Guerrilla News Network, August 25, 2003
Guerrilla of the Week
By Anna Lappé
I first heard about the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) when a friend of mine from graduate school organized a fundraiser for the organization. It was 2000. That night, a RAWA representative spoke passionately, describing the suffering of her sisters and their strength of resistance. Her story had a powerful effect on us, but it felt far, far away. A year and a half later, RAWA would make national news when Bush justified the invasion of Afghanistan, and the removal of the Taliban, in part, on the "liberation" of the oppressed women of Afghanistan.
A new book by author and private investigator Melody Ermachild Chavis, "Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan the Martyr Who Founded RAWA" takes us into the heart of the life of RAWA's charismatic founder. Threatened with death for their "radical" activities - teaching women to sew, opening free hospitals, advocating for a secular, democratic government - RAWA operated underground.
In 1987, Meena paid the ultimate price - she was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists and agents of the KHAD (the Afghan branch of the KGB). She instantly became a martyr.
Fifteen years later, despite the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghan women still fear for their lives and RAWA still operates in the shadows. "They're are still very secret about their programs," Chavis explains. "They still not very public about what they do, because it's still so dangerous for them to be working on these issues."
In the book's introduction, author Alice Walker writes that Meena's life holds lessons for us all: "Perhaps this is her final message to us as we face danger and uncertainty in the world: Dare to show up. Dare to be present in your time. Above all, dare to offer the word of praise and delight that encourages the heart."
As Chavis and I talked by phone from her California home, I remembered Meena's own words in a poem quoted in the book:
I'm the woman who has awakened
I've risen and become a tempest through the
ashes of my burnt children
I've risen from the rivulets of my brother's blood
My nation's wrath has empowered me
I'm the woman who has awakened,
I've found my path and will never turn back.
* * * * *
Anna Lappé: How did you choose to write this book?
Melody Ermachild Chavis: I knew Afghan women were in a terrible state. I remember getting an email describing the situation from dozens of different friends. You were supposed to email the Taliban a petition, or something. Of course, it didn't go anywhere. Women in Afghanistan were on my long list of terrible causes you don't know where to start with and don't know what to do.
After September 11th, their lives suddenly seemed so entwined with ours. They had been opposing the Taliban and Al Qaeda for years, and it was in their country that this terrorism had festered.
In my work as an investigator, I work for clients who are threatened with death row. My role is to try to get them off death row, or to keep them from going there. Almost all of my clients come from poverty situations filled with violence. I have worked with killers for 25 years so my mind automatically goes to the other side of the curtain. I identified with the conditions that would lead to those young men killing themselves and other people. Not to give excuses for it, but simply to know there are causes and conditions.
After September 11th, I remember seeing a young woman from RAWA who was touring the United States. She appeared on Larry King Live with her face shielded. I went to their website and saw Meena's picture. I was immediately enthralled by her story.
At the time, my literary agent and I were emailing everyday. She was lives in Brooklyn and was writing me about how September 11 had affected her, about her neighbor whose husband was killed, about the firehouse where every single fire fighter died. I told her about the women of RAWA and about Meena. I wanted to read a book about her, but there was nothing. My agent wrote back a one line email: "Well, you could write it."
In some ways this book isn't much different from the work I do all the time. I write short books, very fast, to deadline, about my clients. I go to places and meet people from all different cultures, someone from India, somebody from South Central LA. I've worked with all the gangs, the Crips, the Bloods, even the Aryan Brotherhood, finding everyone my clients ever knew. I know how to go to places that other people think are really scary, high-rises in Baltimore, housing projects in Chicago. To write "Meena," I did the same thing. We arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan and from there we were constantly with women from RAWA, as we traveled from Pakistan to Afghanistan to the refugee camps.
Lappé: What makes RAWA's work so critical? And what did you learn about fear from the women of RAWA who, in the joining the movement, risk their lives?
Chavis: I realized that just by taking the step to join RAWA and work for women's liberation, you have already won. The minute you stand up and say I am going to do something, even a small thing, you win-right in that moment. You become a human being, you have a self. You have a purpose; you have a reason to live. To become human beings is what they're struggling for and so simply by being a part of RAWA itself, that is in and of itself revolutionary.
I saw how hard they worked and how much they relied on each other. They had so much self respect and dignity. It made me think about all of our potential: How brave can we be?
Coming home, I see tremendous fear in this country, fear of speaking up, fear of standing up for what we believe in. Even the congressmen and senators are afraid. They don't have any guts at all. We have a lot to learn from these women: Go ahead. Be brave.
I hope in some way, too, my book shows that these aren't people to the pitied. That's often the way we see the rest of the world from inside the "empire:" That there are all these really poor people far away, we should mail our food over there. We can see, instead, that we have much to learn from people around the world, much to emulate. There is another superpower: the people of the world. We saw it in the anti-war movement; there really is another power, and it is us. Together we can resist the destruction of the earth and millions are already doing it.
