Muslimwakeup.com, August 24, 2005
Visions of Resilience
A conversation with Anne Brodsky about her book, ‘With All Our Strength,’ and about the post-Taliban AfghanistanBy Laila Kazmi
The treatment of women under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime represents one of world’s worst cases of women’s oppression. Upon reading Anne Brodsky’s book, With All Our Strength (Routledge), on the women of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan), another less known truth becomes apparent: the story of RAWA is also one of the most incredible examples of women’s resistance to tyranny and oppression. The book details the lives of women who established and run RAWA, the circumstances that drove their leader, Meena, to first form the organization as a student activist in the 70s, and the risks they took to develop an extensive underground network providing educational and health services to women and young girls and recording the abuses of the Taliban. For example, there is a detailed account of how the RAWA members secretly filmed the assassination of a female prisoner, Zarmeena, by the Taliban. With All Our Strength also serves as a valuable record of the history of Afghan people and their struggles over the last thirty-five years.
I talked to author Anne Brodsky about what initially led her to Afghanistan, her experiences with people she met, and the changes she has witnessed on her subsequent visits since the fall of the Taliban.
“When I first met Afghan women activists in the US in 2000,” said Brodsky, “I was very impressed with what they were doing and began to think [that] as a woman who cared about women throughout the world, I couldn’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh it’s happening so far away, there’s really nothing that I can do.’” Until then her work had focused on issues faced by American women and “their resilience in adverse situations, such as living in dangerous, low-income neighborhoods.” This interest in women’s resistance drew Brodsky to the cause of Afghan women. “I began to see some of the connections in terms of visions of resilience and what we can learn from Afghan women [from] the way they had been coping with horrible situations since the Soviet Union occupation [of Afghanistan]. So, I started doing activist work: educating people [in America], fund raising and really trying to raise awareness. Then, in summer 2001, [I] went to Pakistan to visit some programs for [Afghan] women there.”
The refugees she met in the camps in Pakistan welcomed Brodsky. It was at a time when Afghanistan was not so much the focus of people’s attention. “[People] were very appreciative that anyone even knew [about their situation] and bothered to come,” explained Brodsky. “They really felt like the world had forgotten them. Taliban had been in power for about five years and no one seemed to care [about the] atrocities they were committing. There were no jobs for people. All the destruction that had happened during the war against the Soviet, then even more during the civil war, the Taliban had no infrastructure to rebuild it.”Brodsky stressed that though RAWA is a women’s organization, they have always had men supporters. “That’s crucial because the situation in which [RAWA] works, there are many things women just can’t do because it’s not safe.”
Brodsky says when she first went to Pakistan for research, it was not with the intention of writing a book. “I really just wanted to see things first-hand and understand better what it was that I was talking about [to people in America]. After I was there, people convinced me that a book would be something really useful to them. They wanted to get their story out.”
Though she mainly worked with women on her initial visit to Pakistan, Brodsky also spoke to many men in the refugee camps. She gave an example of a conversation with one of these men. “He said [to me] what was happening with the Taliban was terrible, what had happened with the Mujahideen was terrible, that he fought to free his country from the Soviet Union but he had lost everything and that women needed to be respected, and they needed a role in society.”
Brodsky stressed that though RAWA is a women’s organization, they have always had men supporters. “That’s crucial because the situation in which [RAWA] works, there are many things women just can’t do because it’s not safe.” Their supporters are men who were disturbed by what the Taliban were doing to women and did not want to see their mothers, sisters, and daughters oppressed.
“When I first returned [to the US], about three weeks before Sept 11th, there wasn’t all that much interest in a book on Afghan women,” said Brodsky. “But soon after Sept 11th, there was suddenly a lot of interest.”
Her last visit to Afghanistan was in the summer of 2004. “Today, in the larger cities in Afghanistan, some women’s lives are better than under Taliban and improving [even more] pretty rapidly. Schools have reopened. Women can work.” That is not to say that Afghan women’s lives have suddenly improved drastically. “In the countryside, the changes are not coming as quickly and for many many women there is no change in their lives. I have been back [to Afghanistan] four times post-Taliban. Each time there are still stories of women and girls being threatened. There is a big problem with trafficking, there are stories of children and women being kidnapped, and girls who are still forbidden from going to school. This spring, three women were killed and left by the side of the road with a note saying their deaths should serve as a warning to other women working with international NGOs.”
Speaking of the reconstruction efforts, Brodsky says: “The reconstruction that I have seen has benefited businesses, the warlords are certainly building really nice palatial homes... There are some high-rise hotels going up. But what is not happening is that there is no public housing going up. There are still refugees living in camp-like communities in Kabul, people who’ve come back and just can’t afford the rents there because with the international community there, the economy has really skyrocketed. So the rents are very high.”
Though With All Our Strength focuses on the women of RAWA, Brodsky pointed out that while RAWA has received a lot of well-deserved press post-Taliban, it is important to remember that there were thousands of other women who, while not part of RAWA, were carrying out a similar struggle, running underground classes for women. “ It’s very impressive when you think about how much grassroots work was being done with very little support, attention, or money. I met with women who had been sixth grade teachers when the Taliban closed their schools and told them that they couldn’t teach anymore. So [the teachers] took all the students to their homes and would teach them and kept teaching them all the way up until they graduated.”
Today, with the US occupation of Iraq, world’s focus has once again shifted away from Afghanistan. “In some scary ways, it’s really a repeat of what happened after the Soviet pull-out in 1989. The West had been very interested in Afghanistan [until] that point, of course supporting the Mujahideen. [After the Soviets left] the country disintegrated into a civil war and our attention turned towards the first Gulf War. So, [today] we are seeing this sort of eerie repeat of history in terms of world attention.”
About her book, Brodsky says that she would like to see it translated into other languages, including Dari, Pashtu, and Urdu, especially because there seems to be so little available that tells the story of Afghan people’s struggle.
A version of this article was originally published in Dawn on August 7, 2005.
Laila Kazmi is a freelance writer. She is the founder of Jazbah and an Associate editor of Chowrangi.