"I Saw a Revolution in the Eyes of RAWA Members"
By Anne Brodsky, USA
It's now been some months since the US experienced the closest thing to war on our soil in anyone's memory, and since the US and its allies decided that answering violence with violence is the answer in Afghanistan. But for the people of Afghanistan, the crises of terrorism, violence, human rights violations and oppression have been a fact of life for the past 23 years. More importantly resistance, whether to the forces of the Soviet Union, the murderous fundamentalist factions that followed, or the Taliban, has taken many forms. During a summer 2001 trip to visit RAWA and many of the Afghan refugees they serve in Pakistan, I saw first hand that the most powerful forms of resistance and struggle are not always those that use violence. In these alternatives forms lay the kernels of the answer to the current crisis for us all.
I have seen a revolution up close now. I saw it in the eyes of women and children.
As a child I was fascinated, in turn, by the American Revolution, the US Civil War, World War II, the social revolutions of the 1930's and the 1960s. I read everything I could about these events, not for the military and logistical history, but for the social and personal meanings, trying to understand how ordinary people find the motivation and strength to risk and resist.
Now I've seen a revolution up close. Not a revolution of weapons, although the men who patrolled outside my compound in the refugee camp were armed "just in case" with Kalashnikovs. They'd learned to fire them in the war of resistance against the Soviets, but that was a different struggle.
The revolution I saw is led by women. It is a revolution of attitude and beliefs, of hope and love, and most importantly a revolution of ideas and education.
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, RAWA, is a 23 years old nonviolent, humanitarian and political organization that operates clandestinely in Pakistan and Afghanistan; fighting against the effects of the Taliban and the Jehadi groups that have laid siege to their country since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. They operate underground to protect their work and their lives. This is not an idle fear. Their founding leader, Meena, was assassinated in 1987. Now the Taliban call for the public execution of all members. They are dangerous to the Taliban and to the Jehadis of the Northern alliance because they record the atrocities committed by all sides, they resist the Taliban's archaic, oppressive rules, they foster knowledge and critical thinking, and they demand a just government whose hands are free of blood.
I saw a revolution in the eyes of the girls and boys attending makeshift RAWA schools in mud huts and crumbling rooftops, and in RAWA orphanages where young children, who were born into a country at war, speak 4 languages already: the Dari and Pashto of their homeland, the Urdu of Pakistan, their (hopefully) temporary refuge, and English, the language of the Pakistani schools whose tuition RAWA pays. They told me they worry about the Afghan children who are not as lucky as they are. They told me they want to be doctors and engineers so they can return to their destroyed country and help to rebuild it. But that this can only happen when their land is free of foreign countries like Saudi Arabia, France, Pakistan and the US, who continue to arm the fighters and fan the flames of war.
I saw a revolution in the eyes of previously illiterate widows whose male relatives have been tortured and killed and whose daughters have been raped. They've been told that they are nothing, that they have no reason to exist without a husband. They've found that they in fact can't exist in an Afghanistan where women are banned from leaving the house without a mahran, a close male relative escort, which they no longer have. They still bear the psychological scars of their experiences but through RAWA education and support they have come to realize that they are not worthless.
I saw a revolution in the eyes of these women. It is a revolution that turns despair and desperation into hope and resistance.
RAWA members have these same life stories. They are widows and orphans, survivors of trauma, oppression, prison and loss. But they would pause their stories to apologize for having to tell me these things, to say, incredibly, that they didn't want to make me sad. They deal with the sadness in and around them on a daily basis. They say they cope by turning sadness into anger, and anger into action.
To be a member of RAWA is to sacrifice possessions, safety, and personal life. They earn no salary, moving with a single bag to do what is needed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Providing food, education and medical care is just a start. To be a RAWA member is to sneak video cameras into the sports stadium in Kabul to record the public execution of a burqua clad women who can't see the Talib holding the gun to the back of her head; to hold a protest rally in the streets of Pakistan, allowing women's voices to be heard, even as they are stoned and beaten back by Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and sympathizers; to teach children to play the piano so that the Taliban's ban on all music does not destroy thousands of years of musical tradition.
I saw a revolution in the eyes of RAWA members. It looks like pride and purpose, and intelligence and love, and dedication.
I have seen a revolution up close now, underground with RAWA for two weeks that felt like forever, in poor urban Pakistani neighborhoods and rural refugee camps along the Afghan border. In 100 degree heat, and frequent power outages that killed the only breeze coming from the overhead fan, chasing frogs and stray cats out of my living quarters; dodging goats, chickens, children, and open sewers of waste water as I walked down rutted dirt paths in shalwar kamis and head scarf. Trying to blend in, so I could understand this revolution first hand, beyond the books of my childhood.
Women, even in Pakistan, are nearly absent from public life. Men hang out talking, laughing, drinking tea late into the evening, without a woman in sight. Women, when seen are veiled and largely ignored. I bought my shalwar kamis from male merchants, thinking "when was the last time a man sold me women's clothing in the US?" And yet the women of RAWA are thankful for freedoms I barely recognized. They don't have to wear the burqa, they can go out without a man if they need to, women and girls can go to school.
In my two weeks in the constant company of RAWA, hundreds of hours of talking and sharing and observing, I never knew their real names. They know few details of each other's identities either. I never knew where we were exactly, or where we were going, or what would happen next. Not because they didn't trust me, they said, but because they are always careful that if someone were caught by the Taliban, or the Jehadis, or the Pakistani ISI who still support the Taliban, that person would have nothing to say, even if tortured. They accept this risk with resolute grace. In the shadow of their grace and care, I never felt fear.
In some places they proclaim the name of RAWA proudly, handing out business cards in the offices of the Pakistani Commissioner for Afghan Refugees, speaking openly to refugees in Jalozai and other refugee camps in Pakistan. In other places they offer an ear, comfort, food, shelter, medicine, even education without ever saying where they come from, because it is not safe to do so. And the people don't care. They only care that someone is helping them. It is only later, a bit further into the literacy course or in conversations while producing handicrafts to supplement lost income, that they come to hear about RAWA, about the notion that women are not half of men. That women are people - with needs, and thoughts, and rights, and strength, and potential. And that true freedom is not found in armed struggle and brute force, but in education, open minds, caring, and respect.
And a light goes on. In that light is a revolution. I saw it in their eyes.
Anne Brodsky is an assistant professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.