New York Times Magazine, May 14, 2000
Tearing at the Veil
Two leaders of the anti-Taliban resistance talk about finding a defiant political voice in a country where women are told to be silent.
- By KATHA POLLITT Photograph by DANA SMITH
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) Video Clips of Afghanistan (Courtesy of RAWA) Feminist Majority Foundation: Stop Gender Apartheid
Sajeda and Sehar -- and we should say that we aren't using your real names here, they're the names you use to travel, because of the danger in which your work places you -- you're both members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Many Americans hear the word "revolutionary" and they think "Communist" and "violent." Can you tell me about RAWA?
SABA: RAWA was founded in 1977 as an organization of women who support women's rights and human rights for both men and women. We opposed the Russian invasion. Today we oppose all the fundamentalists, not just the Taliban. We're for education, health care, equality for women, secular democracy. In Afghanistan, that's revolutionary.
And you're based in Pakistan, where there is a vast population of Afghan refugees. What kind of work does RAWA do?
SABA: In the refugee camps we have schools for girls, and boys too. In Afghanistan, since schools for girls were banned by the Taliban, we run underground home-based classes for girls and literacy courses for women. And we have mobile health-care teams. But all the courses and all the home-based classes are completely underground, because of the Taliban. And also we have some income-generating projects for women, like carpet weaving.
Some people argue that Islamic fundamentalism is part of Afghan culture. What would you say to those who accuse you of trying to impose alien, Western values?
HAYAT: In some ways, yes, we want to secure women's rights in Afghanistan, maybe for the first time. But before the Taliban, about 40 percent of Afghan doctors and 60 percent of teachers were women. People confuse Afghan culture with the Taliban, when in fact the people of Afghanistan hate the Taliban.
Working underground in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban regime is an incredibly dangerous undertaking, is it not? Have you two ever been subjected to violence?
HAYAT: At demonstrations against the fundamentalists we were attacked twice -- hit with sticks, arrested, put in prison. Our male supporters beat them back. We women fought, too. I was also beaten by the Pakistani police. We've been arrested selling our magazine.
You're both in your 20's. What do your families think about political involvements?
SABA: My mother wasn't much educated. When I came back from RAWA school after three years my family was in a refugee camp. I encouraged her to learn to read. In two years she learned how. Now she works as a RAWA nurse. My brother is a bodyguard for us when we go to give interviews. But my older relatives still think I should stay home and not let strange men look at me in the streets.
HAYAT: My mother is in RAWA also.
And is it the same with your older relatives? Do some of them say you should lead more conventional lives?
HAYAT: Oh, yeah. They say I'm young, I should be thinking about nice things, enjoy life, get married, think about fashion. I say, sure, but how can you think about clothes when people are being raped and killed, and they're so poor they're selling their children on the streets? Maybe some people could think about fashion, but we can't.
Do you talk among yourselves about the harm that might befall you?
HAYAT: Of course. We make jokes, we pretend to make up our wills. Older, more experienced members say we should have all preparations. But we don't talk much about it. When you think about what's going on in Afghanistan, you stop caring so much about your own safety. And we have ways of staying cheerful. We read books by women who've been brave -- Iranian, Vietnamese, even Joan of Arc. If I get depressed and lose hope, then what will other women and girls my age have to look to?
SABA: If the Taliban caught me inside Afghanistan they would definitely torture and kill me, stone me as a quote-unquote prostitute. So the punishment has already been decreed. But I can do it. I'm ready for everything. Someday we will die but maybe it will be a prouder death than from some natural cause.
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