The Progressive, Nov, 2001

Afghan feminists speak out - war on terrorism, United States
Laura Flanders

"Now that the U.S. and the Taliban are on two opposite sides in a war, you've probably heard a lot about how the Taliban treat women," said Tahmeena. A member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, Tahmeena was talking to a packed room in Greenwich Village, at a meeting of the group New Yorkers Say No to War. "You probably know a lot about the restrictions on women in Afghanistan, but maybe you've heard less about what Afghan women want instead," she said.

There's no maybe about it. Americans have begun to see a lot in the media lately about the oppression of women under the Taliban. We've been hearing about women banned from working, excluded from school, flogged for wearing makeup, even executed for invented sins. As U.S. leaders were selling the nation on war against the Taliban, there were a lot of pictures of shrouded Afghan women in the news. The trouble is, Afghan women have mostly been silenced by the U.S. media, too. You sure haven't heard a lot from Afghan feminists.

On October 1, CNN's Larry King squeezed in a five-minute chat with Tahmeena between a twenty-minute interview with Bob Dole and a promo segment for a John Lennon memorial concert with Yoko Ono. Throughout the to-and-fro with Tahmeena, King played clips from a documentary that CNN has been airing. Made by Anglo-Afghan reporter Saira Shah with help from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan's underground video-tapers, Beneath the Veil gives a glimpse of what life's been like for women under the Taliban inside Afghanistan. One shaky video sequence captures a crowd of people in a Kabul soccer stadium. They rise to their feet and cheer after men in turbans force a woman in a burqa to her knees, then shoot her in the head. The faceless woman in blue keels over dead on the penalty line.

On Larry King, Tahmeena sat with her back to the camera for her own safety. King gazed at her and the audience and concluded the conversation by saying to his viewers, "I wish you could see her face. She's really very pretty."

Cast as the Taliban's silent victims in media coverage, Afghan women are struggling to be heard here in the United States. Like any group of politicized people, organized Afghan women's groups differ in their views. Some believe that good could come of the armed U.S. intervention if it ousted the hated Taliban. Others see nothing coming of it but more political extremism and more war.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan was founded in 1977. Its women have been on the ground, working with people from all ethnic groups, throughout the last two decades of war. Based in the refugee camps in Pakistan and within the country itself, the all-volunteer members of the women's group distribute humanitarian aid, provide underground medical care, and teach in secret schools.

At the New Yorkers Say No meeting, people were curious about the group's views on the Northern Alliance, the triad of ethnically distinct guerrilla outfits that have been fighting the Taliban in the northern part of the country.

Recalling the period from 1992 to 1996 when the groups that now comprise the Northern Alliance vied for power after the fall of the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime, Tahmeena said, "Afghans know the Northern Alliance." They remember their years of control, she said, as a time when women were raped en masse and young girls were forced into marriages with military commanders. Thousands were killed and tortured. "We don't want that period back," she says.

On October 3, The New York Times published an article by David Rohde about current life for women in the Taliban-free territory of the north. "Life for women here in rebel-held northern Afghanistan is not without its constraints," reported Rohde. Women wear the head-to-toe burqa, but they may shop in the market and talk to male shopkeepers "if absolutely necessary." Girls may attend special schools.

Tahmeena said the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan opposes pouring more weapons into an already starving and desperate land. "The first step must be to stop financial and military support going to the Taliban and all the militias," she said.

But collaboration with the Northern Alliance is part of the Bush Administration's strategy for pursuing suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his guardians in the Taliban. A week after the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York, U.S. and British special forces units were reported to be already training what defense analyst David Isby on the Fox News Channel called the "on-the-ground alternative to the Taliban."

U.S. press coverage virtually eulogized Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated the weekend before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A commander of the ethnic Tajik rebels in the North, Massoud was an excellent military strategist and tactician, but he also wanted Afghanistan to be a theocracy. He was minister of defense during the period that Tahmeena calls the "dark times."

Tahmeena's group supported a U.N. peacekeeping mission to disarm all warring factions, all fundamentalists, and all terrorists. "The people of Afghanistan want peace, security, and the opportunity to rebuild under a government established by legitimate elections where the people can read and understand their options, and vote without a gun to their heads," she told the crowd in New York.

Other Afghans find such a vision fanciful. "A secular democracy sounds wonderful, but it's unrealistic," said Osmam, a younger woman in jeans who attended the New York meeting. Osmam and her family left Afghanistan when she was six years old. She is ready to compromise. "The Northern Alliance may not be great, but they're not as bad as the Taliban, and getting rid of the Taliban must be the first step," she argued.

It's a view that's shared by Zieba Shorish-Shamley, of the D.C.-based Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan ( "I don't care much for the Northern Alliance," said Shorish-Shamley, reached by telephone. "Among them there are good and bad, but they're united by a common enemy: the Taliban. Kicking out the Taliban is the first priority."

Last year, a group of exiled Afghan women called Nigar met in Tajikistan and drafted a set of demands, based on the U.N. convention on women's rights. Massoud of the Northern Alliance agreed to sign. Would his heirs stand by that promise? "Everyone is using women's rights to advance their own agenda now," said Shorish-Shamley. "The reality may be very different."

Women for Women in Afghanistan is a New York-based group that cosponsored a vigil against anti-Islamic and anti-Arab violence after the attack on the Trade Center. Organizers Zohra Saed and Fahima Danishgar are Afghan American students, born in Afghanistan but raised here. "International interventions caused the crisis in Afghanistan," says Saed, now "international intervention is necessary to help resolve it."

Shorish-Shamley sighs. "My poor people are so desperate, they joke, `Go ahead and bomb us if it will get the Taliban out,' but any real solution has to come from within," she says. "And it can't be done overnight."

Tahmeena worries that "an American bombing campaign would only turn Afghans more strongly against the U.S."

And Danishgar is looking ahead. "Say you get the Taliban out, then what?" she asks. "Who's going to be responsible for rebuilding? Those who've waged proxy wars for foreigners on Afghan soil for twenty years? Those who've committed atrocities against their own people in the past?"

Following the State Department's lead on the benefits of a U.S. alliance with Afghanistan's northern rebels, The Washington Post noted recently that the "rebels have been fighting the Taliban since the mid-1990s and no one knows the territory better than they do." In fact, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan does.

Has anyone from the State Department or the U.S. intelligence community contacted her group, Tahmeena was asked in New York. "No," she laughed, her group has not been invited to participate in the making of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

For more information on the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, contact New Yorkers Say No to War meets every Tuesday at 7:30 P.M. at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York. The group's petition appears at http://www. html.

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