Los Angeles Times, Nov.12, 2001
Afghan Activist Speaks Out on Plight of Women
Human rights: Group hopes to raise money and awareness on a four-day Southland tour, which includes event with star hosts.
By ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Her real name is a secret. She belongs to an underground women's alliance that runs clandestine schools and clinics in Afghanistan and has even smuggled out footage of a woman's execution.
Using the nom de resistance Tahmeena Faryal, she has come to the United States to rally support for the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan--and to urge U.S. policymakers to include Afghan women in any initiatives affecting the country's future.
On Monday, Faryal will begin a four-day Southern California speaking tour in Los Angeles, where an anonymous donor just contributed $100,000 to the Afghan women's cause. Faryal said she has already met with officials of the United Nations in New York and the State Department in Washington.
"Not just the U.S., but the United Nations and the international community should make sure that women are part of any future government of Afghanistan," Faryal said. "Our society cannot function without women's participation."
A State Department official acknowledged the meeting with the revolutionary association.
"We're in touch with RAWA and other Afghan women's groups," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We think women have an important role in the future of Afghanistan. We're pushing for greater involvement of women in the political and reconstruction process."
However, "what happens in Afghanistan is something that is going to be dictated by Afghans," he said. "There's going to have to be a real effort by Afghan women, in conjunction with our endeavors on their behalf."
The revolutionary association has been working for better conditions for women in their society for nearly 25 years. But the group's profile has risen sharply with the greater attention focused on women's issues recently in Afghanistan.
Since 1996, the country has been ruled by the Taliban, a military ally of terrorist Osama bin Laden whose members have all but eliminated women's rights.
Just a decade ago, women constituted 70% of schoolteachers in Afghanistan, 60% of university instructors and nearly half of all doctors, government workers and students. Women in Afghan cities wore Western clothes.
Today, not even girls can attend school. Women can leave the house only in the company of a male relative and must wear the head-to-toe burka.
Group Runs Schools, Hospitals for Refugees
The revolutionary association, which claims a network of 2,000 members in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tries to provide schooling and health care for girls and women living under Taliban rule. It operates hospitals, schools and orphanages in camps in Pakistan, where an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees live.
Members risk their lives to smuggle out documentation of human rights abuses in Afghanistan, posting it on the group's Web site, http://www.rawa.org. It was RAWA that supplied the hidden-camera footage, used in the documentary "Beneath the Veil," of a woman being shot to death before a crowd at a public sports stadium.
Such risks did not begin with the Taliban: RAWA's founder, known by the single name Meena, opposed the Soviet occupation and was viewed as an enemy by both the Communists and the fundamentalist moujahedeen. She was assassinated in a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1987.
Faryal joined the organization five years ago. She is based in Pakistan, but she has traveled to Afghanistan and witnessed life under Taliban rule.
"The women told me that animals had more rights than women in Afghanistan," she said. "They said that Afghanistan was like a prison for women.
"It is tragic that the issue of women in Afghanistan has only gotten attention after the loss of so many innocent lives on Sept. 11," she said. "For years, it has been the largest forgotten tragedy in the world."
Faryal said she reminded U.S. officials of past abuses committed by Northern Alliance forces, which control part of the country.
"There were many cases of rape" at the hands of Northern Alliance troops, as well as "forced marriages, women's abduction and women who committed suicide because they did not want to be married to different men," she said.
"I told [U.S. officials] the same mistakes should not be repeated," she said.
The State Department official said U.S. human rights reports have listed abuses by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
"I think we're well aware of and concerned about the issues women have faced throughout Afghanistan," he said, adding: "It's not an easy place for women."
U.S. Needed Taliban Cooperation
Richard Hrair Dekmejian, a USC professor of Middle Eastern politics, said the Clinton administration was slow to give much more than lip service to protests against the Taliban's abuses of women.
He attributed that, in part, to the U.S. need for Taliban cooperation on a proposed oil pipeline that was to run through Afghanistan--bypassing Iran--on its way from Turkmenistan to the Arabian Sea.
After the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, "the Clinton administration turned against the Taliban and showed more sympathy with the women and their brutal treatment," he said.
Dekmejian said it would be difficult "to get these brutal men--who since the beginning of time have had a certain perception of women and where they belong in their vision of Islamic society--to change their ways."
But Faryal said the idea that abuses against women are intrinsic to Afghan culture is a myth that she will try to dispel.
"These abuses against women don't have anything to do with our culture or religion or tradition," she said. "We have had the same culture and religion and tradition for centuries, but this is the first time that people in Afghanistan--and women in particular--have endured these terrible experiences in the name of the culture of Afghanistan."
Faryal will have a broad audience for her views.
She will speak at 11 a.m. today at UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom and at 6:30 p.m. at USC's Taper Hall of Humanities. Other appearances are scheduled this week at Pitzer College in Claremont, Cal State San Bernardino and First Congregational Church in Pasadena.
Faryal will also speak at an RSVP-only fund-raising event Wednesday night at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica.
Activist Tom Hayden will introduce her, and there will be performances by punk music pioneer Exene Cervenka and John Densmore, the former drummer for the Doors. Among those listed on the event committee are entertainers Benicio del Toro and Bonnie Raitt.
The suggested donations, which run from $100 to $2,500, will help fund the reopening of the Malalai Hospital, which is run by the revolutionary association in Quetta, Pakistan.
Pilar Perez, executive director of the gallery, said she expected the event to raise about $50,000.
The $100,000 from an anonymous donor was received by the Afghan Women's Mission, a Pasadena group working to fund the association's health and education projects, according to its vice president, Sonali Kolhatkar.
She said group members discovered the check in the mail Wednesday. "It was absolutely amazing," she said, adding: "Here comes Malalai Hospital."
More information on speaking events is available at http://www.afghanwomensmission.org.