Calendar Live (Los Angeles Times), December 19, 2001
Your Checks Are In Their Mail
When people from around the world send money to an Afghan Women's fund, the cash first makes its way through a Pasadena coffeehouse.
By Jeremy Rosenberg
Special to Calendar Live
For many Afghan women, their struggle against the Taliban has been paid for out of a coffeehouse in Old Town Pasadena.
Step upstairs at the Zona Rosa Cafe, and you'll enter the de facto office of the Afghan Women's Mission. The AWM is the money-managing intermediary of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the much-in-the-news underground human rights group now based in Pakistan.
Visitors to RAWA's web site wishing to make a donation are instructed to send money to the AWM's post office box on South Lake Avenue. The local group collects, collates and forwards the dollars to Central Asia, along with other relevant bits of correspondence.
Six volunteers grab laps full of envelopes. They reach across the table like casino dealers; arms dive under other arms as in a game of Twister. They place checks in seven piles, each with a handwritten label made from scraps of loose-leaf paper. The "General" pile grows the tallest. Others include "Publications," "Education" and "Malalai Hospital." The hospital is a shuttered RAWA health-care facility in Quetta, Pakistan. The AWM has collected $60,000 in order to re-open the institution.
The check sorting takes 90 minutes. The stacks grow with each tearing or cutting of an envelope--$500 from a doctor and his wife in Wisconsin, $697 raised by a woman who walked from New Hampshire to New York, $102 from a bake sale held by a school's "femme club" and "diversity club," $500 from a prominent actress, $9 for RAWA pamphlets, $5 in royalties for republishing a photograph.
And to the delight of the volunteers, there's this note, enclosed along with a glamorous photograph on an invitation and three checks that total $1,950:
"To RAWA: On Nov. 8, my NYC nightclub event, Click & Drag, had a benefit for RAWA called 'Freaks for Freedom...'"
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"A lot of people mistake me for being Afghan," confides Sonali Kolhatkar, the 26-year-old vice president and public voice of AWM. "I'm a brown woman talking about Afghan women's issues, so I must be Afghan. I don't know if it's worked to my favor or not; I would rather it had nothing to do with it."
It's Sunday evening, and Kolhatkar sits upstairs at the coffeehouse, where she will meet with potential volunteers. This is her fifth AWM-related event during the past 36 hours.
"We really believe in [RAWA's] vision," Kolhatkar says. "And that's why they are so deserving of the work that we do. It's really a labor of love. They don't pay us, we don't draw salaries from it. All of us who work on this issue are inspired by what RAWA does, are moved by their courage, and really get a sense of, if they can risk their lives, we can, you know, work weekends."
Kolhatkar takes off her glasses, places them on the tabletop. She wears a stud on her right nostril and a colorful chunky necklace. Her dark hair is set in a bun. Her ski jacket and shirt are black, her pants gray. Though she was born and raised in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where her parents worked in professional capacities, she travels on an Indian passport. Ten years ago, she came to America to attend college and graduate school.
Kolhatkar is no stranger to social and political causes. She was a webmaster during protests against the Democratic Convention two summers ago in Los Angeles. She first heard of RAWA via an e-mail petition describing the plight of woman in Afghanistan. After some further research, she came away shocked.
"I felt like this had to be the worst example of what women are going through today, and an issue that is not being talked about enough," Kolhatkar says.
A few months later, she received an e-mail announcing that two RAWA members were coming into the country, and asking if she would be interested in helping organize their visit. The note was from Steve Penners, a man she didn't know. He had found her name on a list. It turned out he lived down the street. They met, and collaborated on the hosting. Within six months of its founding, the president of the AWM had a vice president and inspired advocate.
"[I] got to meet these two RAWA members; they spent some time in my home; I really was touched by who they were, what they had to say," Kolhatkar says. "I mean these were women who were my age, innocent and wise at the same time, really ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. And with bravery that I'd never seen before. These were the same women who were on the front line of what was going on in Afghanistan."
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RAWA itself was founded in Kabul in 1977, when Kolhatkar was a 1-year-old. She says the group has about 2,000 members, including a core group who have been active for years. Many are living in exile in Pakistan. RAWA's founder was assassinated in 1987.
"A RAWA member's life is dedicated to RAWA. . . their whole life is dedicated to that struggle. And it's not a normal life," Kolhatkar says. "They are an underground organization; they cannot show their face in public. . . they have to work incognito. And they have to move their base of headquarters from house to house to house, every few months."
Kolhatkar says the situation for Afghan women has gotten worse in the past two months.
"I say that with confidence," she states. "The situation has gotten worse because although some Afghan women can walk around without wearing the burkah now, they are still starving. The aid is not reaching them, and these men with guns are still ruling Afghanistan."
Kolhatkar says mainstream media has underestimated RAWA.
"They don't expect them to have a political analysis," she says. "They don't expect them to talk about human rights issues in the larger picture. Larry King recently interviewed a RAWA member. It was disgusting. The only questions he asked were things like, 'Do girls commit a lot of suicide in Afghanistan? What was it like growing up as a girl for you?'
"And then his last question to Tahmeena Faryal, the RAWA member--her back was facing the camera for security reasons--he ended the program saying, 'I wish you could see her, she's so pretty.' Can you believe that? I was so horrified. And I said, 'That's the only way in which he can define a revolutionary woman? By how pretty she is?'"
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The Afghan Women's Mission operates a comprehensive web site.
Jeremy Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com