Salon.com, Oct.2, 2001
The Taliban's bravest opponents
By Janelle Brown
An underground resistance of Afghan women risks torture and execution to alert the world to the regime's atrocities. One freedom fighter tells Salon her story
Oct. 2, 2001 | The film footage is wobbly and blurry but stunning: A soccer stadium in Afghanistan is packed with people, but there is no match today. Instead, a pickup truck drives into the stadium with three women, shrouded in burqas, cowering in the back.
Armed men in turbans force a woman from the truck, and make her kneel at the penalty line on the field. Confused and unable to see, the woman tries to look behind just as a rifle is pointed against the back of her head. With no fanfare whatsoever, she is shot dead. The shaky video camera captures the cheering crowd as people rise to their feet, hoping to get a better view of the corpse on the ground. The blue folds of the burqa begin to stain red with blood.
This public execution is some of the most shocking film ever seen on television; it is perhaps the best document that the West has of atrocities committed by the Taliban. It is just one part of an astonishing hour-long documentary called "Beneath the Veil," currently in heavy rotation on CNN. Filmed by the half-Afghan BBC reporter Saira Shah, who traveled undercover to Afghanistan last year, "Beneath the Veil" neatly captures the horror of life under the Taliban -- the public executions for infractions as minor as prostitution or adultery, the brutality of fundamentalist police, the slaughter of civilians unlucky enough to live on the front line of the civil war with the Northern Alliance.
In documenting life under the Taliban, Shah went into the homes of the Afghan people and onto the battlefields, cleverly evading the Department of Vice and Virtue, which would have thrown her in jail for filming illegally (all unsanctioned filming is forbidden). She visited territory occupied by the Northern Alliance, and visited a village where the Taliban had brutally murdered dozens of civilians just weeks earlier -- a local wedding photographer had filmed the scene as villagers buried rotting bodies that had been scalped and mutilated. There, Shah also interviewed three teenage girls whose mother had been shot dead by the Taliban. They were so traumatized by the atrocities that the Taliban subsequently inflicted upon them that two of them would no longer speak.
But some of the most heartstopping footage in "Beneath the Veil," including film of the execution of the women in the soccer stadium, was captured not by Shah but by an Afghani underground organization which assisted her in her work. Indeed, Shah's documentary would not have been possible were it not for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), an underground organization whose members risk their lives every day in attempts to undermine the Taliban and publicize its brutality.
RAWA was originally founded in 1977 as an Afghan feminist group focused on women's rights, but its mandate broadened when fundamentalists rose to power. Determined to expose the frightening abuses of the Taliban, women in the group began to hide video cameras under their burqa and document the executions and public floggings which take place every day under the Taliban. They also smuggle female journalists like Shaila Shah and Eve Ensler, writer/director of "The Vagina Monologues," into the country, in hopes of bringing attention to their cause. In defiance of the Taliban's law forbidding education for women, RAWA also runs clandestine home-based schools for girls; for women, who are forbidden to work, RAWA teaches handicrafts and sells them online. In the refugee camps in Pakistan, RAWA also provides medical assistance, housing and education for impoverished and terrified fugitives of Taliban rule.
RAWA, the most prominent Afghan-run organization to oppose the Taliban, has become one of the fundamentalists' greatest enemies. Perhaps the aspect of the group most infuriating to its opponents -- and a surprising key to its effectiveness -- is that it consists entirely of women, nearly 2,000 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who use the cover of their burqas and the seeming powerlessness of their status to strategic advantage.
By traveling with RAWA, Shah got a first-hand view of what it's like to be a woman living under the Taliban, and she was invited into RAWA's secret schools and illegal meetings. She also got access to its library of video footage -- which includes not just the film of the execution of the women, but footage of the public hanging of three men in the same soccer stadium. (The soccer stadium was funded by international aid groups who wanted to raise the spirits of the Afghan people; instead, the Taliban is using it only for executions. One Taliban official told Shah that if the aid groups felt that the stadium should be used for soccer, they should build the Taliban an extra stadium for executions.)
