The Times of India (Calcutta), June 24, 2006
Lifting the Veil
NO END TO SUFFERING?
In an exclusive with Amrita Mukherjee, Mehmooda, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), gets candid about the present situation of women in her country
Is it still mandatory for women in Afghanistan to wear the burqa?
No, it's optional but in most regions and specially areas under the fundamentalist armed commanders, women prefer to wear it for security purpose. A lot of women don’t want but they feel much safer to wear a burqa because in many areas still, young girls and women are being abducted and raped by armed groups. Even in Kabul, where thousands of ISAF troops are stationed, many women continue to wear burqa. It is important to know that under Taliban it was compulsory for all women in every part of the country to use it.
Can women go out alone now or do they have to be still accompanied by a male relative?
• Again, depends on the area. There are a lot of women walking alone in the big cities but in smaller towns they are always accompanied by a male relative. Security situation is critical in many parts of Afghanistan so many families do not allow the female members of the family to go outside fearing they will be killed or abused.
When women go out on the streets does the fear of being thrashed, assaulted or raped in public still loom large?
• Definitely yes. Still a large number of armed militia belonging to different fundamentalist parties (especially Northern Alliance) are the main cause behind the plight of Afghan women. Unfortunately in most cases due to involvement of police and government officials themselves women never complain. There are many reports of abuse and rape of women especially in villages where the central government has no control and the commanders of the Northern Alliance have made their local governments. Unfortunately only few of the rape and abuse cases find its way to the media because there are no reporters and journalists in remote parts of the country because of the dangers faced from armed groups. One such case was the gang rape of 12-yearold Rahima by warlords.
Before the Taliban, women used to function in important jobs as teachers, doctors and in government posts. Have they been able to go back to their earlier jobs and function normally?
• Rarely. Though it is not very safe, but a number of widows and needy families are back in their jobs. These are not offered by the government but mostly by international aid agencies and NGOs. Afghanistan is a country with over 40 per cent unemployment rate (according to CIA world factbook). Only Kabul is an exception where a larger number of women have jobs. In other parts of Afghanistan women are afraid to get official jobs as they are being killed by Taliban and gunmen for going to NGO offices (the only job that are open for women these days). On May 30, 2006, six aid workers including three women were killed.Whenever criminals such as Sayyaf, Rabbani, Qanoni, Faheem, Hazrat Ali, Mohaqiq, Haji Farid, Gulabzoy, Haji Almas and more such elements are in the parliament, they can only pass anti-women laws and no once can expect them to do any favor for women.
Are there any women in top positions in Afghanistan?
• We do have around 68 female members in the national parliament and currently a female minister also. What is very important is not just to have a couple of women in different positions but to take a look at the overall situation of women in the country. Most of the women in high positions and in the parliament cannot represent the whole lot of Afghan women. They have very close links to fundamentalists or they are compromising with them. Even there are a lot of reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which proves that Afghan administration has not been able to protect women.
If a woman wants to get out of an abusive marriage how can she go about it? How easy is it for her to remarry or have an affair?
• It is nearly impossible. Due to culture, tradition and family custom women never try to escape such conditions. In a couple of cases it happened, the abused women were arrested and put in prison or handed over to the family. The Afghan courts do not help such women so they do not file their cases.
If a woman can’t have children, is she ill-treated?
• Yes. Usually her husband is allowed to marry another woman while keeping her. And the first wife continues to work for her husband and his family as a servant. In most cases even men marry a second woman if his first wife fails to give birth to a boy. A baby girl is mostly not welcome. Unfortunately such disgusting customs are still in place. Some armed commanders have up to four wives and mostly they marry girls who are 30-40 years younger than the husband. They either abduct girls and get married or provide huge money to the poor families to marry their young daughters. And families can’t refuse as they know it will have dangerous consequences if they say ‘no’.
Your website says that there has been an increase in the suicide rate of women in Afghanistan. Why is that so?
• According to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) 154 self-immolation cases involving women were reported from the western zone alone and 34 from the southern and eastern parts of the country in 2005. But the actual figures are much higher. Many of these women find all doors closed behind them and can’t think of any other way but to commit suicide to escape the horrible family and social problems they face.
What is the condition of education in your country now?
• In the large cities such as Kabul, Heart, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad there are few universities girls’ schools but in small towns and villages there are no schools or educational projects. In most parts families do not want to send their kids to school as it is dangerous.
RAWA used to run underground schools and even beauty parlours at the time of the Taliban regime. Are you now open about it?
• All our social and humanitarian projects continue in the same way. We are still not a registered or legal organization so we cannot run our project under RAWA's logo. We still face many problems that we used to face under the Taliban.
Being strongly against the criminal fundamentalist leaders who are seizing the government and by criticizing their supporters and the negative role played by other governments, makes hard for RAWA to operate openly.
Considering RAWA’s boldness and uncompromising struggle, some people believe that it’s suicidal to take on such powerful enemies in such a way, and are afraid to get in touch with us. Although many of them praise the courage of RAWA members.
More importantly, unfortunately some Afghan writers and poets have been changed to the mouthpieces of the fundamentalist bands who use their art and talent to misguide people and present a white washed picture of fundamentalists. These people are against RAWA and oppose RAWA’s objectives. And today most of them have top positions in the government. On March 8, 2006, when we held a big event on International Women’s Day in Kabul, many people were amazed to know about such a big risk being taken by RAWA, and the media in Kabul was afraid of the fundamentalists to report it.
