Chicago Tribune, Nov.9, 2001
Afghan activist decries U.S. bombing
Woman presents sober lessons on impact of war
By David Mendell
Tribune staff reporter
Dressed stylishly in a gray turtleneck, black knit jacket and suede leather skirt, the Middle Eastern woman could have been mistaken for just another American college undergrad as she stepped to the podium in a University of Chicago lecture hall Thursday evening.
But Tahmeena Faryal, as she calls herself, is visiting Chicago this week not to receive an education, but to give one--a sad, sober lesson about her native Afghanistan.
History of persecution
Her first message: The people of Afghanistan, particularly women, have been persecuted for too long, and America's bombing campaign is only making their lives worse. The bombs must stop falling, she said, or the entire country will be so damaged psychologically and physically that it will take generations to recover.
"We are more than a month [into the bombing] and we have seen hundreds of civilian casualties, but what are the positives?" she asked. "We want to combat terrorism, but not by bombing the innocent people of Afghanistan."
Faryal is one of 2,000 members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, a political advocacy group based in Pakistan that has agitated for nearly 25 years to gain basic rights for women--and men--in Afghanistan.
She arrived in the United States shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to increase foreign support, financial and otherwise, for RAWA.
Her visit to Chicago is sponsored by a variety of human and civil rights groups.
Founded in 1977 in Kabul, RAWA is one of the most daring and controversial groups operating in the region. Its founding member, Meena, was killed by fundamentalists and the Russian KGB in 1987, according to the group.
It is most famous for covertly filming atrocities committed against women and circulating the footage through its Web site (rawa.org) and the media. Members also operate underground schools for women in Afghanistan.
Although she has appeared regularly in the media since her arrival, Faryal wants her visit to be as secret as possible because she worries her life will be at risk when she returns to Pakistan. She allows no photographs of her face and requests that her public appearances be known only to invited guests. Her name is fictional and used by many RAWA members.
RAWA, which now operates primarily out of Pakistan, is highly political, not just humanitarian, and she could be targeted, she said.
Family fled to Pakistan
Since the early 1990s, women have been systematically beaten, terrorized and oppressed in her native country, which she left as a child when her parents moved to Pakistan to flee Soviet invaders. She said the situation first deteriorated during the Russian invasion in the 1980s and worsened under the rule of the "misogynistic and ignorant" Taliban, who came to power in 1996.
The inhumane details now have been widely reported: Women were banned from work and forbidden to leave their homes without being shrouded in clothing, called a burqa, and accompanied by a male. They have been denied schooling, medical care and been forced into marriage, according to human rights organizations.
"The women feel helpless, hopeless, and I am worried that their lives are getting even worse," she said, estimating that there are 70,000 widows in Kabul alone.
"For many women there, there is no option left but begging and prostitution. They have no breadwinner. They see no future for themselves or their children. I talked to a woman who said she would rather commit suicide than beg for a living. But she had children and she could not commit suicide because she had to support them."
But the bombing has only deepened the suffering, Faryal said. She advocated that the United States combat terrorism through United Nations diplomacy and the sanctioning of countries that aid terrorists.
Finding allies in U.S.
Despite RAWA's anti-war stance, she said she has found much support for her organization in the United States--and that has encouraged her immensely.
"This is a situation that cannot last for a very long time," she said. "There is a ray of light at the end of the darkness, I believe. We have found committed supporters all over the world and, because of this, I believe the people of Afghanistan will have freedoms again someday."