The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
RAWA, March 15, 2017

Towards an Afghan Spring? Grassroots Activism in Afghanistan

“As activists living in Afghanistan and doing political work there, we have come to deliver a very different message of what is actually going on in the country as we speak”

by Mariam Rawi, RAWA RAWA representative, Mariam Rawi, traveled to Germany in November 2015 for a 20-day tour. She participated in several events in Germany from 3rd to 18th November, 2015. These different events were organized by anti-war, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, feminists, progressive and democratic activists. The main event was a one-day conference on 7th November titled “'Towards Afghan Spring'– One day of exchange with grassroots activists from Afghanistan”, which was attended by hundreds of people. A brochure was published in November 2016 detailing the event, both in English and German languages.

Mechthild Exo (Dr. rer. pol.)
I am a peace and conflict researcher and antimilitarist, internationalist activist. My focus is on decolonizing research methodologies and presentations, the feminist-decolonial critique of central theories and concepts of world politics, grassroots democratic self-organization as well as new models of peace order.
To overcome the Eurocentrism, the colonial, racist and patriarchal character of knowledge – in particular regarding peace and (liberal) peace building – we must develop new practices of research and documentation to share knowledge. As a critical peace researcher I am aware of the destructive and most harmful effects of the deep rooted coloniality of the dominant forms of knowledge and research methodologies.
At the end of an extended research project with a decolonizing approach, in cooperation with afghan grassroots democratic and feminist organizations, we managed against many barriers to come together with representatives of these afghan activist organizations for a conference and a row of meetings and public events in Germany – with presentations from RAWA, from the victims’ organization SAAJS, from Solidarity Party (SPA) and (a bit later) from the artistic human rights organization AHRDO. Together with groups of people from Syria, from Kurdistan, from Guatemala and other Latin American countries and with multiple-background activists, professionals, academics and other interested people we learned from each other about our struggles and their backgrounds.
RAWA has 40 years of experience with knowledge, education, research and documentation as a field of revolutionary struggle – to develop it as tools in our hands to fight oppression and for a real-democratic, gender-liberated, and just world. We need to listen more.
This knowledge of social and revolutionary movements and activists is grounded in values and criteria for validity that are divergent from hegemonic academic, epistemic rules and power structures. Much needed knowledge, for instance from the perspective of a feminist women’s organization as RAWA on the afghan history of violent conflict and on interventionist, external so called peace building and democracy-export, is excluded from politics and academia.
This brochure with the analysis of four afghan grassroots democratic organization, as presented at the conference or other public events in Berlin, is a small step to thwart the produced exclusions and invisibility.
This brochure also intends to motivate to take up contact with the afghan organizations, to discuss and to build relationships of support and solidarity in a joint struggle.

Today’s problems from the past: Four decades of war and conflict

Any adequate understanding of the current situation requires some knowledge of Afghanistan’s recent past. Most of today’s problems can be traced back to the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the ensuing years of Soviet occupation. The decade had extreme consequences for our country. During these 10 years of resistance against the Soviet occupation, tens of thousands of people were arrested, abducted and killed. Millions were forced to flee the country. Within the same 10 years, Islamist Mujahideen groups were armed and groomed to become powerful players in the fight against the Soviet regime. The USA, as well as Pakistan and Iran, played a decisive role in this armament. During this time, they were building up fundamentalist (Islamist) forces that would come to greatly influence today’s power politics.

Mariam Rawi
Foto: Jordi Soler

With the different Mujahideen groups supportedby different external players, infighting was common. Even when they captured Kabul in 1992 and seized control of the state, the Mujahideen organisations continued to struggle for power amongst themselves. Groups that were financially and militarily supported by the USA began to attack other organisations right in the middle of Kabul. In the years after, these Jehadis killed tens of thousands of civilians through reckless battles, arbitrary brutality and planned massacres. Massive human rights violations were committed. In Kabul alone, 75,000 people were killed from 1992 to 1996, and hundreds of women and girls were raped. Houses and residential areas were destroyed, public institutions looted, schools and universities burnt down.

