Baltimore Independent Media Center, 04 Apr 2003

An interview with Anne Brodsky about her trip to Pakistan to visit with RAWA

Interviewer: Dr. Alicia Lucksted

This feature is an interview with Anne Brodsky, a professor at UMBC, about her recent trip to Pakistan to visit with Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). It was conducted by Alicia Lucksted, a professor at the University of Maryland, and appeared originally on the US RAWA Supporters email list.

Anne recently returned from an extended stay with the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in Pakistan. We decided to try the idea of my "interviewing" her as a way to create some summary reports for others to read. Below is the first part of our interview. After reading it, feel free to post to the list any question you have and either Anne will reply directly or we'll fold it into a future "interview" (We figure we may do a couple more.)

Please note: You are welcome to forward this to others who might be interested, as long as you make certain that Anne's name and contact info (at the bottom) stay attached so that people will know the source and how to reach her. Thanks! - Alicia.

What was the purpose / focus of your trip?

I recently returned (Feb 2002) from 7 weeks with RAWA in Pakistan (not Afghanistan), doing research for a book I am writing that will explore RAWA as an organization and community that fosters women's resilience.

Building on my 2 years of in-person and email relationships and support with RAWA and several individual members, I started talking with them more than a year ago about our collaborating on a project that combines my skills and interests in qualitative research and women's resilience in community contexts with their needs and desired to better document their 25 years of experience and struggle.

What did you do while there?

I lived in a variety of RAWA's communities in cities across Pakistan where RAWA has activities, and for 10 days in a refugee camp where RAWA has extensive programs from orphanages and schools to a handicraft center and other social, humanitarian and outreach activities. Unlike my first visit there this past summer for 2 weeks, in which I visited lots of RAWA's projects and mostly talked to the people they serve, this time I spent most of my time this time talking to members of RAWA's community.

While there I engaged in participant observation, and talked formally and informally with over 100 RAWA members and Afghan supporters, as well as additional Pakistani supporters.

Rather than asking them to orchestrate special programs or arrangements just for this project, I was mostly able to be part of the daily activities and to interview people in their usual surroundings, while balancing security needs.

In your note to the list last week, you mentioned that your time there reinforced your commitment to helping RAWA. Do you want to say any more about that here?

As I said in that first note, being there, seeing their work and talking to a wide variety of people who are connected to RAWA in various ways, reinforced my beliefs that this is a remarkable organization doing amazing work under very difficult circumstances.

The difficult circumstances are not only those that come from their being an underground humanitarian and political organization with enemies on multiple fronts, but also from being a women's organization operating in a religious, social, and cultural context (in Pakistan) in which women's lives are severely restricted. Clearly these risks and challenges are even more amplified in Afghanistan.

Since Sept 11th and the start of the war, how have RAWA's activities changed?

For the first several months after Sept. 11th, especially those RAWA members who deal with the international community were completely overwhelmed by email and phone requests for information and interviews. They talked about 10-12 hour days of doing nothing by interview after interview, back to back, meeting journalists from around the world in public locations in Pakistan's major cities.

Demand was so great that even members who are not fully confident or fluent in English were called upon to do interviews. Phone calls came in at all hours of the day and night, with no attention to time differences. They even told me of one call from Europe in the middle of the night where the journalist only asked them what the local time was in Pakistan!

During this time the needs of refugees also increased significantly. Many people fled the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan with only the clothes on their backs.

While there was and is always much more need than RAWA can meet, because of limitations in money and people power, there have been some increased donations since Sept. 11th which have allowed them to expand their assistance activities. A couple examples:

During a one-week period, while I was with them in Islamabad, there were 5 food and supply distributions to urban encampments of refugees. This is a great expansion as previously they had been able to provide fewer than one per week in the same area.

