EurasiaNet, September 26, 2003
New Book Examines a Clandestine Group's 26-Year Effort
to Improve Conditions for Afghan Women
A EurasiaNet book review
The plight of women in Afghanistan is well documented. Perhaps the statistic that best illustrates today’s situation is life expectancy -- for an Afghan woman it is now estimated at 46.2 years, while the average man can expect to live to 47.6.
Improving the quality of life for women is one of biggest reconstruction challenges for Afghanistan. A new book, With All Our Strength, examines the problems and evaluates the actions taken in recent decades to address existing gender inequality. The author, Anne Brodsky, focuses much of the book on the work of a single organization -- Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). The group pre-dates the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, and operated clandestinely for years, its members serving as resistance fighters, educators, relief workers, and human rights activists.
To research the book, Brodsky, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, spent months in Afghanistan and Pakistan closely observing RAWA activities. Brodsky dissects the psychology of socialized gender inequality while delving into RAWA’s strategy and tactics. Conversations with RAWA activists are meticulously documented, including harrowing stories of activism amid constant suspicion and violence.
"With All Our Strength" is full of examples of RAWA’s successes and struggles. Brodsky’s devotes nearly half the book on the work of its founder and spiritual leader, Meena, demonstrating why 16 years after her death, she still inspires RAWA members.
Meena, who was educated in Kabul, started RAWA in 1977. Before she was killed by the forces loyal to one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Meena predicted the rise of a fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan and prepared RAWA for operations in an oppressive environment. Brodsky notes that Meena’s primary tool in helping RAWA survive and expand was education: literacy leads to political education, which ultimately fosters change in the social order.
Brodsky begins with the most stark—and well known—example of RAWA’s work to document the abuse of women in Afghanistan. In 1999, a woman named Zarmeena, a mother of seven who had been accused of killing her husband, was publicly executed in Kabul’s soccer stadium. A RAWA member caught the execution on tape with a borrowed video camera and two years later, in the fall of 2001, the footage appeared in a BBC documentary called "Beneath the Veil." The footage had been on RAWA’s website ever since it had been smuggled out of Afghanistan, but it was only after the September 11 terrorist tragedy that the taped execution gained broad international attention.
Brodsky goes on to offer a brief history of the conflicts and civil strife that have enveloped Afghanistan over the past 25 years. Against the background of constant warfare, and in a climate of fear, Brodsky shows how RAWA built a network of activists.
Significant space in the book is devoted to RAWA’s educational efforts, noting that the organization’s work in so-called Watan schools and refugee camps have had a profound effect on the students and refugees. At the same time, RAWA’s magazine, Payam-e Zan ("women’s message") has proven an effective tool in reaching out to women.
RAWA’s informational initiatives, conducted either through the magazine or through small meetings or conferences, has helped alleviate the feeling of profound hopelessness that affects many Afghan women, Brodsky contends. Shazia, a refugee interviewed in the book, had this to say about RAWA: "When I first came to stay in the camp I was impressed by the interactions between women in camp because of RAWA. Before this I had a lot of time to think about how terrible the situation was for me and my country. I had no children, no work, and all this thinking made me depressed. The things I could get involved with in the camp, literacy courses, other involvements made me feel better."
Towards the end of the book, Brodsky attempts to dispel misconceptions about the organization and its agenda. It is not a radical feminist organization. Rather, RAWA recognizes that Afghan society is traditionally male-dominated: thus, change for women is most likely to come with the help and understanding of men. Though RAWA doesn’t accept male members, its male supporters are instrumental in helping the group carry out its activities. Brodsky notes that RAWA takes pride in its work with men and boys, writing; "RAWA counts as one of their biggest achievements their success in raising the consciousness of men who now support women’s equality and rights."
Today, RAWA’s mandate has not changed. Despite the fall of the Taliban, Brodsky writes, "the historic cultural, social, and religious oppression of women that was the impetus for RAWA’s founding 26 years ago still remains, as do many of the perpetrators of Afghanistan’s 25 years of war and violence."
Books on RAWA