Lappé: What changed in your thinking about the United States and our foreign policy in doing this research?
Chavis: Meena would ask: In an era when so many governments - the Saudis, the United States - were putting money behind fundamentalists to fight the Soviets, why did they pick them, why didn't they help us? In fact, they overlooked women, they overlooked all democratic forces. They were just looking for war fighters; men who are ruthless, men who will fight.
How would we feel if a foreign power came here and gave millions of dollars and arms to the Right-wing militia forces- say, Timothy McVeigh or David Duke - so that the people on the fringe became a government and were paid effectively to take over? In Afghanistan these fundamentalists killed doctors, lawyers, professors and we stood by while all the democratic forces were killed.
Lappé: You quote RAWA women reading Russian novelist Maxim Gorky who wrote, "Only mothers can think of the future, because they give birth to it in their children." Can you talk about the role of women in waging peace?
Chavis: We know now that women are the ones who are essential to support. This isn't just a touchy-feely idea; the research has been done. If you educate women, even just a little bit, and the infant mortality rate goes down, particularly with access to clean water, women will have less children and that benefits the whole family, the whole community, the planet. Focusing on the mother works for development. We know children's programs like Head Start work. We need to keep saying this. We are the biggest superpower, we need to be asking ourselves where are we putting our money? The answer should be nutrition, clean water, access to sources of income, for people everywhere.
Lappé: What do you think was one of the most important roles that RAWA played?
Chavis: For RAWA to say that they want a secular democracy-that is one of the most revolutionary parts of what they're doing. I, myself, had never thought too much about the importance of a secular government until being with the RAWA women. And now I see how our own president blurs the lines between church and state. If you listen to President Bush, you'll hear the code words of evangelicals. He'll say: "I've heard the call" or "I feel I have a mission." He's saying he feels what he is doing is God-given; it's Divine Providence. He's so confident; he feels God is guiding him. "Leave no child behind" is a reference to the idea of the rapture: that the born agains will be lifted up to heaven when Armageddon comes. What, are their cars just going to crash on the freeway? I don't know, but that's what they believe. Gone, immediately. They have this idea "leave no child behind," which really means, "convert the children, as many as possible." I suspect him of really meaning that.
Tolerance and true freedom to worship are fundamental. I really get that now. Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are at loggerheads; they both think that everyone has to be converted. I am not pointing fingers. We all have a fundamentalist in us, a place that's hardened our heart to other people, a part of us that thinks, my way is the way. We all have to work on that.
Islam is not the Taliban any more than Christianity is Timothy McVeigh. Think of Christian leaders who taught love, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day. Islam is the same way. It is filled with love and hospitality, only this tiny group has gained power.
Lappé: What can we do?
Chavis: I am not advocating that Americans who want to support Afghans choose one organization. RAWA is only one organization among many doing amazing work in Afghanistan. I think it's very important not to single out one group. We make that mistake over and over.
I personally am supportive of RAWA's work. I think it's crucial for a group like RAWA to exist, one that is not only about charity, but is also a political organization. For instance, in my Buddhist political group, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, we don't just send books into prisons, though that is important. We also see a need to politically oppose the prison industrial complex.
RAWA has a larger, analytical view of the causes of suffering. They're not just trying to be a palliative; they're working for real change. I love RAWA for that. They are constantly analyzing the situation.
They were prescient about what was happening when the Taliban lost power. They didn't come out publicly even then. The Feminist Majority was really critical of them for not going public; but they were afraid and rightly so. Now, sadly, they have been proven right. The countryside outside of Kabul is once again ruled by warlords.
RAWA claims 2,000 members, which is a lot for an organization with that commitment level. Today, much of the work they do is clandestine, and security is always at the forefront. When you arrive at their hospital, for instance, you don't see anything that identifies it as a RAWA hospital. But once you're inside, you see RAWA posters, pictures of Meena. When I went, the hospital was jammed with women and children. I saw them giving out free medicine. I met the doctors. They deliver babies at the hospital. They were laughing because they first nine babies were girls.
Lappé: What can we learn from RAWA to take back to our own work?
Chavis: I think one of the biggest lessons is that we tend to get discouraged all the time. We think: The world is ending, what are we going to do? The issues are so big. We feel downtrodden. We're easily defeated here; we want quick results. Too many of us feel, What's the use? But if the women of RAWA haven't given up, why should we give up? Their hopes were briefly raised when the Taliban fled. But now, it's all happening again, all the repression, all the suffering. But what are they doing? They keep right on going. They may shed tears, sure, but they keep going.
GNN contributor Anna Lappé is the co-author of Hope's Edge (Tarcher, 2002), recently released in paperback. She is also the co-founder of the Small Planet Fund.
Books on RAWA