People often picture refugees in large rural camps, but one of the communities that RAWA helps is a squatter's community of 50-75 families who have put up tents and mudbrick buildings on a vacant lot at the end of a street in a middle class Pakistani neighborhood. Relations between the refugees and their neighbors are mixed. There are some tensions across the economic, language and cultural divides, but the neighbors also provide water to the refugee community in the summer and some allow the refugees to tap into their electrical lines to bring light to the makeshift camp.

RAWA's helping this encampment is the result of a slow and gradual building of relationships with leaders and community members, asking the people what they need. As a result, they opened a school there for children and started literacy classes for women, in addition to providing some medical care and humanitarian supplies.

RAWA is also now (post Sept 11th) able to support more schools due to increased donations. This includes opening several new schools and literacy programs ranging from ones housed in buildings with intact roofs and a desk for each student to those held in residential courtyards with a portable blackboard and the kids' mimeographed textbooks as the only physical markers that it is a school.

Also, since the fall of the Taliban, RAWA has recently been able to have their first open [identified as RAWA] activities in Kabul, I believe in the entire history of the organization. They distributed food to orphans at the largest orphanage in Kabul.

What about their activities in Afghanistan post Sept 11th?

I was not in Afghanistan, but I did talk to a number of RAWA members who recently came from various parts ranging from some who had crossed the border just 2 days before I talked to them and others who left Afghanistan right after the bombing started.

As an aside, sitting in a refugee camp with one such member I had the chance to sample a food packet dropped by the US government on Afghanistan. While the fruit pastry tasted a lot like poptarts, I'm not sure most Afghans would appreciate the bean enchilada fillings in the plastic pouch. Also, it was interesting to note that the package was marked with nutritional information using US standards, and that it was produced by a company in Texas. I couldn't help wondering if the allocation of that contract by the military was more than a coincidence.

Regarding RAWA's Afghanistan programs during the bombing, members said various things. In some places the bombing did disrupt RAWA's activities due to safety concerns and the fleeing of the civilians. In other places activities continued as usual.

For example, they told me a story of a RAWA school near a likely bombing target. The RAWA member I was speaking with told the teacher that they probably should suspend classes due to the risk. The teacher said she would not do so without talking to the students first [dk if child or adult classes]. The students said they did not want to stop, and that it would be an honor to die while learning. So the school continued. To my knowledge it was not bombed.

I also talked to a number of people who had lost family members in the bombing, but it seems that no RAWA members or core supporters were killed.

RAWA expects that as long as there are fundamentalists in the government, there will be need for RAWA to continue its educating children and women, especially in rural areas. They also are not sure the government will be able to / willing to do what they have said in reopening all the schools in March, to girls as well as boys. Even if this does happen in the urban areas, it will probably be slower to reach the rural areas. And, there may be some continued resistance to educating girls and women by some of the more traditional regional leaders*so that RAWA's schools and classes will still be needed.

Additionally, until there is democracy and secular government, they feel there will always be a need for their political education toward building a free Afghanistan.

Is RAWA able to operate more openly since the Taliban are out of power?

Other than the open food distribution in Kabul, I don't know of any more open activities. RAWA members in Afghanistan are still not able to agree to meet journalists in Afghanistan, nor to take people into Afghanistan from Pakistan because it is not safe.

It seems to me that the changes since Sept 11th and the possibility of a new future probably pose some decisions and developmental questions to RAWA - did you find that to be the case?

Post - Sept 11th, when Afghanistan and RAWA were catapulted into public attention, they have been having to think a lot about figuring out how to position themselves in the rapidly changing and uncertain context. On one hand they have received, and accepted, some invitations to "sit at the table" - such as having a RAWA member attend the Bonn meetings as part of the former king's delegation.

On the other hand, they strongly believe that as long as fundamentalists and criminals are included in the government there really is no room for their voice at that table, and that having a presence there may be taken as tacit approval of a process and of participants who will bring about no positive change for Afghanistan in the long run and in fact will continue to stand in the way of democracy and women's rights.

