NBC NEWS, March 9, 2002
Afghan women’s group tackles change, slowly
Organization says women still suffer after Taliban rule
By Charlene Gubash
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 9 — Despite early euphoria over the downfall of the Taliban, conditions have not significantly improved for Afghan women beyond the capital, says an Afghan women’s group. “The fundamentalists are again in power. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance are the same,” says activist Danish Hamid.
“WE HAVE reports of raping, killing, kidnapping and fighting in many cities. Only in areas of Kabul where there are foreign troops is there security,” Hamid says. “Women don’t feel secure. They wear burkas because they are afraid of the ‘Jihadis’ (holy warriors). They don’t go to parks and they don’t go out.”
Hamid, a willowy, soft-spoken pre-med student, speaks with steely resolve. She is an active member of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA.
And the group’s goals are nothing short of revolutionary. They have struggled for more than a decade under a series of brutal regimes, Soviet proxies, warlords, the Taliban and now Northern Alliance leaders to provide health care and education for Afghan women and to secure women’s rights and a democratic, secular government.
When founder Meena Keshwar Kamal was killed in the Pakistani border city of Quetta — reportedly by Islamic fundamentalist group Hizb-e-Islami — in 1987, the women took their activities underground.
In Afghanistan, they clandestinely home-teach girls and train women in handicrafts and operate small home-based orphanages and medical facilities. Members videotape and photograph acts of violence against women. Their pictures of the Taliban execution of an Afghan woman were seen worldwide. The Web site, www.rawa.org, documents post-Taliban violence.
In Pakistan, their members still receive death threats and work from friends’ homes using mobile phones to coordinate schools, literacy and training programs, orphanages, hospitals and political activities.
Hamid and her colleagues argue that the warlords incorporated into the new government are as repressive as the Taliban.
“We support Hamid Karzai but key positions have been given to the Jihadis (holy warriors). We see the government hasn’t changed. The fundamentalists are still in power. Taliban and the Northern Alliance are the same, even more dangerous for young girls. We have seen their crimes.”
Afghan women who have fled to Pakistan are still afraid to return home. “Until now there is no security to go back, the fundamentalists and Jihadis are still in power,” says Diba, a long-time refugee.
Hamid and her colleagues fear that only the presence of foreign troops restrains rival warlords from returning to the lawless pre-Taliban days. “Now it’s only foreign pressure that causes them to ask for democracy and women’s rights. Maybe they deceive the outside world but not our people,” Hamid says.
For that reason, RAWA members want to expose alleged war criminals by bringing them to justice in international tribunals. Their wanted list includes former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and warlord Gulbuddin Hikmetyar.
They have had modest success so far. The regional government of Spain’s northwestern Basque country signed a memorandum of understanding in support of their attempts to try war criminals. RAWA will press its case before the United Nations.
While RAWA’s vision of a secular, democratic Afghanistan would seem to coincide with Western interests, potential donors are willing to support their social programs but not their political agenda. But Hamid believes only political change can lead to social change.
Although some donors are daunted by the use of the word “Revolutionary” in the group’s name, she argues that it is revolutionary to struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
In the meantime, Hamid is helping to secure a better life for Afghan refugees living in poverty in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. Herself a refugee at the age of three, Hamid helps supervise 25-bed Malali hospital where about 200 Afghans are treated daily on an out-patient basis.
At night, we found few patients in bed. Children and women were happily chatting in each others’ rooms.
Malali’s four doctors are dedicated but under-equipped. The surgeon had to clean an abscess wound with one hand because he had only one sterile glove. In the operating room, the smell of formaldehyde stings the eyes, but it is the cheapest disinfectant available.
RAWA’s programs depend on the generosity of individuals and small groups, mainly from the United States and Europe.
REFUGEES FIND HOPE, LOVE
Before leaving the hospital, Hamid picked up a new mother and her sixth child, a baby boy wrapped snugly in blue and white swaddling. Hamid was taking her to a guest house where she will sleep before going to have a tubal ligation done the next day.
“He is a beautiful baby,” exclaims a foreign medical student.
“You can take him with you,” the mother replies.
On to an orphanage run by RAWA. Little plastic sandals lay outside the door of a cozy living room where thirty children sit riveted to a television screen. They jump up and politely shake hands, intrigued by their foreign visitor.
A husband and wife with kindly faces, refugees themselves, care for the children, who attend a school run by RAWA.
Six children stand to proudly sing something they’ve learned in class: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Older boys and girls sing a tribute to RAWA’s founder. All but two of the children are war orphans whose extended families live in bare tents.
But these people have become their family. “We are just like brothers and sisters,” says 10-year-old Gobar.
Although a secular, democratic Afghanistan may be a tall order at present, on a smaller scale Hamid and her colleagues are winning the war for hearts and minds. When asked whether girls and boys should be treated the same, 13-year-old Sahira doesn’t skip a beat. “We should have the same education and equal rights to play and go to school.”
NBC producer Charlene Gubash is on assignment in Islamabad.