar is enough to provide them with a notebook, a pen or a pencil.
AN: How did you each become involved in this dangerous line of work?
Hayat: I become a member of RAWA when I was 17, but before that I went to RAWA's school and my mother was a member.
Saba: I was also very young when I went to RAWA's school. It was in 1984. The teachers, of course, were members of RAWA, and besides teaching, they talked about women's rights. I got involved in those activities and joined as a member when I was 17. Now I am on the Foreign Committee and I teach in one of our schools in a refugee camp.
AN: Have friends and family supported you?
Saba: Yes, my closest family. My mother is a member of RAWA. My father and my brothers, they are supportive. But not all my relatives, some of them are against my work.
Hayat: And for me also, my parents are very much supportive of my work. All my other sisters and my brothers are involved in RAWA. Some of my relatives don't know, but most of them are supportive -even my grandmother and my grandfather, who are very traditional.
AN: Are you ever afraid for your lives?
Hayat: We're not afraid, but we have to be careful. If we are afraid, then you don't choose this way. We know the struggle needs sacrifice.
AN: How do you try to mitigate the danger?
Saba: Inside Afghanistan, alls the places that RAWA members live are underground, and the same is true in Pakistan. We have to, for example, change our housed every now and then, and don't let the government of Pakistan or the fundamentalists know about the residence of RAWA members.
AN: Is there any particular message you would like to deliver to AIUSA's members?
Hayat: I think it would be to tell the world what is happening in Afghanistan.
Saba: And to tell the people of Afghanistan that they are not alone and they won't be forgotten.