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Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2000

Internet Gives a Voice to Afghan Women's Cause

  Rights: Two activists tell Southland audiences of struggles under their country's harsh Taliban government.

By ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR, Times Staff Writer

Sajeda and Sehar once toiled in harsh obscurity for the rights of women in their home country of Afghanistan.

Soft-spoken, petite and incredibly young-looking, they and their fellow women's rights activists were spat on, beaten and labeled "loose women" in Pakistan by supporters of their country's Taliban government after the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, barring girls from school and women from the workplace.

Letters from abroad were encouraging, but rare.

Based in the remote Pakistani border town of Peshawar, they took their isolation for granted until their movement--the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan--created a Web site. Suddenly the world was knocking on their door.

People from around the globe got in touch, showed up to interview them, or invited them to travel abroad to speak on the plight of Afghan women. Now in Los Angeles after an East Coast swing, they're still marveling over the transformation.

Their revolution may not be televised, but it is online.

"It is because of the Internet that we are here today," said Sajeda, who like Sehar is appearing under an assumed name to avoid arrest during trips into Afghanistan. "It was really a revolution. We had no idea the Web site would have such an impact on our work."

In Southern California, where their schedule is being publicized by e-mail and listed on Web sites (such as change-links/Afghani.htm), they are in demand.

They will speak at the Midnight Special Bookstore on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade today and at All Saints Church in Pasadena on Sunday. On Thursday, they will appear at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, which is setting up an interactive exhibit on the Taliban that will open in the fall.

"Everything we've heard about the Taliban is so outrageous," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center's associate dean. "That kind of situation, in the 21st century, is deeply disturbing. We have a moral obligation to make sure this kind of situation is presented with a human face."

Sajeda and Sehar have already spoken on the radio, at cafes in Altadena and San Pedro, and to more than 100 people at a Caltech appearance.

They are telling audiences about the abrupt, almost overnight curtailment of women's civil rights in Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power.

Women--who had constituted 70% of schoolteachers, 40% of physicians, 60% of university teachers and half of government workers and students--were ordered out of their jobs and in many cases relegated, in the words of Amnesty International, to being "prisoners in their own homes."

Sajeda wants to tell people what she says she saw on a recent trip to Afghanistan: women allowed to die from easily treatable conditions--diabetes, appendicitis--because male doctors are not allowed to see female patients and female doctors are largely forbidden from practicing.

Women and Men Are Treated Harshly

She said she also saw starving war widows reduced to begging and prostitution to feed their children because of the nearly absolute ban on female employment. Families must risk their peace of mind to send little girls to clandestine schools to defy a ban on female education.

Women who defy the restrictions are subject to public lashings. Some women have even reportedly had their fingers chopped off as punishment for wearing nail polish. Suicide among women has reportedly soared.

Sajeda said many men and members of ethnic minority groups have also been harshly treated by the Taliban, a movement that espouses a mercurial and conservative interpretation of Islamic doctrine which Sajeda views as a pretext for simple fascism.

"Taliban has misused the name of culture to attack women," Sajeda said. "Our culture was never that crude. Education was valued."

To provide education for girls, she said, the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan has helped to organize home schools in Afghanistan and literacy classes for adult women. The group sends mobile teams into the country with such basic necessities as insulin, and trains women to serve as nurses in their communities, she said.

"It's all underground," Sajeda said. "It is very difficult for us to operate there."

Association supporters also smuggle out photos and human rights information for their Web site ( on such events as the stoning to death of adulterers, creating a sort of online underground stretching from the Middle East to the West Coast and beyond.

One of those who stumbled across that Web site was K.J. Vickery, who is writing her USC thesis on international women's rights.

"Having access to women's stories immediately and not having it filtered through the news media or other organizations is really helpful as a researcher," said Vickery, who was one of the hosts for Sajeda's and Sehar's visit.

Until the women's association created a Web site, it relied on a magazine sold by activists in markets and on street corners in Pakistan. That nation, home to a large Afghan exile community including many Taliban supporters, is not exactly a haven; the group's founder was assassinated there in 1987.

Unaccompanied women selling the magazine have been attacked by pro-Taliban fundamentalists in Pakistan, and activists like Sajeda and Sehar say they have taken to carrying sticks under their veils for protection. Men help by acting as chaperons.

"There are men who have tears in their eyes when they see us selling magazines," Sehar said. "They say, 'You are so brave.'

"Many men who once opposed RAWA now support us," Sehar said. "They work as guards, accompanying women to meetings or interviews, driving them around. Male relatives are very supportive, but they worry about the danger. They say, 'You're going to be killed.' "

In low-tech Afghanistan, the magazine is more practical, but the Web site is the women's association's face shown to the world. It is administered by supporters in Pakistan, many of them men.

Its graphics are not for the faint at heart.

There are photos, smuggled out of Afghanistan, of smiling Taliban militants parading amputated hands and feet through the streets of Kabul, following public punishments for robbery and other crimes.

Like all Web sites, the association's gets its fair share of negative e-mail--often in several languages. It's not the usual spam.

"They say, 'You are a prostitute's organization,' " Sajeda said. " 'You will be killed. I am your enemy. I will kill you.' "

The Afghan association is one of a growing number of women's groups worldwide that use the Internet to draw attention to their issues.

"Geographic boundaries really begin to disappear with the Internet," said Gregory Stock, director of programs for UCLA's science, technology and society program. "They can open a dialogue, at very low cost. It changes the game."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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