Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, February 4, 2022
The Legacy of an Afghan Woman Freedom Fighter
In memory of Meena Keshwar Kamal, activist, poet, feminist and founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
Certain types of oppression aim to systematically starve, censor, and ultimately eradicate feminist resistance through the erasure of linguistic expression as thought. However, political resistance from within cannot be stifled even under extreme repression. In such a reality, oral traditions are passed down from generation to generation, like forbidden languages that thrive underground, words whispered to sharpen our moral imagination of liberation, a rebellion against the ruling violence - a whole universe written in invisible ink. In this way, the martyr Meena has become a messianic figure of feminist activism in Afghanistan. She reminds us that the Afghan people's struggle for freedom cannot exist without the complex connection between feminist and political resistance movements.
Meena Keshwar Kamal ("Meena") was a revolutionary political activist, poet, feminist, and founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). She was born in Kabul on February 27, 1957. Living among a Pashtun middle-class elite in urban Kabul initially provided Meena with protection and social educational opportunities denied to many other Afghan women. According to the World Bank, the literacy rate for women aged 15 and older was 5% in 1979. Those who did not live in urban centers in particular had few opportunities for education. As an advisor to the royal family, Meena's grandfather was closely allied with Kings Nadir and Zahir Shah. Meena was aware of the relative privileges she experienced compared to other women in her country. Out of deep dislike for entrenched class inequality and to avoid discrediting her political work, she rejected any association with the monarchy. Furthermore, her father supported her in her political endeavors - at a time when women were dependent on their male relatives, this was an important advantage. It is these socially specific circumstances that position Meena in her ability to resist - but could not protect her nearly enough.
Meena arrived at Kabul University in 1976 as a law student, where she became part of a vibrant leftist protest and activist community. However, although the left had a higher percentage of women compared to other Afghan political orientations, the women's struggle was marginal. Similar to many of her international comrades, she became involved in patriarchal organizational structures in which class struggles had place as a matter of course. Feminism, as an ideological objective, was instrumental and not actually aimed at a systematic understanding. In this sense, this reflected a struggle that many politically active feminists in international liberation movements faced - as an equal part of the resistance, it was essential to find new forms of organization. Innovation was necessary to open access to political participation.
In order to make feminism not a secondary but an inseparable part of the class struggle, Meena and five other fellow students founded the organization RAWA. In 1977, RAWA became the first independently organized movement for women's rights in Afghanistan. Meena was only 20 years old at the time. RAWA's goal was the advancement and equality of Afghan women. In this way, RAWA was able to organize women politically and provide them with weapons in the form of pen and paper. Their literacy enabled the emergence of oppositional action; it was an engine of change to remove barriers to other forms of intersection of inequality and violence.
Political mobilization through women's literacy is one of the main reasons why Meena has achieved almost messianic status today. But for a representation that honors the legacy of an extraordinary fighter, it is important to free our projections from idealized pedestals. Despite the likelihood that we romanticize the past, especially when the present is dark, Meena's memory runs like a light through narratives. She is remembered as a selfless and people-oriented woman who strongly incorporated hands-on work into her political work. Her approach, continues to be reflected in RAWA's work today. The organization begins feminist work with the social. The women who still work underground in Pakistan today providing mobile health teams or emergency food, clothing and water talk about connecting with people first and foremost, as well as building trust and a place in their hearts.
In doing so, Meena has shaped our understanding of what it means to be on the front lines of a movement. Revolution and the idea of a classless society, in practice, means inevitably submitting to the people the revolution is meant to serve - an act of humility. Unlike many male leftist comrades, for whom it is not uncommon that a degree of grandiosity accompanies their political activism, Meena has changed our conception of the responsibilities of feminist political leadership. Regardless of whether her memory has been glossed over, her narrative legacy has played a central role in the lives of many. It gives the impression that Meena was truly loved and respected because her belief in collective liberation stood above her own life.
Beginning in 1981, Meena edited the bilingual feminist magazine Payam-e-Zan (Message of Women). The quarterly publication contained a range of content for different levels of education. It documented the social and political situation of Afghan women as well as RAWA's political position. It focused on the history of Afghan women's struggle for social recognition and equality in conjunction with the history of the country's physical and cultural destruction through various invasions and wars. A radically transformative approach that connects the root causes of violence. A shift away from socially destructive discourses that threaten to further unravel the fabric of communities. Instead, it reflects an approach that addresses the roots of violence and inequality in order to eliminate them. In this sense, Meena has done what outside actors and their influence would never accomplish: She did her work in a way that came from a place of caring and a basic human recognition of dignity.
Far from Europe and North America, the history of feminist struggle is one of self-preservation and revolution, which presuppose the simultaneity of relations of oppression as fundamental. Meena's work addresses the experience of social and political marginalization grounded in the complex history of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, class, and gender. For Meena, it was then the struggle against fundamentalism and against the ruling "Russian puppet regime." Accordingly, there was no shortage of enemies when Meena was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 4, 1987. Accounts of her death vary. Some say it was the Afghan intelligence agency KHAD others suspect the mujahideen behind the perpetrators. The ambiguity highlights that Meena's existence and feminist engagement threatened many actors who had an interest in maintaining existing political control and fear of Meena's influence through political mobilization and education.
Although Meena's foundational work was programmatic in nature, creating conditions under which change could occur, her legacy is dynamic. Years later, her feminist vision is not about utopias, but about a longer-term shift in consciousness. In this regard, Afghan women are not frozen in time, space, and history.
After Meena's assassination, the organization RAWA continued its work and is still very active today. For years, RAWA had spoken out against the U.S. occupation, warning that under the U.S.-backed government, human rights, democracy and secularism were being systematically suppressed while creating space for the spread of religious fascism. Under false political pretenses, conditions were created for extremist ideas and organizations to flourish. Now, the homecoming of the Taliban is a logical continuum of imperialist governance. Accordingly, the current situation shows that Meena's struggles remain significant in symbolic and material terms years after her death.
Meena and her legacy of the feminist liberation movement are inextricably linked to a far-reaching politics of liberation for the Afghan people. She advocated a feminist approach that cannot be separated from Afghanistan's real struggles with invasions and wars. Because of this, she worked to find a way to change the country through access to education, health care, and political participation. Her greatest influence was to equip women with political education, which prepared the ground for a radical vision of equality and collective freedom. Although the Afghan women's rights movement is not monolithic, women of diverse histories and ethnic and social backgrounds continue to carry the struggle forward today. A sign that the weapons of language and education are transforming into thoughts of resistance in Afghanistan that no amount of cruel repression can amputate.
Armeghan Taheri is a writer, artist, and founder of "What's Afghan Punk Rock, anyway?" a community magazine in Berlin.