You! Magazine (The News International), July 5, 2005
Hope lives on...
By Erica Ahmed
Khewa refugee camp for Afghanis is located on the outskirts of Peshawar. You! highlights the progressive environment of the camp and the efforts of Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) that runs a school and hostel for the young girls of Khewa
Her eyes were sparkling as she said, "I want to develop a lot of courses to teach local girls their rights and values. I want to go back to Afghanistan and make my country a learning center for all!" The young woman was reeling with excitement, a little overwhelmed, but fully in the moment. She had just marched onstage and received her twelfth class diploma.
For the 4,000 residents of the Khewa refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Peshawar, the recently held graduation ceremony of the youth offered a moment of hope. The graduating students presented an inspiring possibility- helping to change the bleak situation faced by Afghans, especially Afghan women.
Like most of the refugee camps scattered throughout Pakistan, Khewa has been slowly, but steadily, emptying. The Pakistani government's role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan has urged many refugees back into Afghanistan. The UN, too, has made concrete efforts in this regard. A devastated economy and the ongoing violence means extreme hardship for the returnees. As the Khewa girls' school principal, Arif, stated in his graduation-day speech, "The guns have not been collected yet, the warlords have not been finished."
For the youth, especially school-going girls, life in Afghanistan is characterised by paralyzing physical danger. As a recently released report by Amnesty International explained, violence against females in the country is such that "Daily Afghan women are at risk of abduction and rape by armed individuals. The government is doing little to improve their condition." Acts of violence against women are rarely investigated or punished.
Only few schools destroyed during the Taliban-era and subsequent American invasion have been rebuilt, meaning that very few girls have educational institutions near their homes.
Rather than sacrifice the hope of obtaining an education, many girls have decided to remain alone in the refugee camps while their families travel back to Afghanistan. This sacrifice is a testament to just how grim the situation is for women inside Afghanistan. It also means that, despite the accelerating repatriation of the Afghans, there remains a strong need for educational programmes on the Pakistani side of the border.
No one knows this better than girls like Feroza, a tenth-class student, whose parents and sister have returned to Eastern Afghanistan. Her father, a physician, arranged for her to stay at Khewa and attend school. The schools in Feroza's village have been destroyed, and the area is far too volatile for her to travel to the nearest town.
"My elder sister had to stay in Afghanistan to help my mother," explained Feroza. "We are all sad that she cannot go to school... but there it is not safe. My parents are afraid she could be kidnapped if she goes out."
Feroza has hope for her sister. "When I go home, I will teach her everything I learned here. She is very interested in learning."
Khewa lays a dusty, bumpy twenty minutes off Peshawar Road, the thoroughfare that connects Lahore to Kabul. The landscape here is a bleak collection of sandy hills, brick kilns spewing noxious black smoke, and clusters of shacks and tents housing refugees.
The News International, June 9, 2005
By Erica Ahmed
America initially supported the fundamentalist movements which ultimately formed the Taliban government, unconcerned with the implications of sponsoring an oppressive regime so long as it countered the red menace of Communism. Meanwhile, Iraqi women crippled by economic sanctions held dying children in their arms. Economic stagnation profoundly impacted women's ability to care for themselves and their families.
While American feminist groups decried the Taliban's treatment of women, the government remained largely silent on the issue until the 9-11 tragedy turned the nation's eyes towards the Muslim world. Then formed the most unlikely of partnerships: left-wing feminists and the conservative, war-mongering Right.
After 9-11, the courageous women of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) suddenly became the darlings of the West. Their surreptitiously shot footage of Taliban atrocities was played on Western media channels, in support of the premise that invading Afghanistan was in the interests of Muslim women.
The U.S. media has largely ignored the true situation of women in Iraq and Afghanistan. In times of social upheaval, women's personal freedoms and physical safety are compromised. And for every man that suffers or dies in U.S. detention, there is a woman struggling to support her family alone in the midst of upheaval.
RAWA continues their work, speaking out as loudly as they can about the problems Afghan women face under the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. Their suffering continues in the face of violence and poverty. But the world ignores their cries because they no longer coincide with the American agenda.
Unlike nearby camps controlled by fundamentalists, there is no purdah in Khewa. In fact after the graduating ceremony in the camp, men and women gathered together in the main square to celebrate graduating students' hard-earned accomplishments.
