Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 3, 2002 (translated from German)

They Want To Be The Light

Long march through the media: How the powerless women of Afghanistan appeared powerful


They don't really resemble shining heroines. Two young, inconspicuous Afghani women from the underground organisation "RAWA" are stopping over in a back yard in Hamburg's district Altona. They are aged 27 and 35, they are wearing simple grey jumpers and slacks, their hair tied up in demure ponytails, secured by grips. Their faces are pale, deep lines edged around their mouths. As they stand behind the desk, they resemble a couple of schoolgirls at assembly, just about to recite a poem.

But as they start talking, gently but yet assertively, the mainly female audience listens breathlessly: They hear about "RAWA" women, who, under the disguise and shelter of their burqas, have videoed the execution of an adulteress in the Kabul football stadium. The learn how, since 1977, the approximately 2000 "RAWA" members have secretly run schools for girls in private people's houses, how they have run hospitals and clinics, and how now 65 per cent of the Afghan population consists of women, the men having died fighting the war. They learn how "RAWA" have their own website (, where crimes and atrocities against women in Afghanistan are being denounced. And we hear how hard their struggle is, even in neighbouring Pakistan: There is no way they could have a bank account or even an office.

They fear the Pakistani secret service and they fear the fundamentalists, therefore they are using the assumed names of Shahla and Safoora, and that is the reason why no photographs of them can be taken. Even after the fall of the Taliban things are dangerous for them, they state: "It is yet too great a risk to openly be with "RAWA" in Afghanistan". They answer the question why some women were still wearing the burqa: "They are frightened. The Northern Alliance do not treat the women much better than the Taliban did", says Shahla.

Shahla and Safoora have been travelling Europe for two months, canvassing for financial and political support. The West, and mainly the media, have embraced them and everyone wants to help. The popular German magazine "Stern" ("star") has initiated fund-raising activities: authors donate their fees, others have sailed half way around the world in aid of "RAWA", the TV magazine "Mona Lisa" has rewarded them a prize which Shahla received on behalf of RAWA, and Nina Hagen (a well known German celebrity) is throwing in heir weight in aid of the Afghani women: She has organized a beneficial gala concert in Berlin Tempodrom to take place the day before Christmas eve. In America, the women had spectacular success with the media, too, in France they received a human rights award. When one sends them an e-mail, one receives an answer saying that unfortunately they are unable to respond to each mail individually at the moment, as they receive several thousands every day.

No Compromises

The Organisation operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan only. At the moment, there is just a loosely-knit group of supporters in Germany. And it's not as if "RAWA" were undisputable: The women's work is evidence of unbelievable courage, their energy is widely acknowledged, but their way of presenting themselves is sometimes slightly doctrinaire. "RAWA" means "Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan". There is much talk about revolution in "RAWA's" paperwork. Since her assassination in 1987, "RAWA's" late leader Meena has been worshipped as a Martyr. There are flyers with almost cartoon-like characters, faces twisted, fist up, to the backdrop of a bright orange sun, shouting "Fighting for Democracy", "Fighting for Women's' Rights" and "Remember your sisters in Afghanistan".

"RAWA" women were not invited to join the Afghanistan meeting in Petersberg, Bonn. "It's likely that was because of pressure from the Northern Alliance" says Shahla, "because we are against fundamentalism and for democracy". That is the reason why "RAWA" choose not to acknowledge the women who have been appointed into the interim government: "RAWA" do not accept the Health Minister Suhaila Seddiq, because she has supposedly collaborated with the pro-Soviet regime. And neither do "RAWA" accept the deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Women's Affairs, Sima Samar, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, who herself is running an important relief organisation, "Shuhada". Sima Samar is considered to be close to the fundamentalist group of "Hezb-e-Wahdat", a fact that makes her unacceptable. "If you want to defeat fundamentalism, then you may not compromise", says Shahla. One day, when there will be genuinely free elections in Afghanistan, "RAWA" will stand for election as a political party. Until that day the women shall continue their work in their schools and their hospitals and they shall continue organising demonstrations against fundamentalism in Peshawar.

The exiled Afghani women in Germany view RAWA with mixed emotions. They themselves have been fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan for decades, but they are not quite as radical as the "RAWA" activists. "I'd rather not discuss "RAWA"", says Sohaila Alekozai.


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