Given the focus of your project and book with RAWA, is there anything you want to say at this point about RAWA's structure as an organization?

One thing is that some visitors and journalists have assumed that RAWA is made up completely of young women. This mis-perception is, I think, based on the fact that most of the publicly visible members are the youngest members, chosen for the public roles because they don't yet have the longstanding security risk exposure of older members and because they have been able to attain fluency in English through RAWA schools.

In actuality, RAWA is an organization with members ranging from 17 (the minimum age at which you women can join) to at least their late 60's. RAWA members vary greatly in terms of education, family background, religion, ethnicity, region of origin in Afghanistan, age joined, and level of involvement.

Some RAWA members have been members since Meena formed the organization in 1977, and others have spent their entire life within RAWA, coming though RAWA schools and living in RAWA communities. Others joined as adults through literacy programs in Afghanistan and Pakistani refugee camps where they were adult students.

Male supporters also vary on all these same terms, and many have been instrumental in encouraging their female relatives to go to RAWA schools, classes, activities, and to become members.

Was RAWA offered a place in the interim government and rejected it? How do they see avoiding marginalization if they avoid playing a formal political role. In doing this are they / would they be leaving space for "other" women instead, in the few places women are let in?

To the best of my knowledge RAWA was not offered any place in the interim government. There were erroneous reports on the BBC and AP in December that Sima Samar is a RAWA member. While she is a former RAWA member, her subsequent affliation with Hezb-e Wahdat, one of the notorious criminal fundamentalist factions, is a strong indication of how far she has moved from her days with RAWA.

Its my personal feeling that as long as there are criminal members from the NA in any Afghan government, RAWA will be kept out of the government due to their strong condemnation of past abuses and atrocities. If the former King, who has the support of the majority of the people, and whose return RAWA has long called for as a temporary step towards a democratic government, were to return, there's a greater likelihood that RAWA would have some opportunities in the government.

I think that RAWA believes that if the truth in their standpoints and their call for secular democracy that protects human and women's rights puts them in a marginal position, then this is not a government that represents the people's best interests, and thus is not a government to be involved with.

Given the incredible risks of a repeat of the atrocities of the 1992-1996 period, which unfortunately we are already seeing signs of, I think RAWA is less concerned with marginalization than they are with continuing to speak the truth and demand a government free of elements that have and will continue to perpetrate crimes against the people.

We've read the articles that RAWA sent about the February 4th function commemorating the 15th anniversary of Meena's assassination, and I was wondering if you wanted to add anything to the information in those about your being there, what the function was like, or what it means to RAWA and RAWA members and local supporters?

I was not originally supposed to still be in Pakistan on Feb 4th, but a change in my travel arrangements enabled me to be there and it was, I think, one of the most important things I was able to see and attend during my 7 weeks with RAWA. The planning of this and other functions is taken on by a temporary committee that includes both members and male supporters. It is an enormously important event whose aim is to bring together the entire community of students, members, families, supporters in remembrance and rededication. I was quite moved to be present at the function, which drew an invitation- only crowd of 1700 an d to see the interest and support of such a large number of people for RAWA's message. Through the speeches, poems, songs, and performances at the function members and supporters alike were encouraged to continue their support and struggle for the cause of Afghan women and the establishment of a peaceful, secular and democratic Afghanistan.

Even the simple act of hosting this function contained revolutionary elements. Some Afghans would not even be able to imagine that women could plan, organize and carry out such an event. I heard the same thing said time and again about RAWA demonstrations - that many people's first impression when hearing that women had planned such an event was to doubt that it was possible for women to have such skills and abilities to do such a thing. This lack of belief in women's ability at such a simplistic core level should give some indication of the depth of oppression and prejudice from which Afghan women and RAWA are attempt ing to forge their basic rights. Another example is that having a woman, professional, classical dancer perform before a mixed gender crowd, and perform in a leotard which, while quite conservative by Western standards, was definitely not as disguising of form as either shalwar kamiz or certainly a burqa, is utterly radical to some Afghans and Pakistanis.

