The Japan Times, December 18, 2001
Sowing the seeds of revolution
By STEPHANIE COOP
Does the end of Taliban rule mean that the people of Afghanistan can now look forward to a new era of peace and freedom? Not according to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who believe that unless all fundamentalist groups in the country are disarmed, a repeat of the brutality and chaos of the pre-Taliban period is sure to follow. The Japan Times spoke with RAWA member Mariam Rawi about RAWA's activities and the crisis in Afghanistan during her visit to Tokyo earlier this month to accept the 2001 Asian Human Rights Award on behalf of the group.
What is your background? How did you become involved with RAWA?
Like other members of the group, RAWA spokeswoman Mariam Rawi uses a pseudonym and conceals her face when photographed because of continuing threats from fundamentalists.
I was born in 1974 in Kabul. My father, a freedom fighter against the Russians, was killed when I was 9 years old. Many of my uncles and cousins were also arrested or killed by the puppet regime. I do not have any brothers, so after my father died my mother, my other four sisters and my grandmother were all alone. Like many other families, we left Afghanistan and went to Pakistan, to a refugee camp in Quetta, a city near the Afghan border. I lived in the camp without access to education for two years, but then I was able to join a school run by RAWA. After I graduated I continued working with RAWA.
What was it like studying in the RAWA school?
I was very happy there. My teachers were very hardworking and kind, and tried to provide us with as many opportunities as they could. As well as studying regular subjects, we also had classes in political awareness and time for playing sports, watching good movies and other entertainment.
I met RAWA's founder, Meena, at the school many times. She made a deep impression on me; she was very friendly and close to everyone, including us children. I was too young to understand the political aspect of things, but I could see that she was a leader and that she had sacrificed everything to spend all her time working with RAWA.
I notice you don't wear a headscarf; are you a Muslim? What about the other women in RAWA?
I'm a Muslim, yes, and so are the other women. But religion for us is a personal matter. RAWA has a close relationship with many different organizations and individual supporters around the world, with people from many nationalities and religions. They help us in different ways and of course we respect their religions. Ninety-nine percent of the Afghan population is Muslim, and we ourselves are all Muslim and respect the religion of our people.
Is there any particular reason you use the word "revolutionary" in your name?
(Laughs) "Revolutionary" is a word that scares everyone. But we believe that as an independent political and social organization of women, as the only group of women fighting against fundamentalism in a backward, male-dominated society, we are doing revolutionary work. But the weapon we use is education, not violence; that's how we can change the mentality of our men, women and the next generation.
RAWA has always condemned all fundamentalist groups and refused to compromise with them; are you ever criticized for being too extreme?
Yes, of course, but we are the voice of our people, especially the voice of our women. What they feel and what they say is much stronger than what RAWA says. If you go and interview an ordinary woman, whose son was killed by one of the factions, whose husband was killed, whose daughter was raped, who has lost everything, and then was not allowed to have a job, and had to become a prostitute or start begging in the street to survive, what she feels and says doesn't even compare to our position.
Does your strong antifundamentalist stance make it dangerous for you to work in Pakistan?
Yes, we have a lot of security problems there. The Pakistani government recognized the Taliban and supports fundamentalist groups. We have received death threats and been attacked, beaten and arrested when we try to hold peaceful demonstrations. Even when we sell our publications, the Pakistani police usually disturb us, and they always try to follow us so they can find out our address and contacts. That's the reason we cannot have an open, official RAWA office.
How has RAWA's work been affected since the U.S. military campaign began?
We have had to stop our work temporarily in some areas inside Afghanistan because of deteriorating security and danger from U.S. attacks. We also had problems because of increased pressure from the Taliban side before they fell; in Kabul, for example, they were constantly searching houses before they withdrew from the city so it was too dangerous for us to continue our activities.
In the meantime, our work on the other side of the border has become much more difficult. We've been very busy giving interviews and taking journalists to our projects and the refugee camps. Besides this, we have been providing shelter, food, blankets and medicine for newly arrived refugees and helping them cross the border, which is not easy. Before coming here I spent a week in the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar to help distribute supplies from RAWA.
What was the situation like in that camp?
About 100,000 refugees have arrived at Jalozai and Akora Khatak -- another camp near Peshawar -- since September, which is a lot more than normal. It's very cold in the camps because the only shelter is plastic tents, and there's no water or electricity. People have to cross the mountains on foot to get there, and by the time they arrive they are usually sick because of the cold and because of walking for such a long time. Many women have miscarriages during the journey, and many children die.
Have the refugees in these camps left Afghanistan because of the U.S. bombing?
Yes, many have fled the bombing, of course, but there were also many from Kabul, who fled because they're afraid of the Northern Alliance.
