The Daily Pioneer (India), November 12, 2000

Revolution of the Afghan women

By Juhi Shahin

There were about 12 of them, all carrying Kalashnikov rifles, their faces covered.

They asked us to hand our daughter over. We refused. They didn't accept that and asked us to bring our daughter over to talk to them. We asked her. She told them she did not want to go with them. One of them then lifted his Kalashnikov and shot my daughter dead in front of our eyes.

This is what a family, who left Afghanistan in the middle of 1994, had to say to Amnesty International. In March that year, General Dostum's forces had entered their house in Kabul and killed their daughter.

Several refugee families, living in Pakistan, told Amnesty International the story of a woman who had been taken to a hospital in Kabul by her husband. It was about 10 at night. Armed guards, reportedly, stopped the car at a checkpoint, telling the husband that they would take the woman to a hospital themselves and that he should go back home. The next day at the hospital, the husband was told that his wife had not been brought there. The husband went to the guards to ask where his wife was. They showed him the dead bodies of his wife and his new-born child, telling him that they had only seen videos of women delivering babies, they wanted to see one in real life.

The stories only seem to get more horrific. Mothers have been forced to watch their daughters being raped. Girls have had to watch their parents being beaten and killed. Thousands of women have had to watch, helplessly, as their homes were destroyed and their loved ones brutalised.

It is to fight against these atrocities that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was born.

Meena, who is a feminist, poet and a health worker, started RAWA in 1977 when she was only 20 years of age. Her work began in 1979 when she opened schools, hostels and hospitals for the refugees which the war between the Russians and the so-called 'freedom fighters' had quickly spawned. She was assassinated 10 years after she formed the association. It is still a matter of speculation whether she was killed by KGB agents or the Hizb-e-Islami. But the important thing is that the work she started is still continuing, under the banner of RAWA.

RAWA runs mobile medical units which have trained health-care teams. It also runs 'secret schools' for children and is involved in income-generating projects such as carpet-weaving, which can be done in the privacy of the home. RAWA is running these projects both in Afghanistan and, in refugee camps, in Pakistan.

In November 1999, the Taliban publicly executed a woman and summoned all the women of Kabul to witness it. A RAWA member took a camcorder under her burkha and shot the entire proceedings. It earned the organisation the instant wrath of the Taliban and the admiration of the rest of the world.

The women working in RAWA face enormous personal risks. Most of them live under pseudonyms and have to frequently change their residence. The Taliban and other Mujahideen groups issue the threat of death by stoning to anyone associated with the RAWA. 'The reason we call ourselves 'revolutionary' is very simple. We work towards a democratic government based on the freedom of speech, expression and religion. In a country ruled by fundamentalists where women are not considered human beings, that in itself is a big revolution,' says Samina Kabir (name changed), a member of RAWA who recently attended the United Nations' Sub Commission's meeting in Geneva.

Samina says that their task is tough. 'When we invite women from the villages to our literacy courses, we must first convince their men to let us speak to them. The women are often afraid of their husbands, who call them half-wits. They don t see why they should be educated.'

'Send UN peace-keeping forces to Afghanistan, cut off financial and political support to all fundamentalist parties and impose sanctions on Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and all other countries which support the Taliban. These are the demands of this revolutionary women s group. If the UN can send their peacekeeping forces to East Timor, why can t they do the same in Afghanistan? Why has there been so much media coverage about Kosovo but not about us?' Samina asks of world governments.

Taliban members defend themselves saying they represent Afghan culture and the Islamic way of life. They say that the burkha is nothing new to Afghanistan and only a small percentage of women were educated earlier on. But the facts, as Samina points out, tell a different story. Before the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, 40 per cent of doctors, 70 per cent of teachers and 50 per cent of civil service personnel were women. Most of them are now jobless since the Taliban does not allow women to work. Samina says that the Taliban s claim of being Islamic is hollow. She says, In the Holy Quran, women were given a right to contribute to the economy by owning and selling property as long as 1400 years back. In fact, there is a verse in the Quran Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn, (4:32).

Their work is beginning to have an impact. The Oprah Winfrey Show recently had a feature on RAWA due to which 3,500 people signed the organisation s petition within 24 hours. The New York Times, CNN and NBC have carried stories on the group. In the US Congress, 44 bi-partisan representatives have signed a letter supporting it. Also, many NGOs, based in America and elsewhere, have volunteered to help it in its mission.

Representatives of RAWA are expected to visit India soon. They will be in Delhi in the middle of November to participate in a conference on Afghanistan being organised by the Himalayan and Cultural Research Foundation. This would be a good opportunity for the Indian media to learn first-hand about the plight of Afghan women and perhaps, extend a helping hand. In the meantime, those interested in the story of Afghan women, living under both the Taliban and previous fundamentalist regimes, can look at their website: www. rawa. org.


[RAWA in Media] [Interview with New York Times Magazine]