Dallas Peace Times, April-May 2002
Afghan women’s organization and struggle celebrated with dance, poetry, on International Day of the Woman
by Lucy McCauley
The burqa looks deceptively feather-light on the dancer who undulates beneath it, slowly rising from the floor to a percussion beat. But the progression of the dance demonstrates how heavy indeed is the garment forced on the women of Afghanistan that covers them from head to toe. Finally the dancer pulls free from the burqa and, as if for the first time, lifts her uncovered face skyward. Soon, however, she reaches for the blue cloth again, threading it through her arm and over her head in a motion heavy with implication—the struggle isn’t over yet.
Choreographed by Lori Darley and the dancer herself, Parisa Khobdeh of SMU, the performance was just one highlight of a day-long event to benefit and honor the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) on its 25th anniversary. Held at the Women’s Museum at Fair Park on March 9, the fund-raiser, entitled "Women Change the World: Afghanistan is Everywhere," was part of the International Women’s Day celebration.
"International Women’s day honors the contributions that women have made in the past, but also the ongoing struggle," said Dr. Alicia Lucksted, a research psychologist at the University of Baltimore who organized the U.S. RAWA Supporters Network three years ago.
Commenting on the slogan "No woman is free until all women are free," which was repeated throughout the day, Lucksted said: "The fact remains that we haven’t reached gender equity anywhere on the earth. And although things are more dramatic in Afghanistan than perhaps they are in Dallas, they’re very related. The themes are the same, and they cross boundaries."
The event’s title, "Afghanistan is Everywhere," also reflected those global similarities and the varying degrees of oppression that women experience—evidenced by the high number of rapes, domestic violence cases, and murders of women in the United States.
Dr. Lucksted’s multimedia presentation, "RAWA’s Struggle: The Work Goes On," was one of the day’s highlights. Other events, attended by about 300 people throughout the day, included a reading of a play written by Alex Court and directed by Katherine Owens, cofounder of Dallas’s Undermain theatre. Entitled "Anarkali at Jallozai," the play interweaves a traditional Afghan folk tale with the modern-day tale of a woman living in a refugee camp.
The event also featured informative talks about the plight of Afghan women, music by percussionist Jamal Mohamed, and poetry readings, including verse by Meena Kamal.
Meena, who founded RAWA in 1977 as a college student in Kabul, was assassinated in 1987 because of her political activities. Although she began the organization as a basic women’s rights group, RAWA’s mission grew even more serious as the plight of Afghan women worsened.
Because of a Taliban edict that RAWA members would be executed if caught, today RAWA works underground to combat the oppression that women have suffered under fundamentalist practices. RAWA’s approximately 2,000 members in Afghanistan and Pakistan (in addition to a solidarity network in other countries, including a new chapter in North Texas) work as activists, calling for freedom and democracy, raising awareness of women’s suffering, and organizing demonstrations where possible.
RAWA also runs orphanages and provides services that have long been denied women under Afghan fundamentalist regimes. For example, in refugee camps RAWA has established schools, income-generating projects, and medical treatment facilities (in addition to RAWA’s Malalai hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, that serves Afghan refugees, which number close to 2.6 million in Pakistan alone).
Even now that the Taliban has lost power, RAWA continues much of its work in secret, believing that women still are not safe in Afghanistan.
"The interim government contains many of the same religious fundamentalists who were in power before the Taliban," said Gretchen Dyer, who helped organize the RAWA Supporters of North Texas, "and the crimes committed in that regime were equally horrific."
Because fundamentalism and oppression of women’s rights too often go hand-in-hand, Dyer said, one of RAWA’s main goals is to ensure a secular government in Afghanistan.
"When governments are controlled by religious fundamentalists," she said, "whatever religion that might be—in this case specifically Islam—women’s rights are the first thing sacrificed."
Nevertheless, RAWA as an organization does not believe that bombing Afghanistan is a solution. "They believed there were other ways to bring down the Taliban and to secure the future of Afghanistan," Dyer said. "For example, they’d have rather seen strong UN peacekeeping forces and multilateral disarmament."