The media has portrayed the Northern Alliance as the liberators of Afghanistan; is that how ordinary Afghan people see the situation?
I think the world media, especially the Western media, have always played a very negative role toward Afghanistan. For quite a long time Afghanistan was forgotten absolutely. Then after Sept. 11, the media focused on Afghanistan, but in a very negative way, because they talked as if the Taliban was the only problem and completely forgot the four years between 1992 and 1996, when the Northern Alliance, under the name of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, controlled Kabul.
Those four years were one of the darkest periods in our history. Different commanders controlled different parts of the country, and they used their rockets and their bombs against each other and against our own people. Just for revenge, when an opposition group captured a new area, they would rape women, kill men, women and children, loot houses and execute people. Many young girls committed suicide because they were afraid of being raped, or were killed after they were raped, and many women were kidnapped. There was no security.
More than 50,000 people were killed in Kabul during those four years, and it's absolutely forgotten by the world. It's interesting that the media talked about the Taliban destroying the Buddha statues, but they don't talk about the fact that it was first of all the Northern Alliance groups who completely destroyed and looted Kabul Museum. People, especially women, will not forget and forgive the crimes and atrocities the fundamentalists committed in those four years.
We should remember that in 1996 the Taliban were welcomed by our own people, because they suffered for more than four years from the atrocities of the Northern Alliance groups and they thought the Taliban would bring peace and security. Of course, we soon learned that they were no different from their Northern Alliance brothers.
Now it's all happening again as the Northern Alliance increase their power. There's absolutely no sign of security and peace. So how can we say that the Taliban and the Northern Alliance are different? RAWA still has to operate in secret inside Afghanistan because the basic conditions are the same; the fundamentalists are still in power and they are aware of our contribution to exposing their crimes.
How have ordinary people reacted to the U.S. military campaign?
This is a very difficult point for our people, because on the one hand they suffered terribly from the Taliban and were happy to see the end of their government, but on the other hand they have also suffered from the U.S. attack, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. You can see that people didn't react to the attack as if it was aggression, like they did to the Russian invasion. The Taliban announced everywhere that it was a jihad against foreign aggression and people must do the same as they did with Russia, but everyone just laughed. To them it was stupid to fight against America because it was clear that the U.S. wanted to finish off the Taliban government.
But we also know that the situation was the result of the very inhumane and unjust policies of foreign countries such as the U.S. and other Western countries, along with Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia, which over the years gave a lot of support and help to fundamentalist groups. These fundamentalist groups became powerful, took over Afghanistan, and of course they got out of control. Perhaps the U.S. government never thought that there would be danger from its own creation; maybe it thought that the atrocities would take place only in Afghanistan, that only the women of Afghanistan would suffer, and that only things in Afghanistan would be destroyed.
But as we have seen, they were able to destroy the World Trade Center in New York, too. The U.S. government seems to have forgotten absolutely that it was the Northern Alliance groups -- the Islamic State of Afghanistan before the Taliban -- that welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan and issued him an Afghan passport. We believe that if the Northern Alliance is given any kind of support or any kind of chance, there will be another bin Laden and another al-Qaeda network in the future.
Do you see a brighter future for women in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has been removed from power?
It's clear that the problem women in Afghanistan face is fundamentalism itself -- not just whether or not we have to wear a burqa or whether we are allowed to go to the cinema. And the Northern Alliance are fundamentalists.
The difference between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in regards to women's rights is that the Northern Alliance carried out their crimes and brutalities against women without announcing them, but the Taliban made them official rules. For example, when the Northern Alliance, who were the first to call schools for girls "gateways to hell," were in power, many women were afraid to go to work or to school because they were afraid of being kidnapped or raped. But when the Taliban came, they said officially and clearly that women were not allowed to go outside the house or to have jobs or get an education.
Now it is the fashion for everyone to talk about women's rights, and that's why even the leaders of the Northern Alliance are talking about democracy and women's rights, but we do not believe that they have changed their attitude.
Was RAWA invited to take part in the recent Bonn talks?
Yes, one of our members was invited to be a part of the king's delegation. But she wasn't allowed to register officially under the name of RAWA because of pressure from the fundamentalists in the other three delegations, and even from some people in the king's delegation. We've always made it clear that around the king there are many people who are in a kind of compromise with the fundamentalist groups, who are afraid of them, and are afraid of slogans like democracy and secularism in Afghanistan.
Do you think the inclusion of women in the talks and the selection of two women to be in the interim government will help improve the situation for women in Afghanistan?