But I think even more striking to me was being able to be behind the scenes, at song group practices, where the children had rehearsals 3 times a day for days leading up to the event, where all of us who were reading poems and supporters' letters, including students and members, stood to practice in front of the group and receive feedback about pacing, stress, pronunciation, where even the MC ran through all of her introductions and transitions. The sense of shared purpose, multigenerational community and focus on the importance and seriousness of the event being marked was incredibly strong. Through both participation in the production of the event and attendance at the actual function, students, supporters and members of all lengths of time reheard the stories of sacrifice and commitment that empower their struggle.

When you returned from your time with RAWA in Pakistan this winter, you talked about their schools quite a bit. What are the most important things for us to know?

The most impressive thing about RAWA schools is that they do not just offer the basics, but go well beyond this for both children and women. Of course they begin with basics, but soon integrate things to encourage people to think about the world they live in and the contexts of the events going on, and their assumptions about gender, ethnicity, class, power* geared to the age of the students.

Their curriculum is not just basic literacy and math, but they also, for example, teach English so the children will be ready to be part of a world community in the future, and Afghan Dari and Pashto so they speak the language of their country. They teach biology, physics, chemistry, even without laboratory facilities.

They use Payam-e Zan (RAWA's political magazine) to teach Persian literacy to kids attending Pakistan schools where they get English and Urdu but not Persian. They also use Payam-e Zan to teach kids and adults how to take reports properly so that they can contribute accurate and verifiable documentation in the future. And then they also use it to raise political consciousness and awareness by encouraging older students and adults to read and discuss the analysis pieces.

Another difference between RAWA schools and others is that RAWA's philosophy is not to "teach to teach" but rather to "teach for people to learn" Many refugees compared other NGO schools to RAWA schools and said they really saw a difference in RAWA's level of education and caring that people truly learn the material and learn to think.

The kids in RAWA schools really appreciate the access to education they would not otherwise have. Pakistani schools are expensive and some have limits on how many Afghans can attend--so it is important that RAWA has been able to negotiate reduced or free tuition for the children in some of their orphanages. Also, some of the respected Afghan schools set up branches in Pakistan, but those too are far too expensive for many refugees to attend. And of course children in Afghanistan have had virtually no access to education under the Taliban--even for boys academic education was basically unheard of, so RAWA classes there have been a necessity. Some families in Afghanistan have had to send their boys to Pakistan to get a decent, secular education, but have found that RAWA schools in Afghanistan provide as good an education as is available in Pakistan, and so the girls have been able to stay with their families and be in school. The stories of how these schools were able to operate is fascinating, but a topic for another time. I know it will be a big part of what I write about in my book.

It's also important to keep in mind that many adult women never had access to education, even before the Taliban, because it was not available in their area, or their family didn't believe in girls being educated, or it was interrupted by the wars, or they couldn't not afford the fees. So adult programs are very very important too.

Another important aspect of RAWA's teaching philosophy is that of mutual empowerment and helping each other. In one of the orphanages, for example, I took a photo of a teen age girl tutoring a small group of younger children, using Payam-e Zan. They were working on Persian literacy by reading the factual reports, which are written at a pretty basic level. Meanwhile, the teenager teacher is then in a similar class where a RAWA member is the teacher, and they discuss the more complex points from the reports and the analysis pieces. Then the member teaching that class is herself in a discussion group with a senior RAWA member where they discuss even higher-level analysis of the situation and so on. So that each person passes on what she knows to those who are learning, and each is challenged to contribute and to stretch their understanding.

One other interesting thing; people tend to think of RAWA's education work as a response to the Taliban's ban on education for girls and women, and to the refugees' needs in recent years. But actually it started much earlier. One of Meena's primary concerns in starting RAWA was that rural women did not have access to education, and very early in RAWA's history she started literacy programs for rural women. Meena also believed that education within RAWA is crucial, and started the model of discussion groups among members that is still used today.

