Astra, May 23, 2013
The Silent Revolution
As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health
By Alessandra Garusi
“From the killing of my father and other male members of my family, the tragedy has always accompanied my life. For this reason, my only dream is a secure, safe life for my children: a boy of 14 and a girl of 4. I want very little. I don’t care about success.” Maryam Rawi (it’s a nick-name for security reasons) was born 38 years ago in Kabul. She works for RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), an association that – since the resistance war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (1977) – has been fighting for democracy and the rights of Afghan women. A tough fight, to the very end, which has become precisely the purpose of her life.
Here is the interview she released to Astra.
After 11 years of occupation, has the situation improved in Afghanistan? No, unfortunately it hasn’t. Today Afghanistan is the 2nd country in the world for corruption. It produces the 90% of opium. And it’s the most dangerous place for women: 90% of Afghan female population have experienced domestic violence in their lives (rapes, arranged marriages, etc.); 2.300 women committed suicide in 2011.
For sure, 11 years ago it was a great opportunity for America to occupy a large area. But nothing went in a positive way: the Taliban remain strong in the country. Of course, they are not in the capital, but wide regions are still in their hands. Any peace negotiation has now to involve them and is doomed to fail.
Do women still wear a burqa? Do you, for example?
For years, I’ve been wearing a burqa almost every day. But now it depends: it would be even more dangerous to wear it now in Kabul, as most of the suicide-attacks are perpetuated by people hiding bombs underneath. So I just put on just my sun-glasses and a scarf in the capital, while I do wear a proper burqa during my travels to other provinces, where most of RAWA activities are based.
In which fields does RAWA operate?
It operates in various fields: first of all, that of education with schools for children of refugees in two Pakistani cities and home classes in Afghanistan.
The other area in which we operate, is health assistance. We used to have a hospital in Quetta, which unfortunately was closed due to financial problems. But we still maintain 13 mobile units in seven Afghan provinces, operating at full capacity, while not yet defined as RAWA. These are special emergency rooms for women.
In the political sphere, we organize events, meetings with the press in Pakistan. From 1981 we publish Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message) in Persian/Pashto and we have a website: www.rawa.org. The goal is to increase awareness.
How many women work for your association?
About 200, from 16-17 years old up. There is no age limit. The most important point is that they belong to all ethnical groups and social classes: from the poorest to the richest people. From housewives to lawyers and doctors, even if the number of high educated women in Afghanistan is of course very low compared to other countries.
I guess you don’t have an office in Kabul…
Of course, not. Being against fundamentalists, fighting for human rights and women’s rights, etc. makes your life very difficult in Afghanistan. After the Meena’s (the RAWA founder’s), assassination in Pakistan in 1987, RAWA decided to become an underground organization so that its activities could continue.
Why have suicides reached such a huge number?
It’s fairly logical: more abuses equals more suicides. Recently we had cases of women who escaped from their houses to avoid domestic violence or a forced marriage, and they ended up in prisons where they were raped by the guards…
Most of these women perceive not to have a real choice. One of RAWA missions, on the contrary, is to show them another way of thinking. We have been traveling through the whole country, distributing leaflets and explaining to women, door to door: “If you commit suicide, nothing will change; your death will make your enemy stronger. While if you stand up against domestic violence, against forced marriages, there is a small chance that something new, unexpected occurs”.
But I’ve to admit that till the present time nobody have ever been arrested and condemned for rape by any Afghan court. In the rare cases where an arrest was carried out, the man was then released after having paid a bribe. That’s our reality.
It is true that 65% of parliamentarians are former warlords, Islamists, who fought against the Soviets?
It’s hard to give an exact percentage. But if they are not all “warlords”, i.e. those directly involved in the crimes committed between 1992 and 1996, they are certainly people who supported them both in financial and military terms. During those 4 years, 90% of Kabul was destroyed; 70.000 people, only in the Afghan capital, were killed. That’s why we say that the majority of the Parliament in Kabul consists of fundamentalists and pro-fundamentalists.