In both numbers and noise, young female students seemed to rule the crowd. Most were dressed in their blue and white school uniforms, though many wore traditional Afghan clothing- red velvet dresses with green dupattas heavily trimmed in gold. They enthusiastically waved the red, green and black Afghan flag.
Plastic chairs and wooden desks, pulled out of the school's building for the occasion, accommodated the gathering throng. Most attendants were Khewa residents, but some came from neighbouring camps to enjoy the festivities.
The ceremony began with a speech by Arif, who focused on the ongoing problems faced by Afghans on both sides of the border. "We thought that after the Taliban our situation would get better," he explained in Persian, "But in some ways, it is worse because the warlords have been legitimised... still we do not have democracy in Afghanistan."
The focus then shifted to the hope education provides. As one graduating student phrased it, "We are the future of our devastated country." A group of primary school girls echoed this sentiment in a song: "We are the birds of light, we are the followers of education," they sang. The crackly, static quality of the background music only highlighted the clear confidence of their young voices.
As the awarding of certificates began, a dusty wind whipped through the camp. Dust storms are a frequent occurrence in this area, and the women nonchalantly covered their mouths with the ends of their dupattas and went on with the function. But when the brightly-striped awning covering the stage was half-lifted from its metal stakes; people began running for cover. They waited out the blinding storm over endless cups of green tea and playing cards.
The awarding of diplomas was delayed until evening, followed by a musical programme organised in honour of the graduates. The entertainment culminated with a rousing atan, the Afghan national dance. Nine men jumped, twirled and shook in an exuberant, exhausting-looking circle to the cheers and hoots of the crowd.
About 70 girls attending school at Khewa are like Feroza, living separately from their families in pursuit of the education and safety their homeland is yet unable to provide. Both the school and its nearby hostel are run by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a grassroots organisation with programmes throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Western media portrays the situation in Afghanistan as improved, and global attention has shifted to the crisis in Iraq. This has meant a sharp decrease in the funds available for educating Afghan refugees, and RAWA has been forced to make tough decisions.
"We have had to turn away many girls who want to stay on and study," said one RAWA organiser. "It is hard to know who to say no to. We try to keep the girls who show the most potential but are least likely to have any chance of education at home."
While Kabul has stabilised, the rural areas remain volatile. Northern Afghanistan is especially unsafe.
Meena, a small-statured girl with fiery dark eyes, said: "I studied just because of RAWA. In Afghanistan, I could not even leave my home." Despite the lifting of Taliban-era restrictions, in Meena's home village it is still unsafe for women to be seen outside their homes unless fully covered by a burqa.
In Khewa, girls and women enjoy an active educational, physical and social life. They dress as they choose - most girls covering their heads with dupattas. They go about freely and attend public functions, such as the weekly forums sponsored by RAWA. These forums have helped in raising awareness about social and political issues.
The school's sports programme has contributed greatly to the health and confidence of all the girls here. "I feel good when I play," says 14-year-old Freba, "I feel healthy and strong." On a walled-off playing field, girls are taught football, cricket and karate.
Khewa's current atmosphere results from years of tireless work by RAWA members and supporters. In the early days of the camp, one longtime resident recalled, "People were reluctant to even send their daughters to school." Local women painstakingly convinced people to educate their daughters, often going door to door to persuade reluctant parents.
An improved security situation also helped. In the 1990s, attacks by fundamentalists from across the border made people afraid to venture more than a few steps outside their home. "It would be unheard for girls to walk outside at night," one camp resident explained "and no girl would dare go out without a scarf."
RAWA's efforts are apparent in girls like Feroza, Meena and Freba. "My school taught me to speak freely," said Feroza, "I can face people, anywhere." Feroza shared that she hopes to use this skill to work as a lawyer and "fight against the cruel people, people like the Taliban, people who hurt women." Meena said that she wants to work as a journalist, telling the story of the Afghan people. Freba said that she wishes to be an engineer, "I love science, and I want to help rebuild my country."
When I asked the girls what they liked least about living in Khewa, their answer was unanimous: "The dust!" A dusty place to begin with, air quality around the camp has worsened considerably thanks to the recent proliferation of brick kilns.
Dust pervades the atmosphere and dulls the senses as surely as the religious extremism, which has so devastated Afghanistan. But, while they may not be able to do much about the dust, the girls of Khewa, smiling proudly on their graduation day, have risen like phoenixes above the oppressive forces of fundamentalism.