You said that recently RAWA has been able to open some new schools / classes?

Yes, since there was some increase in donations as world attention was drawn to Afghanistan once the US started military action there, RAWA has been able to expand its educational offerings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Pakistan there were marked changes during the 4 months between my visits. One school that they had been held in 5 rather shabby "rooms" (one of which was merely space on the rooftop among various rubble) is now in a building where it has 8 rooms with desks and blackboards, a small lending library, an expanded curriculum, and 2 sessions of students per day. Like all of RAWA's classes and schools, this one is completely free for students. Not only does RAWA provide the teachers' salary, but also all the children's school supplies.

Of course RAWA members and supporters are acutely aware that there are still 100s of thousands of Afghan children in Afghanistan and Pakistan who have no school access, even with the opening of government schools by the interim government; especially in the rural areas and among refugees. RAWA believes that their literacy programs for children and women will continue to be necessary in Afghanistan for a long time to come. Both because whatever new governments are in place will have a hard time meeting need, and because the continued presence of fundamentalists in the government will compromise the type of education available and make independent scholastic materials and approaches a continued need.

What about the orphanages you saw?

I was in 4 different RAWA orphanages, in different towns, cities, and refugee camps. I have worked in a number of orphanages and similar facilities (eg., foster care group homes) here in the U.S., and although the physical settings of the kids in RAWA's orphanages (and Pakistan in general) looked poorer than US kids in comparable facilities, the kids in RAWA's orphanages are by far better cared for emotionally, educationally, nutritionally, and socially. (I don't know about non-RAWA orphanages in Pakistan and Afganistan) Emotionally, RAWA works very hard to develop a sense of community among kids who are living together. Each setting has a spectrum of ages, and they encourage the children to think of each other as siblings, to respect and care for each other. In Afghanistan, sibling relationships are very important; respecting one's older sibs and caring for one's younger ones are very important cultural relationships. It works very well.

The kids all say that they feel loved by the adults who take care of them and by each other. There is not the distant "staff" relationship that is usual in most US facilities. Rather, the RAWA member or supporter who is the orphanage caretaker feels very personal responsibility and a sense of mission for these kids. They see it as a cultural and patriotic duty to care for the children, and that they are the generation who will rebuild the country.

In cases where the caretaking members have kids themselves, their children live with all the kids and are treated the same as much as possible, and are encouraged to see all the children as their siblings.

Educationally, as we talked about, education is stressed for all kids, including those in the orphanages. And the kids really appreciate this. Depending on the place and situation, orphanage kids may go to local Pakistani schools, to rather elite private Pakistani schools, or to RAWA-run schools in the camps or community.

In addition to this, especially for kids attending Pakistani schools, RAWA has afterschool classes in the orphanages to teach the children about Afghanistan, its history, languages, etc, including age-appropriate versions of RAWA's standpoints are being fair to each other, not discriminating, women's roles, etc. Members working in the RAWA orphanages talk about "teachable moments" where issues of gender, ethnicity, or inequalities come up and are discussed during usual daily life in the orphanage.

Kids are also given responsibilities based on their age and abilities to help prepare them for adult life, such as food preparation, making a market list, organizing daily exercise / sport activities, listening to the BBC so as to report the news to everyone else, etc. Socially, especially in the RAWA orphanages in refugee camps where RAWA has lots of activities, these kids are really part of the larger community. Unlike in the US where kids in orphanages or similar places tend to be isolated from the community, these children are very much part of the larger communities of RAWA members and supporters, their families, and of the camp. They interact with a wide range of adult role models, including women, attend RAWA functions, events, and demonstrations, and feel loved and cared for by the larger community.

See also:


Inside Pakistan and Afghanistan with RAWA

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