The Phoenix, April 11, 2002
Ex-IBM exec takes up Afghan women’s cause
BY REIKO TESHIBA
Neesha Mirchandani, an IBM executive, discovered the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) while browsing through its Web site late one night. She thought she would try it out for a month, and she soon realized that she had found her true passion.
On the eve of the National Day of Silence, sponsored by the Intercultural Center (IC), Mirchandani shared her experiences as a feminist and human rights activist in a presentation entitled, “Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan: Stories and Images You Won’t Get on the 6 O’clock News.”
“I spent three days and three nights hooked on the [RAWA] Web site,” she said. “As a woman, it was the most horrible thing I had seen, but I was humbled, because the Afghan women were resisting what had happened to them.” Mirchandani serves on the Board of Directors for the Afghan Women’s Mission, an organization that works closely with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
According to Mirchandani, Afghanistan, which comprises multiple ethnic groups, remained a unified country except for some territory it had lost to the British. Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989. Afterwards, the Northern Alliance fought for power, with the Taliban emerging in 1996 as a “better alternative” that would restore morality, order and law.
Mirchandani described the condition of Afghan women and children. Although there was a difference between urban and rural women, women were allowed to walk with their heads uncovered in the 1960s and ’70s. In the urban areas, forty percent of doctors and 70 percent of teachers were Afghan women. Under oppression, many are widows and have resorted to prostitution and begging for survival.
As for the children, 100 are buried every day. Afghan or Pakistani children are known as “children of garbage,” the breadwinners of the family. They earn six cents for every 12 kilograms of garbage collected.
“If we as a human race cannot solve the Afghan problem, there’s no hope,” Mirchandani said. How Afghanistan is rebuilt, she added, determines how any other war-torn country will be rebuilt.
RAWA is the oldest women’s organization in Afghanistan dedicated to human rights and social justice, founded in 1979. Afghan agents of the KGB assassinated her in 1987. The organization then went underground and does not receive government funding because of its principles and radical-sounding name.
“We’re not a million-dollar NGO, but the work we do means a lot,” Mirchandani explained. RAWA has programs both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It runs 33 orphanages in Afghanistan and 12 schools in Pakistan. In Jan. 2002, it opened the Malalai Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, which treats 200 – 250 patients every day.
“Why should you care?” Mirchandani asked at one point in her lecture. “I’m here to give you a major guilt trip. We have the luxury of putting the Afghan situation in the backwater.”
But, as Mirchandani explained, the CIA funded the terrorists who were fighting the Soviets. Over 4,000 Afghans, she alleged, are dead as a result of American bombings, not to mention the 4,949 cluster bomblets that are left. These are easily mistaken for food packets, since they resemble two-liter Coke bottles. There are 10 million landmines, half of which were left by the former Soviet Union and the others by the United States.
Student reactions to Mirchandani’s presentation were mostly positive. Carla Humud ’05 tried on the blue burqa that Mirchandani brought with her. “It was heavy and you can’t really look around,” she said. “It’s very isolating to be wearing it all day. It’s kind of like looking through a mosquito net.”
“The main thing that struck me was that RAWA had been able to function underground for so long and achieve so much despite the situation,” Alex Brennan ’04 said. “It made me wonder to a certain extent how much RAWA has actually accomplished, if there was another side I wasn’t getting, just because what Mirchandani was saying seemed so incredible.”
“I would have liked to have seen more background on how RAWA interacts with policy in the interim government,” Michelle Lee ’02 said. “Afghanistan has been played up by even the mainstream media, so there wasn’t anything new.”