Asia Times, December 1, 2001

Veil lifted on India's embarrassing friends
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - To India's great consternation, Afghan women's leader S. Kabir has sought to expose the "crimes" of the Northern Alliance, whose government India recognizes and supports unreservedly.

In her tour of the length and breadth of the country, she is seeking to raise consciousness about the plight of women in Afghanistan and their fears regarding the dispensation that is taking shape in the United Nations-organized conference in Bonn, as well as on the ground in Afghanistan itself.

Representing RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), S. Kabir, a long-time anti-Taliban activist, is now focusing her ire mostly on the Northern Alliance that has taken control of most of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul. In speech after speech in places as diverse as Vishakhapatnam, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi, she has been narrating harrowing tales of life under the Northern Alliance.

Indeed, according to the Indian Express, she stole the show on the first day of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) conference in Vishakhapatnam. In a widely reported speech, Kabir, who also uses the pseudonym Sahar Saba, said that the fall of Taliban will not make any difference in the lives of the Afghans, especially the women there, as the Northern Alliance was no better than the Taliban. "Do not trust the Northern Alliance. It is another criminal group with a similar ideology. They are criminals who do not want to be exposed as such. In fact, Burhanuddin Rabbani should be brought to the International Court of Justice for a criminal trial," she said, referring to the head of the Northern Alliance.

The root cause of all atrocities in Afghanistan is the domination of fundamentalist ideology, whether upheld by the Northern Alliance or the Taliban, she added. Only democracy can save the Afghans, she said.

RAWA, established in 1977, is the only feminist organization in Afghanistan. Many of the organization's members lost their lives in the struggle to free the Afghan women from fundamentalist oppression. It provides education to females and also organizes programs to enable women to earn a livelihood.

Since 1977, members of RAWA have risked death to expose that reality, and more recently have begun doing so online. When the Taliban took power in 1996, members of RAWA, a Pakistan-based group of more than 2,000 Afghan women, began working in secret to document and publicize through the Internet the cruel treatment of the women and people of Afghanistan.

On behalf of RAWA, S. Kabir has addressed annual sessions of UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and audiences in universities in the United States, Italy and Spain, among other countries.

Kabir said that the first step towards peace would be disarmament of the warring factions. "Sixty-five percent of Afghans are women. We want a government based on democracy."

Even as questions about the post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan continue to crop up, RAWA is not the only group to condemn and fear the Northern Alliance. Apart from many Afghan women interviewed by the media around the world, Mary Robinson, UN high commissioner for human rights, too, has shifted the focus on the Alliance - not as a favorite to form a future government but as a force that could prove to be more dangerous and despotic than the Taliban.

According to RAWA, the Northern Alliance troops can fuel greater violence than the Taliban have ever done. This sentiment is being echoed by many Afghan women in New Delhi during interviews with the media.

Contrary to popular belief, the Afghan people don't give up too easily. Afghan women in particular have put up a stiff resistance. RAWA, for instance, is one such hope and voice for women. RAWA aims to get the world to know the realities of Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that women fighting for their rights in Afghanistan are labeled as sinful, immoral or atheist, or even communist prostitutes, by the fundamentalist preachers.

"The alliance would not stop from fanning the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to retain power. The wounds of the years 1992-96 have not healed yet," said another Afghan woman activist Nazia Barak, in an earlier meeting, referring to the period when members of the current Northern Alliance held Kabul after driving out the Soviets and the communist Afghan government they had installed. According to these women, the alliance has not changed from the days when it unleashed a civil war on Afghanistan.

Robinson, too supports this view, stating: "The situation in Afghanistan could get worse because the track record of human rights violation committed by the Northern Alliance is no better." Apparently, some of the alliance leaders who could be asked to head the new government have in several cases violated human rights themselves.

It is generally thought, said S. Kabir, that in a backward Afghanistan there is no resistance to fundamentalist regimes. Contrary to popular belief, the Afghan people don't give up too easily. Afghan women in particular have put up a stiff resistance. RAWA, for instance, is one such hope and voice for women. RAWA aims to get the world to know the realities of Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that women fighting for their rights in Afghanistan are labeled as sinful, immoral or atheist, or even communist prostitutes, by the fundamentalist preachers.

Despite the Indian government's embarrassment at the continuing exposure of the mujahideen as a criminal fundamentalist force, many in India are echoing S. Kabir's view and the approach of most other Afghan women that any future dispensation in Afghanistan should have a strong presence of women.

Noted columnist Praful Bidwai, for instance, says that the best solution might be to place Afghanistan under UN trusteeship for two to three years, during which an interim government, with strong RAWA representation, rules under a multilateral peace-keeping force. "To combine principle with practicality, this solution will need the UN's energization along genuinely multilateralist lines.

"After five years of darkness," says Bidwai, "Kabul's playing fields are being used not for public executions, but for football. The music is back in the streets, so are beardless male faces, and above all, women out of burqa [veil]. But those replacing the Taliban are no liberators, no respecters of human values. The Northern Alliance is essentially a collection of former mujahideen thugs, with a horrifying human rights record. The NA constituents ruled Kabul between 1992 and 1996 through death, torture and loot. Such was their pillage, mass rape, and brutality that Mohammed Najibullah's regime, itself no model of democracy and compassion, became something to be longed for.

"In 1996, after 50,000 civilian killings, and thousands of rapes, many Kabulis welcomed the Taliban. At least they didn't rape. And they imposed some order, however despotic. We shouldn't be misled by fond descriptions of the NA as 'foot-soldiers' of the 'international coalition' or the suave images of NA ministers like Abdullah, Qanooni and Fahim. What they hide is the ugly reality of General Rashid Dostum, or of the militias who, for instance, in 1997, massacred thousands of prisoners of war after torturing and starving them. Dostum has a hair-raising record: tying suspected defectors to tanks which would be driven round and round till their bodies were chopped into pieces ... other NA generals too have used unspeakably barbaric methods. Most NA militiamen come from mujahideen groups which fought the 1979-89 Soviet occupation with Western [and Saudi] encouragement and arms. The mujahideen's Islam was a penal code of severe strictures, robbed of culture, compassion and even mysticism. They paved the way for the Taliban ideologically, socially and politically."

Bidwai describes the RAWA as "that remarkable organization of Afghanistan's only true heroes" and says that it is against the NA, as well as the Taliban. This raises questions about Afghanistan's regime succession. It would be a tragedy, he says, if one terrible abomination were replaced with an only slightly less terrible one.

Much to the consternation of the government, which seems to relish in its follies and its myopia, such views have been echoed in the media throughout the country. Seema Mustafa, a columnist with the influential daily Asian Age, for instance, wrote on the eve of the Bonn conference, "The UN's seriousness of purpose will be reflected in one, whether Afghan women are invited to Bonn, two, how many women are invited and three, who are the women from Afghanistan selected to participate in the Bonn meet. There is a genuine apprehension that RAWA might not meet the requirements of those who are uneasy about its fierce independence, and would prefer to deal with women figureheads who can be controlled into playing a secondary role.

"Afghan women have fought the occupying forces, their own militia and all repressive elements of society with more tenacity, unison and a sense of purpose than the men. They have remained consistent in their vision of a democratic, progressive and secular Afghanistan. They have refused to allow the lure of power to corrupt their ideals, and have continued to struggle despite overwhelming odds, for what they believe. It will be a travesty of justice if only men, from all over the world and Afghanistan, now sit around the table at Bonn to work out their future. A government born out of such discrimination will not be able to take Afghanistan out of the cesspit, for it will continue to deny one half of its population dignity, respect and true freedom."

Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening.


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