Therefore, when the Taliban seized power in 1996 it only meant one fundamentalist (Islamist) regime replaced another, though the new one was slightly worse. While the rights of women had already been restricted and Sharia law introduced, restrictions were tightened even more. Women were completely prohibited from working or even being alone on the street. They were obliged to wear a full-body veil, and men had to grow beards. Considering these historical developments, and especially the CIA’s support of the Islamist forces, the USA and their allies lost all credibility as far as trying to justify their military intervention in 2001 as being motivated by humanitarian concerns.We will never accept the false claim that the USA and its allies intervened to protect women’s rights or promote democracy. Quite to the contrary, the USA has been pursuing its own agenda from the start.

The very same Mujahideen groups that were in power from 1992 to 1996 later formed the Northern Alliance and were treated as allies by the USA in the military intervention in 2001. By the end of 2001 at the Afghanistan summit in Petersberg near Bonn, the “international community” had handed over to these groups the majority of ministries in the newly constituted government. Even though these Jehadi leaders had never enjoyed popular backing, they were entrusted with political power. They were promoted politically and granted financial support despite the fact that they were already infamous for their corruption amongst the common people. The Afghan people, however, have not and will never forget their brutality and the massacres they committed against their own people. Instead of being disarmed and tried for their criminal acts, they were granted impunity and power. The Afghan public knew that they were misogynist and expressly anti-democratic.

To gain power, they adopted democratic rhetoric, disguising themselves with it. And today, these loathsome, corrupt people, responsible for severe crimes against humanity, hold all the important positions of power in the country.

Question from the audience
In early 1978, before the Soviet invasion, the April Revolution began. According to my knowledge, this revolution was not directed by the Soviet Union, but can be considered a socio-revolutionary process from below in which land was redistributed and women were liberated. What is your political perspective on this period?

When we speak about the time of the occupation by the Soviet Union, we mostly include the one and a half years before the Soviet invasion as well as the three years after the withdrawal of their military. Before this period, we had a strong student movement in Afghanistan inspired by the 1968ers and lasting into the 1970s. Students and intellectuals established various groups and networks back then. They represented different leftist movements who engaged in lively debates with each other, but some were also inclined towards division and strove for power.

27 April 1978, was one of the darkest days in our history. This day marks the beginning of our country’s tragic history. Under the banner of the “socialist idea”, the new People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government arrested, abducted and killed tens of thousands of people, particularly from the student movement. This coup was decidedly not a grassroots revolution, even though they called it a revolution. It was merely a regime change within the existing power structures. The new regime then deferred to the Soviet Union. The repression and destruction of the progressive political forces in those days is one of the main reasons why the left in Afghanistan today is so weak.

Just as the USA justified their intervention in the name of anti-terrorism and human and women’s rights, back then “socialism” and “workers’ rights” were abused as mere slogans to justify the intervention. Just as some key individuals today allegedly stand for women’s rights, back then land reform was implemented as a token project. But, as a matter of fact, the biggest prison in Asia was built during this time – the Pul-e Charkhi Prison, where tens of thousands of people have disappeared.

“Liberated”?! On the current women’s rights situation

Today, about 15 years after the NATO intervention, it is obvious that terrorism has not been defeated and women’s rights have not been secured. Women are still subject to discrimination and violence on a daily basis. A few current examples of abuse against women demonstrate how our government continues to pride itself as supporting women’s rights and democracy, but in actuality completely fails to protect women’s rights.

People in the West are made to believe that the international intervention brought Afghan women rights and education. To some extent, this may be true for Kabul and a few other urban areas, where girls today do have better access to schools. But in rural areas girls are often still barred from attending schools (and it is here in the countryside where the vast majority of the population lives, not in cities), or it is simply deemed too dangerous for them to attend school. After all, the Taliban continues to threaten and destroy schools in the areas they control.

Countless incidents of women raped by warlords or members of government continue to go unprosecuted. In one case, a woman was killed for making her rape public. The legal authorities also fail to prosecute cases of gang rape, of which there are many. Although the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law passed legislation in 2009, it exists only on paper. Reality looks quite different. Even if families seek prosecution, they hardly manage to carry through with the whole process and are dismissed. In other instances, women are forced to marry their rapists or else end up in jail after trying to run away to escape the violence. Additionally, many regions are controlled by the Taliban or warlords. In these areas, the central government and national legislation are non-effective.

