Guardian.co.uk, April 30, 2010
Afghan feminists fighting from under the burqa
Feminists in Afghanistan are forced to operate as underground movement, often using the burqa as a convenient disguise
Jon Boone in Kabul
As a committed feminist, there are few symbols of women's oppression that Parween hates more than the burqa.
But compromises are necessary in a country where fighting for women's rights can be a controversial and dangerous business, and she is not above donning the all-concealing garment if it helps her to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
"I don't like the burqa, but sometimes I have no choice when I'm moving around Kabul – it's a great disguise," she says. Parween, who is in her mid 20s, is not using her real name. The only personal information she reveals to the Guardian is that she spent much of her life growing up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, attended Kabul University, and is a member of one of the country's most intriguing and secretive organisations: the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA – regarded as a dangerously subversive outfit by the authorities.
Official disapproval means the group has many of the attributes of an underground movement. Parween only knows a handful of other members because, like a terrorist network, it operates through a cell structure. The idea is to protect the wider membership of around 2,000 women by not allowing a single activist to reveal names to the NDS, the country's intelligence service (which Parween refers to as Khad – its name during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s when the service was controlled by the KGB).
During Taliban rule, RAWA ran secret girls' schools and filmed the state killings of women using cameras hidden under their burqas, creating footage that helped to fuel international outrage against the regime. Members are careful to regularly move their meetings to different houses, and no one keeps any incriminating materials in their home.
RAWA's magazine is stashed in a "very secure place" and is produced and distributed with enormous difficulty. Librarians who have dared to stock it have had the NDS on to them.
Such precautions might seem extraordinary for an organisation that runs orphanages, female literacy classes and is committed to improving the lot of women – a commitment that President Hamid Karzai and his international backers frequently cite as one of the success stories of post-Taliban Afghanistan.
But RAWA is famous for its withering critiques on what it sees as the underlying problems for women: Karzai, the warlords who surround the president, the Taliban and, for good measure, the US-led Nato forces in the country.
Attacking hardline Islamic conservatives and, in Parween's words, "Karzai's criminal government", wins RAWA few friends. On its website are harrowing images of women who have been abused by their husbands or have turned to self-immolation as a means of escape from a life of abuse. Running alongside them are diatribes against some of the most powerful men in the land. One headline says that flushing vice-president Mohammed Fahim down a toilet would not be enough to cleanse the "warlord-mafia regime of Karzai".
With enemies like that, RAWA's eight orphanages, each with around 800 children, and four female literacy centres are run under different names.
"The government sees RAWA as Maoist planning to overthrow the government, and against the mujahideen," Parween said.
"Khad is always following us and finding reasons to visit our orphanages and accuse them of being run by RAWA. They accuse us of opening up a brothel and allowing foreigners to visit."
Having the word "revolutionary" in their title does not help, Parween admits. But she said the organisation would never drop the name, because serves as a reminder that "we need a revolution in the treatment of women like European countries had before".
Parween says the NDS believes that RAWA is using the orphanages to persuade more young women to join the association. "They probably have a point there," she laughs. "Women who come to our literacy classes have no idea that it's organised by RAWA. But through the books that we use, we help to raise their awareness of women's rights and some of them eventually become members."
The NDS is particularly demonised among RAWA members because of its alleged role in the assassination of Meena Kamal, the association's founder, in 1987. She was killed in the Pakistani city of Quetta, after leading the association for 10 years. She and RAWA became famous for public demonstrations against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.
Kamal set up RAWA as a student at Kabul University, which in the 1970s was a hotbed of political activity and spawned many Islamist groups that RAWA still regards as deadly enemies.
The group particularly despises the country's warlords, the former resistance leaders who are regarded as heroes by their supporters and blamed by their enemies for a period of anarchy, corruption and brutal suppression. Various militia leaders still enjoy considerable political power and, as Parween points out, hold views just as radically restrictive to women as the Taliban.
She says: "They have very bad laws against women and at that time they made Afghanistan the house of terrorists. It was not Mullah Omar who invited Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan, it was [Abdul Rasul] Sayyaf [a mujahideen leader]. They are criminal and with them in power, we cannot have a democratic government." RAWA's uncompromising stance has earned respect among rights campaigners. One western gender specialist said RAWA is suspected of the being main organising force behind the extraordinary public demonstration last year against a law that gave Shia males the right to demand sex from their wives while denying them basic rights, including leaving the house without permission. Hundreds of women took part, braving an angry counter-demonstration. It was thought to be the first time since the 1970s that women had dared to take to Kabul's streets.
But others say their radicalism comes at the cost of effectiveness. Wazhma Frogh, an independent women's activist, says only a tiny minority of literate, urban women are even aware of the "ghost" association. "They have created trouble for other women activists who are usually labelled as linked to RAWA."
Despite the role the US-led intervention in Afghanistan played in sweeping away the Taliban, and unlike the many mainstream women's groups who look to western embassies for moral support in their various struggles for equality, RAWA has no time for Nato, which it heavily criticises for killing civilians.
Parween said: "There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahideen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people.
"When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with."