Chicago Tribune, October 22, 2001
Afghan women wage own war
By Liz Sly
Tribune foreign correspondent
JALOZAI REFUGEE CAMP, Pakistan -- The head-to-toe robe that women in Afghanistan are compelled to wear by the Taliban regime is to many the most overtly sinister symbol of the absolute subjugation of that country's women. It restricts air supply, shuts out the light, inhibits movement and snuffs out individuality.
But from within the prison of their cloth cages, Afghan women are fighting back.
Using their burqas as cloaks for covert activities, a group of dedicated Afghan women is waging a secret war against the Taliban's suppression of women's rights. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, known as RAWA, advocates a modest agenda of gender equality. In the context of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, however, it is a movement as radical and as revolutionary as any of the militant Islamic organizations America is battling in its war on terrorism.
Their weapons are simple but potent in a country in which women are banned from attending school, forbidden to hold jobs, forced to hide their faces and risk a whipping if they laugh in public. They conduct illegal school classes for girls. They advocate nail polish. They secretly photograph evidence of Taliban atrocities, which they post on their Web site, www.rawa.org. They hold covert political awareness classes at which Afghan women are taught the basics of human rights.
"Our main motive is to make them aware that they have rights and that they can fight for them," said Weeda Mansoor, 36, one of RAWA's 11-member leadership collective, speaking at one of the group's bases at the sprawling Jalozai refugee camp in Pakistan.
Mansoor is not her real name but the nom de guerre she uses when visiting Pakistan. She lives in Kabul, where she uses yet another name. Only her husband knows her true identity. She refuses to be photographed and believes the Taliban does not know who she is.
Ironically, it is because the Taliban insists that women keep their faces covered that Mansoor and other female revolutionaries are able to operate undetected. Their baggy robes disguise not only their identities, but also hide schoolbooks, stacks of the RAWA newsletters containing banned news of the outside world and even video cameras, offenses which would carry the death penalty if the women were caught.
"This is the only advantage of the burqa," says Mansoor. "Otherwise, it is the most disgusting thing."
RAWA's ultimate goal is the overthrow of the Taliban regime, and the installation of a democratic government that would grant women rights. Mansoor acknowledges a full-scale revolution is something beyond the capabilities of Afghanistan's oppressed women, who aren't allowed to step outside their homes unless accompanied by a male relative and are forbidden from speaking to any man outside their family.
"They are so helpless, so hopeless," she said. "They are empty handed, and empty bellied. They are nothing. They couldn't attend strikes or demonstrations."
Koran study groups a ruse
Instead, the group is focusing its efforts on education. Although girls are not allowed to attend school, they are permitted to study the Koran. Under the guise of providing religious education, RAWA has established more than 100 secret schools in homes across Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, at which small groups of girls gather to study. If a suspicious Taliban official enters, the girls hide their schoolbooks under their robes and begin reciting Koranic verses.
Some women have been imprisoned for teaching the classes. The schools rarely are detected, Mansoor said, because virtually all Afghan women are united in their hatred for the Taliban and its repressive rules. "The Taliban's own wives would support them, and that's all," she said. "No woman would ever tell any Taliban that there is a school over there that women are attending."
Mansoor, who joined RAWA at age 14, runs the group's political awareness campaign, traversing the country to conduct small house meetings with adult women whom she educates about the status of women elsewhere. Those women are then expected to teach others in their neighborhood.
Women's group founded in '77
When RAWA was founded in 1977, by a firebrand campaigner named Meena, Afghan women enjoyed many more rights than they do today. The veil was not compulsory, and women attended college and had jobs. The rise of Islamic extremism set the cause of women back by decades, even centuries, transforming RAWA's mission into an all-out battle.
Meena was assassinated in 1987 by fundamentalists in a camp in Quetta, Pakistan. Today, she is the movement's heroine and inspiration, and her black and white portrait hangs on the wall of the movement's offices.
RAWA also runs schools and clinics in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. But it is inside Afghanistan that its boldest efforts are focused.
Mansoor said she has started to detect signs of defiance among the women of Afghanistan, five years after the Taliban imposed its draconian rules. Toenail polish is the latest rage in Kabul, she said. Because the Taliban insists that women keep their feet covered at all times, woman can hide their painted toenails from scrutiny. Covert beauty salons are opening and lipsticks smuggled from Pakistan are hot items in Kabul. "Women are definitely becoming bolder," she says.
Long struggle awaits
Even if the Taliban is toppled, RAWA has a long journey ahead. Only a few thousand girls have attended the schools in Afghanistan; hundreds of thousands more are growing up without learning to read or write.
At least a few have been spared the darkness, such as Naheed, 13, who was 8 when the Taliban came to power and banned education for girls. For the next five years, Naheed studied in secret at a RAWA school, along with 16 other girls, developing an aptitude for math and an ambition to be an engineer.
"All my friends wanted to go to school, because education is the light of the eye," said Naheed, who left for Pakistan last summer. "If you don't have education, you are nothing."