Post-Gazette, Wednesday, December 05, 2001
Afghan native coming to town to promote women's rights
By Sally Kalson
Tahmeena Faryal seems a bit surprised to find herself among the hotter tickets in town, given that just a few months ago her organization was relatively unknown outside activist circles. Mavis Leno and Eleanor Smeal were big supporters, but the nightly news was not exactly knocking down the doors.
As it did with so many other things, Sept. 11 changed that. Now Faryal -- a pseudonym she uses as a safety precaution -- is a big draw on college campuses across the United States, where eager crowds gather to hear what a women's rights activist from Afghanistan has to say.
Faryal is an emissary from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. The group's members have been working for two war-torn decades on behalf of human rights inside Afghanistan and in refugee camps.
Opponents say RAWA has a hidden leftist agenda, but members point to their record: distributing food and medical supplies; running forbidden schools for girls; secretly videotaping public executions and smuggling the footage out of the country; and protesting inhumane conditions and generally being an equal-opportunity denouncer of all the forces they see as responsible for the chaos in their native land.
"They can say what they want, but the people of Afghanistan know us," Faryal said in an interview. "We have been with them all along."
Faryal has been traveling around the United States for the past two months raising awareness, support and money for her cause, speaking to the public and meeting privately with government officials, nonprofit groups and U.N. committees.
Next stop: Chatham College, where she appears tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in the Campbell Memorial Chapel, sponsored by Chatham and the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh. The lecture is free and open to the public; no photos will be permitted.
In her mid-20s, Faryal is the daughter of teachers who fled Kabul with their children after the Soviet invasion. She grew up in Pakistan, attending schools run by RAWA, and remains based there to this day. She did smuggle herself into Afghanistan a few years ago to see firsthand what she'd been hearing about, but for the most part she has done her work as an expatriate, hoping for the day that it's safe to return.
"I belong to a generation born into war, migration, disaster and invasion," she said. "I don't really have any good memories of Afghanistan. My family was one of millions who opposed the Soviet puppet regime and invasion. Even as children we had to be careful what we said."
Her visit here comes at a critical time for Afghanistan. War still rages in Taliban strongholds, but talks on the country's future are under way in Bonn, and an international summit to push for women's full participation in any new government is taking place in Brussels. So the time is right, she says, for her twofold message.
One, any new Afghan government must include women as full partners or it will never be legitimate. Unfortunately, she noted, only a few women are seated at the table in Bonn. This, she said, proves that the international community must keep up the pressure to restore women's place in Afghan society.
"We were not invited as RAWA to attend, and our question is: 'Why not?' We have struggled for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than 20 years, risking our lives, so we can claim to be a real representative of the women of Afghanistan," she said.
Her second point is that the Northern Alliance, having been a big part of Afghanistan's problems, cannot claim to be a big part of the solution until its members are disarmed and the criminals among them are brought to justice in an international court. Otherwise, she warns, the country will revert to lawlessness.
"We believe their main commanders and leaders have their hands in the blood of the people," she said. "They are responsible for so many atrocities and crimes from 1992 to 1996, they must be brought to justice. Only then can they have a right to take part in the future government -- and we don't think in a democracy they would be elected."
RAWA wants a secular democracy for Afghanistan, she said, because fundamentalism brings instability and oppression. But is such a thing possible?
"There is always hope," she said.
Sally Kalson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.