The position stated in RAWA literature holds that the current war, or even killing Osama bin Laden, "will not eradicate the terrorism of Al-Quaeda and the Taliban, and may instead fan fundamentalist flames. Rather, eradicating the terrorist principles and international support, and the poverty and desperation that drive young men to these fanatics, is the only effective solution."
Gretchen Dyer, along with her sister Julia Dyer and a core group of about eight other women, founded the RAWA Supporters of North Texas in November. The group has grown to about 15, in addition to the more than 20 volunteers at the March 9 event, which was planned as both a fundraiser for RAWA and to increase public awareness of its work.
Silky Hart, who organized the publicity for the event, said she was inspired to join local RAWA supporters after September 11. "I realized how truly ignorant I was about issues in the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan. I have a master’s in international business, yet I thought, ‘What do I really know about that part of the world?’"
Many people throughout the day echoed that sentiment, and indeed, educating people about the plight of Afghan women was one purpose of the benefit. For example, in one area of the museum dedicated to the RAWA event, attendees had the chance to try on a burqa — the garment forced on Afghan women that limits their mobility by completely covering their bodies and faces, leaving them only a small netted square through which to view the world.
"It swallows you up," said Jamie Barnes, a volunteer and senior at UNT who assisted women, men, and children as they tried on the sky-blue burqas. "The burqa takes away your identity. It’s so symbolic of how Afghan women live." She added that when people trying on burqas looked in the mirror, "they don’t even recognize themselves. It’s amazing how fast people want to take the burqa off again."
One attendee wanted her photo taken in the burqa so that she could "tape the picture to my wall. Then every day I can be reminded of the oppression overseas, and how lucky I am."
Marjorie Whitner, a volunteer who was repairing some of the burqas with needle and thread, said: "These garments are so beautiful, with handmade tucks and embroidery. Too bad such beauty is wasted on a prison."
Whitner said she first heard about RAWA in a class at Richland College called "Give Peace a Chance." Taught by Sue Jones, the class is part of a program aimed at older and nontraditional students. "I’ve always longed for peace, but the events of September 11 made me realize I needed all the information and tools I could get."
Other stations spread over the first floor of the museum included a buffet featuring Middle Eastern food such as fatayer bi sabanekh (spinach pie), hummous, and tabbouli salad. There was also a table with blank greeting cards in which participants could write notes to women in refugee camps.
"The cards will be translated into local languages and read to women in the camps," Julia Dyer told attendees. "They will help these women know that they are not alone and they are not forgotten."
RAWA requests support in three main areas, said Dr. Lucksted: "The first is personal support—-to educate oneself and use that to inform others to look beyond headlines." Second, she said, is political support. "The U.S. is playing a huge role in the fate of Afghanistan, so make your voice heard through op-eds and letters in the newspaper, demonstrations, and writing letters to your governmental representatives."
For example, support is needed for The Access for Afghan Women Act (H.R. 3342) that has been introduced in the House Committee on International Relations. The Act, which so far has only a few supporters on Capitol Hill, requires "activities carried out by the US in Afghanistan and other countries of Central Asia relating to peace negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction and development ... and peacekeeping operations to comply with the basic human rights of women."
The third area of support that RAWA needs is financial, since the organization does its work entirely through donations. Gretchen Dyer said that she chose to support RAWA because "I felt like it had integrity and legitimacy. I knew that the money would be used in a way that would go directly to help people who were doing something, rather than getting lost in international aid channels—or as so often happens—getting diverted by people in power. RAWA had a long history of doing great work and of being honored." The organization has won a number of human rights prizes, she said.
Sponsors of the RAWA event included the Dallas Peace Center, Richland College, SMU Women’s Studies Program, The Women’s Museum, and donations from a number of individuals.
Anyone wishing more information or wanting to become part of the RAWA Supporters of North Texas can email Gretchen Dyer at stretchdeary@ mindspring.com. For information on the U.S. RAWA Supporters Network, visit www .rawa.org, email rawa_afg@ yahoo.com, or call Dr. Alicia Lucksted at 410-328-5389.
Lucy McCauley is a writer and editor living in Dallas. Elizabeth Thames provided invaluable research assistance for this story.