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Columbia University (through, April 14, 2000

Women, War and Human Rights in Afghanistan

Sajeda (pseudonym)

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | Since the overthrow of the Soviet-installed regime in 1992, fundamentalist Islamic groups--including the Taliban, starting in 1996--have been in power in Afghanistan. The Taliban's ultra-fundamentalist policies and opposition to democracy have caused considerable hardship to the Afghan people, particularly to women.

In April 2000, the Women's Rights Working Group at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs invited women activists to tell their stories. In this presentation, "Sajeda" (not her real name), an activist from RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, talks about women's initiatives in the fight against the Taliban regime and the importance of democracy to the introduction of women's rights and human rights in Afghanistan.

This story is derived from a lecture entitled "Women's Survival and Strategies in Militarized Conflict," at Columbia University, April 14, 2000. Copyright 2000 by The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.

Unfortunately, the world, and especially the world's media, has forgotten Afghanistan. The silence is further increased when, according to Amnesty International, Afghanistan, the world's largest forgotten tragedy, is neglected. In the meantime, we have all been well aware of how the people of Kosovo turned into a center of attention and affection around the world, from CNN to the BBC to local media. On a daily basis we heard about the conditions of refugees which were not by any means comparable to the conditions of the refugees in Pakistan and Iran. The hard, unbearable conditions of our refugees during the anti-Russian war were neglected.

Are you aware of the fresh spate of refugees from the northern part of Afghanistan who have fled because of the last clashes between Messud and the Taliban? Do you know that they left behind all their belongings and migrated only with the clothes they were wearing? That a mother, in order to save her honor, left behind all her children and, without knowing about her future, attempted to escape? Can you imagine the pain of a nine-months-pregnant woman after a 10-hour walk when she gives birth among rocks and bushes, without even a cloak to cover the infant?

A woman in Afghanistan living under the Taliban. Do you know that children and youth, for whom studying and schooling have turned into a dream, have nothing to do other than begging and collecting paper bits from the garbage heaps around the city? The children become part of the media's silence over the violation of human rights in Afghanistan. Why these differences? Is it because the blood of the people of Kosovo is thicker than the blood of the people of Afghanistan?

For more than two decades our country has been at war. Russian troops invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. During that time, there were tall claims that the social situation of women had improved. Unfortunately for women, the Russian regime projected women's liberation as immorality and freedom from sensitive cultural inhibitions, rather than projecting women as having equal potential and equal rights.

The Russian puppets were overthrown in 1992 and the fundamentalists came to power. It was then that the real tragedy for Afghan women began. The plight of Afghan women was never something to be happy about; but in the last half-century their social situation was beginning to improve, mostly due to education and the fast pace of change all over the world. The realization that women had potential and were capable of things other than bringing up children was beginning to enlighten minds at the grassroots level of a traditionally conservative society.

Women in Afghanistan living under the Taliban. With the coming to power of the Islamic fundamentalists, the wheel of history has really been turned back hundreds of years. Oppression and discrimination against women are worldwide phenomena, as is women's struggle for their rights, but in Afghanistan, women's struggle for their equal set of rights is too extravagant to be considered. Under the fundamentalists, women have to struggle to be recognized as human beings. Hatred of women is a principle of this Islamic fundamentalism. Women are fit only for household slavery and as a means of procreation.

With the coming to power of the Taliban, such an outrageous view has, incredibly, been elevated to the status of official policy. In the fundamentalist infighting of the past eight years, women have been looked upon as war booty, their bodies another battleground. Women have been the prime victims wherever Islamic fundamentalists have come to power. Afghan fundamentalists not only legally abolished women's human rights; they committed crimes against them that cannot be found in any annals of history of the land.

Women of all ages, even grandmothers of 70, have been gang-raped. Fundamentalist domination has resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of prostitutes and beggars. Women who lose their breadwinners in this male-dominated society have no other resources but to degrade themselves for the sake of feeding their children and other family members. As for fundamentalist crimes, the persistently muted human-rights records of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria speak volumes. The Taliban ultra-fundamentalists have committed such atrocities against women that even the reactionary fundamentalist regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran are feeling ashamed and are compelled to tell the Taliban that such actions and atrocities are denigrating Islam.

A call to overthrow fundamentalism

As a member of a women's social and political organization, I want to talk about our views on the political situation, rather than give further examples of the atrocities. The key question is: Why? Why all this misery? What is the solution?

