Critic (New Zealand), Oct.4, 2005

Secret identity activist visits campus

Shams hopes to encourage New Zealanders to "support RAWA morally and financially"

By Poppy Haynes

Afghani political activist Amena Shams (not her real name) visited Otago University last week to speak about her experiences as a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

RAWA is an all-female underground resistance group that has protested over the last 28 years against Soviet and American occupation of Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban. Shams is travelling throughout New Zealand and Australia to generate support for RAWA and raise awareness of the social and political turmoil of her country. As well as Otago University, she has also spoken at the Dunedin Public Library and Victoria University in Wellington. For her own safety, Shams works and travels under a pseudonym and is not able to be photographed.

Shams views the visit as an opportunity to represent the women of Afghanistan and to "show the real situation" of human rights abuses in the country. Shams laments that the media portrayal of the situation in Afghanistan is often not accurate and, especially since events like the war in Iraq and the Boxing Day Tsunami, the atrocities occurring every day are being ignored.

RAWA administrates a number of social initiatives, including orphanages and women's education centres, but it is the organisation's political agitation that is its defining feature. According to Shams, RAWA "is the only [women's] organisation . that struggles against fundamentalism and warlords in Afghanistan." It focuses on securing greater human rights for women and social justice across the country.

Campaigning for an association like RAWA is fraught with dangers. The association's founder, Meena, was assassinated in 1987 for opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A number of other key activists for RAWA have also been assassinated or forced into hiding. One of the main difficulties the association currently faces is the security of its members from fundamentalist warlords who object to their pro-democracy, pro-secularist and anti-fundamentalist stance. Women working for RAWA keep their involvement secret from everyone but close family.

Shams says that Afghanistan is in tatters. Opium farming is an increasing problem and the country is divided by hostile warlords. Many children receive no education and a majority of families live in extreme poverty. Shams is quick to point out that even though "the war on terror toppled the Taliban regime . it has not removed the fundamentalism from Afghanistan, which is the main cause of misery". She is adamant that most of Afghanistan is still in as bad shape as it was when the Taliban was in power. "All the people are living in danger . The fundamentalists can do anything - they can kill and torture, they can erase, they can rape". There are reported increases in forced marriages, and Shams says that some women have even killed themselves to escape or draw attention to their plight - in one area of Afghanistan, 25 women burned themselves to escape arranged marriages over a period of 25 days.

A recent Amnesty International report found that in Afghanistan violence against women is "widely tolerated . and widely practiced. It is tolerated at the highest levels of government and judiciary. Abusers are rarely prosecuted . The authorities seldom carry out investigations into complaints of violent attacks, rape, murders or suicides of women".

RAWA places a lot of emphasis on bringing warlords to justice. Shams says "they committed crimes against the people and they should be punished", because this is the only way for the country to move forward. She believes they need to be tried by a national or international court and that other countries must sever ties with fundamentalist leaders in Afghanistan. She says the changes that need to occur now are "to remove fundamentalism from power, disarm warlords . establish a real democratic government in Afghanistan . [and] provide education to the new generation".

Shams hopes to encourage New Zealanders to "support RAWA morally and financially". Her message to young people is to "remember your sister in Afghanistan . do not believe the media [because] the reality is something else".

More information on women's rights in Afghanistan can be found at and


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