Women taking part in government, anywhere in the world, is a positive change, of course, and can be the start of more positive change in the future. But we believe that the only measure of judging whether someone qualifies as a true representative of women is whether they are clearly and strongly against fundamentalism, because that is the most dangerous enemy of our women. And unfortunately many of the women who took part in the talks either compromise with the fundamentalists, or are directly related to them, like Amena Afzali, who was in the Northern Alliance's delegation.
Sima Samar, the new Women's Affairs minister, is a member of the Central Committee of the Hezb-e-Wahdat, the United Party, which is a Hazara fundamentalist group, one of the most brutal and hated, that is supported by the Iranian government and is based in central Afghanistan. So how can she be truly representative of all women when she has such a position in that party? To be a representative of women, it's not enough to just be a woman. Of course, she is female, but she is not antifundamentalist, and to be truly representative of women you must be against fundamentalism, which unfortunately she is not.
The coverage of her in the media has been very positive, saying she runs a health center in Pakistan where she is regarded as a local heroine among the people she works with; there hasn't been any mention of her fundamentalist connections.
Well, we have many documents about her trips on behalf of this party, and copies of at least two interviews where she is introduced as a member of the Central Committee of the UP. We also have film footage of her sitting in discussion with the UP leaders. She is well known in Europe and America and gets a lot of support, a lot of funds from different NGOs (nongovernment organizations), but people are not aware that she has connections with fundamentalist groups.
Of course, if someone runs a hospital, whether fundamentalist or nonfundamentalist, people will want go there for health care. And because she is a Hazara, working basically with the Hazar people, they will trust her more easily. But the important point is her political standpoint, and politically she stands on the side of the fundamentalists.
What would RAWA like the international community to do politically in regards to Afghanistan? Do you think the interim government will be able to bring peace to the country?
We've always said that the United Nations, the U.S. government and other Western countries must stop supporting fundamentalist groups and pressure countries like Pakistan to stop supporting fundamentalist groups, but unfortunately they have never listened. It's not a new alternative. Even when Meena was in Europe in 1981, she said that fundamentalism could be more dangerous than the Russians, and today we see the proof of what she said.
Peacekeeping troops must be sent to Afghanistan immediately; otherwise it will end up just like before, and the talks will have been a waste of time. The fundamentalist groups must be disarmed, and their leaders recognized as war criminals and brought before an international court. The whole world is demanding the arrest of bin Laden and Taliban members because they are responsible for the horrible terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the blood of (more than 3,000) Americans, but the Northern Alliance leaders are responsible for the blood of at least 50,000 Afghans, and I think these victims deserve justice too.
The international community shouldn't be trying to get the fundamentalist leaders to cooperate with each other. They committed horrible atrocities even when they were weak and divided; if they become stronger and more united, what will they do then? Any attempt to unite these enemies and make them the only alternative is absolutely not a good solution; it is the same thing, indirectly if not directly, as being against our people.
The Northern Alliance is the biggest military force at the moment, and they hold key positions in the interim government: the Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry. That's why we say that our only hope is the role of the United Nations and what they do. If they leave Afghanistan in this situation and just say OK, here's your new government, we are absolutely sure that there will be war and fighting again and a continuation of the same situation as in the past.
Do you have any message for readers in Japan?
We are very happy to have received the 2001 Asian Human Rights Award, but the most precious award for us will be if the Japanese people refuse to support fundamentalism in Afghanistan. We believe that the struggle we are engaged in is in fact a struggle of all freedom-loving and democracy-loving women and men around the world, and we will not be successful without your help.
RAWA was founded in 1977 to fight for women's rights, secularism and democracy in Afghanistan. It played an active role in the resistance against the occupation by Soviet forces in the 1980s, organizing demonstrations and meetings at schools and universities in Kabul to mobilize public opinion. It also established schools and health services to assist the flood of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
In 1981 it began publishing Payam-e-Zan (Women's Voice), a magazine advocating women's rights and exposing human rights violations by Afghan fundamentalist groups. The success of its activities attracted the enmity of authorities and religious fundamentalists alike. RAWA founder Meena was assassinated in Pakistan by KGB agents in 1987.
Since the fall of the Russian puppet government, RAWA has focused on fighting fundamentalism, which it believes is the greatest enemy of Afghan women. It has documented abuses by the Northern Alliance government of 1992-96 and by the recently ousted Taliban regime. RAWA runs secret schools, literacy programs and mobile health services in Afghanistan to help women gain awareness of their rights and provides desperately needed medical care.
Despite severe financial limitations the group has managed to keep its social programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan running, although it must work secretly in Afghanistan because of ongoing security problems.
For more information on RAWA, see the Web site at www.rawa.org. To make a donation to RAWA, readers in Japan can contact The Foundation for Human Rights in Asia, Japan at tel (03) 5570-5503, fax (03) 5570-5504 or firstname.lastname@example.org