Houston Chronicle, OCT. 7, 2001
Afghan women fight for rights
A 2,000-member organization is devoted to helping women subjected to alleged Taliban atrocities
By NATASHA MANN
Special to the Chronicle
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The young woman looks like an unlikely public enemy of Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
She has shed the heavy, all-encompassing burqa that women in her native Afghanistan are required to wear and has donned the female attire common in Pakistani cities -- a calf-length shirt over loose trousers and a light, gauzy head scarf called a dupatta.
But as an exiled Afghan working for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an underground network known as RAWA, she risks her life daily, the 21-year-old says.
The 2,000-member, all-female organization is devoted to fighting for the rights of Afghan women and exposing what it sees as Taliban atrocities.
"It is more dangerous now," says the young woman who, fearing for her safety, gives her name only as Marina.
"It is an uncertain situation," Marina says about the volatile climate in Peshawar, the dusty, frontier city in northern Pakistan, a hot spot for fierce anti-American protests by Islamic militants. "And with such a high number of (Afghan) refugees, you cannot screen everyone. You could be talking to anyone."
RAWA represents everything that the fundamentalist Taliban regime hates. Founded in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1977 as a feminist organization, RAWA began exposing excesses committed by warring factions that arose after the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992 and then by the Taliban, which seized power in Kabul in 1996.
Members of RAWA live among Afghan exiles in Pakistan and inside Afghanistan. Many are from the educated elite, but others are from poor villages.
Their group is funded by donations from the United States and Europe and projects such as carpet-making.
Since taking over most of Afghanistan, the Taliban have issued edicts restricting freedoms for both men and women.
Women have been forced to wear head-to-toe burqas, and those stepping outside their homes without one have been beaten with whips. The Taliban have shut down schools for girls and forbidden women from working.
The regime has banned makeup, music, dancing and other recreational activities, sometimes using executions and hand or foot amputations as punishment.
In Afghanistan, RAWA members have hidden video cameras beneath their burqas and filmed floggings and executions. The group's Web site and magazine carry reports and graphic pictures of abuses.
RAWA has established more than 100 secret home-based schools for girls in Afghanistan, its members say. The group also has set up literacy classes and health programs for women.
The organization's Web site declares: "If you are freedom-loving and anti-fundamentalist, you are with RAWA."
"They consider us infidels, prostitutes and anti-Islamic," Marina says of militant Islamic organizations. "The fundamentalists have influence in all fields. There are people in the police and among journalists. Many are trying to find out who we are."
Marina and her mother, a teacher who once helped RAWA, fled Afghanistan in 1988 and now live in a house in Peshawar.
RAWA members working among Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of 2 million have established 24 home-based schools and literacy classes for people too poor to pay for their own educations. Calling themselves social workers, they have set up embroidery and carpet-weaving centers to help women in refugee camps earn a little income.
In Pakistan, RAWA members suspect their phones are tapped and say they are often followed.
Marina alternates the kind of transportation she uses and changes her style of dress. She deliberately does not know the home telephone numbers or addresses of RAWA members.
Radio Sharia, the Taliban's official radio station, has issued fatwahs, or religious decrees, against the "infidel women."
"They have issued a decree that the punishment would be stoning to death if any RAWA member is caught," says member Saha.
"We are the people who expose the crimes in any possible way," adds Fatima, a RAWA activist. "We have to accept the risk as part of what we do."
Despite the personal dangers, RAWA members believe in being vocal about the plight of the Afghan people and have occasionally held demonstrations in Pakistan. Two years ago, Marina was stoned by fundamentalists at a RAWA rally in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
"I was frightened then," she says. "It was like rain, but it was stones, great big stones."
RAWA members say some Afghan refugees who recently arrived in Peshawar have contacted them for help. The organization has distributed oil, flour, rice and medicine to refugees in a camp 10 miles south of the city.
Although the Pakistani government won't allow new Afghan refugees into the country, some slip across the porous border.
The latest refugees to arrive, RAWA members say, fear both the Taliban and a U.S. attack on their country, where Osama bin Laden, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, is believed to be hiding.
"The Taliban want the men as soldiers, and a lot are escaping because of their young boys and sons," Fatima says. "No one in Afghanistan is prepared for war. Everyone is tired, and they don't want to join these criminals in the so-called holy jihad."
Some, she adds, "are happy that maybe through the U.S., the Taliban can be eliminated."