We can’t put our magazine for sale in any bookshops in Kabul and other cities of Afghanistan because in a number of places booksellers have been abused and warned by gunmen not to sell RAWA publications. The gunmen of warlords have many times collected and burnt our magazines from shops and even put pressure on shopkeepers to show them the RAWA members who bring the magazines to their shops for sale. In a similar incident, they tortured and imprisoned a RAWA supporter who was caught when copying a RAWA statement in a Kabul market in order to distribute to others. He was released after 24 hours in custody by paying a bribe to the gunmen.
So, what I wrote about is only the tip of iceberg about the problems and hardships we face in Afghanistan. We are still working semi-underground so it’s still difficult to reach out to people. We still have a long way to reach every corner of Afghanistan and work among women. There are still many parts of Afghanistan where we have never been there so people know about RAWA just through some radio interviews or our magazine. You can find women and men who have never heard of RAWA.
But we never had any “beauty parlours” in any part of Afghanistan. Actually we are against it. In the current situation when women face such grave and more urgent issues opening beauty parlours is just like making a joke to our women.
According to you what are the things that should be immediately provided by the government to improve the state of Afghan women?
• Whenever the fundamentalist terrorists are in power and have key posts in the government, there will be no change in the situation of Afghan women; only a democracy based on secularism can bring some positive changes to the conditions of women. We never expect from the current government with its current composition to help women. Whenever criminals such as Sayyaf, Rabbani, Qanoni, Faheem, Hazrat Ali, Mohaqiq, Haji Farid, Gulabzoy, Haji Almas and more such elements are in the parliament, they can only pass anti-women laws and no once can expect them to do any favor for women. As mentioned above, the Northern Alliance criminals are now ruling the country. The NA is comprises these millionaire rapists busy in the heroin trade under the very nose of the US troops. They are the people behind the insecurity, kidnappings, embezzlement of billions of dollars of foreign aids, injustices, anti-women constraints, covering up of the day light murders, and so on and so forth.
They include the likes of Dr Abdullah, Younis Qanooni, Zia Massud, Karim Khalili, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mohaqiq, Sarwar Danish, Mosouda Jalal, Nematullah Shahrani, Ismail Khan, Sediqa Balkhi, Rasul Sayyaf, Ikram Masoomi, Rashid Dostum, Mullah Fazil Hadi Shinwari, Amena Afzali and others are stained with the blood of tens of thousands of Kabul residents. All of these ladies and gentlemen have the disgraceful scar of inhuman brutalities against our people in the blackest years of 1992-1996. They are “our” ministers, vice presidents and advisors to the president. Most of the Afghan ambassadors, governors, secretaries and other high ranking officials are also affiliated with NA mafia. As long as they are in power, it is out of the question to improve the sate of Afghan women.
How are warlords and ex-Taliban members getting a place in the parliament?
• It is obvious that it was not a fair and free election. While democratic candidates were threatened, arrested and even killed, fundamentalists used all their money, weapon and corruption to become the winners. They came to the parliament not to solve the smallest issues of our bereaved people but to achieve their political aims.
Has there been any change in the attitude of men in Afghanistan?
• Apart from fundamentalist’s domination, violence against woman has deep roots in our society. RAWA believes that only through continuous efforts at providing education and raising awareness we will be able to sensitize both men and women.
Malalai Joya, an MP in the parliament was assaulted because she spoke against a male MP. Women MPs also joined in the abuse. Do you feel this incident is a pointer to the real situation in Afghanistan?
• That’s right. It proves again and again that they are NOT representatives of people but warlords, ignorant fundamentalists and drug mafia. In the parliamentary elections the fundamentalists used all their power, money, gun and fraud to not only go to the parliament themselves but also to install their puppet women in the seats reserved for women. In Afghanistan unfortunately we have woman warlords too and some of them are now in the parliament.
It is said that Taliban remnants are still there in Afghanistan. How do they make their presence felt?
• In some certain parts of Afghanistan (mainly in the areas bordering Pakistan) there are some incidents such as attacking and burning school, killing female and male employees of NGOs, taking hostage of some foreigners and so on. The Taliban are issuing their statements and flyers threatening that they will kill women if they work with the NGOs and very often have radio broadcasts.
The media has apparently flourished in Afghanistan in recent times. Does it in any way help your cause?
• Unfortunately in the last decade of war in Afghanistan the western media never took any interest in the situation. After the collapse of the pro Soviet regime and occupation of Kabul by fundamentalists in 1992 it was said that a civil war is going on and it is part of Afghan culture and tradition. In most cases media had to say what suited their governments best. It was only after September 11 that a huge interest was created and people started talking about women’s miseries. This situation was going on in our country since years but why there was such a silence? Since international media wrote about us it helped us to get donations and support. But this came drastically down after a short time because of the propaganda by western media that Afghanistan is liberated and its women are safe and enjoying life.
Can this interview be carried in a local newspaper in Afghanistan?
• Never. First because it is an interview with RAWA and no publication has the courage to print such an interview. It can have dangerous consequences for them and secondly, we name the topmost criminals who are policy-makers today and it is like a taboo in Afghanistan to list them in this way. The Press in Afghanistan is under much pressure and they can’t openly criticize the government.