The only cure for the fundamentalist scourge in countries where they are in power is their overthrow. As long as they are in power, there can be no talk of women's rights and human rights, no matter what amount of rhetoric or cosmetic action might apply. No half-measures that they might adopt can hide the fact that fundamentalists are dogged creatures. Fundamentalism is a nefarious school of thought manifested as a dangerous political system. It is the antithesis of freedom, democracy, social justice and human rights. The two are diametrically opposed; for one to live, the other should be eliminated. Ultra-fundamentalists are so radical in their anti-freedom, anti-democratic and anti-social-justice attitudes. That is why fundamentalism cannot be cured wherever it exists as a political system. It has to be overthrown, eliminated.

It is for that reason that my organization--the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--is not just a women's organization working for women's rights; we are a feminist organization fighting for the freedom of our country, for democracy and secularism. We believe that only then can we hope to attain our rights as women.

World bodies, such as the United Nations, and Western powers all go out of their way to campaign for the cause of democracy in countries where they see fit. In regard to Afghanistan, it is as if this country did not belong to the planet Earth. The thought that there, too, democracy is a vital need, a cure for the cancer of fundamentalism, is not even entertained. Afghan people instinctively crave democracy. Afghan seculars in intellectual circles work for it, but nowhere in any world forum is democracy mentioned in relation to the situation in Afghanistan.

Is this because we are unfit for democracy, or is this because the democracy we need is different from the Western concept of the word? For us Afghans, and perhaps for most underdeveloped countries, democracy does not have exactly the same meaning it may have for people in a developed country. In developed countries it means, among other things, guarantees of personal freedom, including freedom of speech and freedom of thought. But we believe that the basic freedoms that we all need and have a right to--and what we don't have--are the freedoms from hunger, fear, insecurity and ignorance. Since the fundamentalists came to power, these are the very elements we breathe day in and day out.

To think that the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan will be over when ballot boxes are put up and people can vote for representatives in parliament may be a factor for someone living in a normal society. In Afghanistan, it can only be a mockery of democracy. The warring political parties that exist are corrupt and criminalized without exception. That is why you have to take the long way in order to get democracy. You have to work at the grassroots level, fight for education, give people social and political awareness, fight to expose fundamentalism as it is. You have to try to build up a power base from scratch, knowing that you have no resources other than your dedication and sense of purpose, while your adversary is armed to the teeth and rolling in money.

At the present juncture in time, fighting fundamentalism is fighting for women's rights and human rights. While the fundamentalists hold guns at the heads of Afghan people, fair and free democratic elections are unthinkable. It is for this reason that RAWA believes that United Nations efforts to bring about peace in Afghanistan by bringing fundamentalist groups together and making them see reason are an exercise in futility. We believe that the coming together of present warring groupings in Afghanistan will be the greatest catastrophe for the agonized people of our country. Reconciliation can only spell more terror, more crime and more tyranny for the people.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

RAWA is a women's organization, but our agenda is not to fight for legalized abortion or equal pay for equal work. The harsh realities of our society bring home to us the understanding that in order to be able to fight for women's rights, we first of all have to fight for the existence and the integrity of our people whose existence and nationality are direly threatened. We have to be, first and foremost, a political/social organization with a political agenda: a women's organization raising women's voices on issues that bear on the existence, or nonexistence, of ourselves as people and as a country.

In spite of the silence and being a spectator, fortunately there are still organizations that are interested in the situation in Afghanistan, and in the situation of women's rights and human rights. Somehow or other, they show their solidarity with the people and women who have been deprived of their basic rights. The Internet, the tool that has turned the world into a global village, has helped us to spread the word to the Western world. We receive many e-mails daily, reflecting deeply the feelings and solidarity of our friends all over the world, especially in America. We are encouraged in our struggle for maintaining human rights, especially when the children and youngsters, American and non-American, express their feelings and points of view about the attitudes of their governments.

It is our wish and request that the message of Afghan women be relayed loud and clear for all--that people understand that in Afghanistan what women need is emancipation, and that the emancipation of women cannot be realized without a national emancipation. National emancipation is not possible without democracy, and as long as there is no democracy, human rights and women's rights are nothing but a hoax.


Sajeda (pseudonym)
Sajeda is an activist of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The organization is based in Pakistan.

[RAWA in Media] [Interview with New York Times Magazine]
[RAWA web site on CNN] [About RAWA in The Nation]