They control the army, the police and the intelligence. So you understand how everything can be used to strengthen their position within the Afghan society. In practice they can do whatever they want, any kind of abuse. It doesn’t matter if this government is not at all supported, and if the society itself is very different.
What do Afghans think today of president Karzai?
When in 1992 the Loya Jirga (“grand council” in Pashto language) chose Karzai as interim president, he enjoyed great popularity. And the same happened in October-November 2004, when he won the elections with 55% of the vote. I was in Kabul during those days. And, walking down the streets, you could breathe an incredible enthusiasm: people were very positive about him.
Today, you can ask the same question to anybody, from a taxi driver to a shopkeeper, and you would get the same answer: “He’s a mere puppet in US hands. None trusts him anymore. He has just filled his pockets with money…”. Proposing peace talks with the Taliban, he seems to have completely forgotten what Taliban did to Afghan women. How does he dare, for example, meet Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the founder and leader of the “Hezb-e Islami” political party and paramilitary group), a criminal? Karzai is a mere servant: he doesn’t represent Afghan people.
What do you think of “Hambastagi”, the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, which was founded in 2004, has more than 30.000 supporters, especially abroad, and which fights against all kinds of fundamentalism? Does one of its leaders, Saman Basir, enjoy big support within the country?
Unfortunately, in the last three decades, the Afghan democratic movement got weaker and weaker. Its leaders have been often killed. And the general background doesn’t leave much space to hope: the lack of infrastructures, education, the limited access to books, information, internet; the scarcity of financial and international support explain why Afghan democratic organizations and parties are still so few and so fragile. If you fight against occupation and if you support women’s rights, it will be extremely hard for you to make your way through. Saman Basir herself knows even too well which kind of dangers she has to run every day.
Some of the material RAWA has collected about killings, disappearances and tortures, could be used by an international tribunal in the future. How concrete is this hope?
This remains our main purpose: to bring criminals to trial. However it is not at all an easy task, as they are still in the government, they are backed by countries such as Iran and Pakistan, and they have strong financial resources. But, at least, we try. In the past, RAWA – through the British Embassy – contributed with witnesses and documents to the process against Faryadi Sarwar Zardad (one of the commanders of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), which took place in front of a British court and ended up in 2005 with a 20 years’ sentence.
So we want to be prepared, if the situation in Afghanistan one day should change. Thousands of Afghans are waiting for Justice. And I'm not only talking about the (relatively) few crimes recently committed by the actual government; I’m talking about crimes committed in 30 years, in three different periods, by the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the Soviet regime.
NATO-led foreign combat troops are due to withdraw in 2014. What is going to happen then?
Apparently, they are going to leave. But I don’t think the policy is going to change that much. In 11 long years, US had all the time to build huge military bases, and to scatter hundreds of agents in all country. So the nature of occupation will remain very much the same with a harsh control of the Afghan government – a real puppet regime – and a control of fundamentalist groups, alongside with an endless exploitation of natural resources.
Is an “Afghan Spring” going to happen sooner or later in the future?
She burst into laughter: “If you think that expected average life for women in Afghanistan is 46 and I’m already 38…. Big changes sometimes take a lot of time and things are not moving to the right direction: US have spent billions of dollars and obviously they want to keep control on this area as a strong hold against Iran, Pakistan and China. So there won’t be a quick solution. Occupation will continue.
But as a human being, and in particular as a woman, we have to work as much as we can for small changes: to make a woman able to read and write, so that she can then teach it her children, it’s something great. It’s a great success for RAWA. It’s the start of a silent revolution”.
Do you have a dream?
I always feel that my social life has been so different from the majority of Afghan women… Some of them never went out of the house, some of them bear the scars of domestic violence, etc. While I could make my choices, I could travel. And this gives me hope and strength.
As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.