In late October 2015, a 19-year-old woman named Rokhshana was stoned to death for running away from home to avoid a forced marriage. The lynching of Farkhunda is another horrible example: In March 2015 an enraged mob attacked and killed the 27-year-old woman openly in the streets of Kabul. In an excessive outburst of violence, Farkhunda was kicked and beaten, thrown off a roof, burnt and run over with a car. Shortly before a vendor selling charms in front of a local mosque had falsely accused her of having burnt pages of the Quran. Within minutes, without any chance to defend herself against these accusations, the young woman was lynched by the mob. Because so many randomly present men willingly participated in this extreme act of violence, Farkhunda, who had been a very pious young woman and a student of religion, became a symbol of the pain shared by women in Afghanistan, but she also became a symbol for their protest.

Women are exposed to all the dangers that already exist for the general civilian population of Afghanistan. In October 2015, a group of seven travellers was kidnapped by ISIS and beheaded in early November, amongst them were two women and a nine-year-old girl. Women and girls have also repeatedly been amongst the civilian causalities of US military air strikes.

Question from the audience
How do you perceive the role of international non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan?

The international aid machinery follows the political priorities of its main donor countries. The Afghan population has been suffering severely for decades, especially widows and orphans. But before 11 September 2001, practically no NGO cared to pay attention. Only in the aftermath of 9/11 did international NGOs start flocking to the country and with them came all the financial aid, putting Afghanistan second on the list of the world’s most corrupt countries.

But I want to highlight several other problematic aspects: These NGOs pay their Afghan employees disproportionally high salaries and by that contribute to a widening gap between rich and poor. They also rarely control the implementation of funded projects on site, especially outside of Kabul, because the security regulations for governmental organisations and NGOs mostly prohibit their foreign staff from leaving their guarded compounds. Thus, in reality many projects only exist on paper. These NGOs also draw a completely false picture for the international community. They impart the wrong impression that a process of development is under way, that women’s rights are guaranteed and that money and jobs are available. With these NGOs, Afghan civil society is being represented by only those figures who agree to the foreign policy interests of the international states. Many of the Afghan NGO directors graduated from US universities and are now supposed to serve as role models and as proof that democratic forces have successfully been established in the country.

Grassroots movements in Afghanistan: RAWA Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was founded in 1977 by Meena, a young female law student at the University of Kabul. Our organisation is the first and only women’s rights organisation in the history of Afghanistan that is decidedly political. We are convinced that women’s rights can only be fully realised in an independent, democratic and secular Afghanistan. Only in such a country will people enjoy equal rights as minorities, as members of different ethnic, tribal or religious groups. Thus, RAWA has always stood up against fundamentalist (Islamist) forces as well as against occupation. RAWA was one of the first to speak out publicly against the Soviet occupation and did so again against the subsequent fundamentalist regime and the Taliban, too, which perpetuated the same fundamentalist regime. In 2001 we explicitly warned the “international community” against collaborating with the Northern Alliance and immediately voiced our protest when the interim government was formed.

Question from the audience
Does your documentation of war crimes also include those committed by German troops in Afghanistan?

In September 2009, 142 people were killed by anairstrike launched by the German Bundeswehrnear Kunduz – most of them were civilians.We tried to contact the victims’ families andto mobilise them. In doing so, we were able tocompile a list of the names of the victims.

Documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity is one important aspect of our work. RAWA was quick to begin collecting documentation on the crimes of Mujahideen organisations between 1992 and 1996. It continued to do so during Taliban rule. At that time, taking pictures or producing video footage was in general prohibited, and international journalists were scarcely present, which is why we made our material internationally available. Members of our documentation committee risked a lot to obtain the footage. They often used the protection of the burqa to document cruel forms of punishment and similar atrocities committed by the Taliban regime. The video footage of the public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, for instance, was taped at imminent risk.

In 2012 we published a book on the crimes committed by Mujahideen organisations in the government (1992–1996).(1) This book documents the crimes of the organisations that later formed the Northern Alliance – and which were made allies in the US-led war of intervention. To this day we collect reports and documents and interview the victims of local warlords and international military forces as well as victims of suicide attacks. Many of these reports contain detailed information on the involvement of current members of government and warlords. If it were not for our work, many of these details and disconcerting relationships would never have been revealed. We intend to use the documentation of these crimes as evidence for later prosecutions.

RAWA poster in memory of the assassinated RAWA founder Meena
Poster in memory of the assassinated RAWA founder Meena

To put it pointedly, our activities address the foundations of society. We focus on organising political education and providing social assistance for women and children in need. In recent years, however, financial difficulties have forced us to halt most of these social projects. Before that we were able to run orphanages, tailor shops and other cooperatives that provide women a sanctuary and simultaneously an income. We organised education for girls and women and ran schools even under the most difficult conditions of corruption, war and exile. For us, education is one of the most important vehicles to reach women and to empower them to stand up for their rights. Under the Taliban regime women and girls were locked up in their homes and excluded from education. But we ran secret schools and even built up fully functional schools in the refugee camps of Pakistan where students were taught in all subjects across all grade levels. Many of our contacts and relations developed through our literacy courses. We use these classes not only to teach women how to read and write, but we also provide them a space for political discussions where they can learn more about their rights. At these meetings we also discuss family structures, gender relations and government policies. Exchanges like these can be the key to radical social change. Education is at the core of RAWA’s work.

From the very start we began publishing the magazine Payam-e Zan (Women’s Message). It is printed in Dari and Pashtu. Since RAWA has been persecuted and forced to operate underground for the most part, publicising and distributing the magazine has always been a dangerous endeavour. Nonetheless we have managed to sustain publication for almost 40 years now. Across the country and in the refugee camps of neighbouring Pakistan, our newspaper continues to be distributed and widely discussed. We now also publish Payam-e Zan online. We began using the internet more broadly as early as the 1990s. In order to speak to an international audience, we have an English website that provides a variety of materials, such as political analysis, information about RAWA’s work, current news clippings, poems and lots of pictures as well as videos. You can also find original music available for download. Many of our texts are also available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German and even Japanese. RAWA has been active on Facebook and Twitter since 2009.

Due to safety concerns we are neither able to run an office nor are we able to make public appearances. However, as individuals we still participate in demonstrations organised, for instance, by the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers or the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan.

We are convinced that only an uprising based on the unity of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan will lead to stability, peace, independence and democracy. As other movements in the world, we welcome international support from human rights and anti-war activists. We also welcome the support of progressive groups worldwide that love liberty and democracy. We speak to you directly because you do not tolerate and actively oppose the wrongful politics of your governments. It is crucial to develop ideas about how your political activism might be able to strengthen our struggle in Afghanistan. We act according to the basic idea that democracy and women’s rights cannot be delivered “as a gift” from other outside states and military forces. It is our own responsibility to change the situation in our country. But your support is important in that process.

Question from the audience
What are the conditions under which you conduct your political work? To what extent are you and your organisations affected by repression exerted by the state or even non-governmental forces?

Currently, anyone in Afghanistan who criticises the regime has to expect the worst. For RAWA activists the situation is intensified because RAWA has been very outspoken in the struggle against the NATO occupation and the integration of criminals into the government. Because of that, we are forced to operate underground and to camouflage ourselves, for instance, by wearing the veil. Furthermore, RAWA has become something like a brand: Whoever speaks out loudly against the government is denounced as a RAWA member.

Presenters’ closing statements

We appreciate this opportunity to meet with antiwar and feminist movements here in Germany because we feel that we share a progressive and democratic perspective. But a connection between the movements here and in Afghanistan is still missing. As RAWA, we have experienced international support by groups and individual volunteers invested in political struggles in Afghanistan. Those international supporters are willing to arrange meetings and conferences or provide other forums for sharing our views and spreading our reports on Afghanistan. Through your own networks, friends and family you can do the same – you can spread the facts about the real situation in Afghanistan and spread the word that our resistance is alive. With your support, we will be able to achieve our goals much faster.

Download the PDF of Mariam’s piece here.


1- The book is entitled Afghanistan: Some Documentsof the Bloody and Traitorous Jehadi Years. Jehadi is another term for Mujahideen organisations.

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