"Beneath the Veil" was filmed long before the attacks of Sept. 11, and, according to RAWA members, the situation in Afghanistan has since become more dire. Because the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan have closed, the Afghani people are now trapped in their own country -- enduring the oppressive rule of the Taliban while waiting for U.S. bombs to drop from sky. RAWA, meanwhile, says it is running out of money and can't afford to educate, feed and treat the millions of refugees massed along the border. The Pakistani police, which are sympathetic to the Taliban, regularly target RAWA members; and since communication with Afghanistan has been cut off, the RAWA members in Pakistan know little about what is happening to their members across the border.
In a telephone interview from Islamabad, a 26-year-old member of RAWA, identified only as "Fatima," spoke about RAWA's work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, its position on war and the Northern Alliance, and its "uncompromising attitude" toward fundamentalism. A seven-year veteran of the group's dangerous brand of activism, Fatima is a member of the RAWA political committee that has been trying to rally both Afghan women and the international media to its agenda.
What is your life story, and what do you do for RAWA?
I'm from Kabul. I started to work with RAWA when I was 19 years old. There has been war in our country for more than 23 years; my generation was born with war, we've experienced just crimes, just blackness, just sorrow in our country. We never saw happiness or democracy. I lived in shock, because every day there were tragic stories in my neighborhood around me.
When I was young I decided to do something about this. A lot of young girls commit suicide because they are helpless and hopeless. But some, like me, choose the way of struggle. We accept that we want to serve our people -- that this is the best way to bring justice to our country.
When I was 20 years old, I left Afghanistan; my job for RAWA was to come here to Pakistan and work in the refugee camps. I had to cross the border often and go back into Afghanistan to organize women for demonstrations; and to bring RAWA's publications into Afghanistan. We would go secretly and without documents -- no one asks you for them because you are a woman. I wear the burqa then, because this is the only visa required for women to enter Afghanistan for women. When I cross the border, no one can know that I am in RAWA.
Why do you use the pseudonym "Fatima"?
We all use different names all the time, because we have a lot of security problems. Our leader Meena and her bodyguards were assassinated in Pakistan in 1987 by the Islamic fundamentalists and the KGB. Our members are always attacked and injured -- we receive death threats by e-mail and letters and telephone, telling us to stop what we are doing or they will kill us. So we are working clandestinely in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan we are half-secret.
Have you ever been personally attacked by the Taliban?
I was flogged three times in the streets, for stupid reasons. They will flog women that don't have the veil on, or aren't with their male relative, or are talking to a male shopkeeper, or are out on the streets during the evening. There are always people sobbing in the streets because they are being beaten. This is normal.
In Pakistan in 1999, I was injured at a RAWA demonstration. Pakistan is one of the countries that officially recognizes the Taliban government; so when we take our anti-Taliban slogans into the streets, they try to stop us. During the demonstration, we were fighting -- we wanted to go in front of the United Nations building; but the Pakistani police wanted to stop us. During the fighting, they beat me and broke my hand.
What has been RAWA's most crucial activity in Afghanistan?
We teach hundreds of women and children in the underground schools in Afghanistan. For children, we teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, Persian, science, social studies and the history of Afghanistan; also, the geography of the world. For women, we just teach them two main subjects -- mathematics and Persian. When our women go to the shops, they don't know how to pay the shopkeeper and get change, because they haven't had an education.
We also bring in video cameras to expose the crimes of the Taliban. It's risky work. We filmed the execution of the women that you saw in "Beneath the Veil." Also, we've filmed hangings in Kabul and several other cities, taken pictures of Afghans who have had their hands cut off for stealing, or their necks cut. There are photos on our Web site.
We make a hole in the burqa and film through it. That's why the quality of our films is very bad; it's very difficult. No one has ever been caught doing it; but execution is the only punishment if you get caught, especially if the Taliban knew we were RAWA.
What are you doing in the refugee camps in Pakistan?
We have schools for girls in the fugitive camps; but in some we have problems because of the influence of the fundamentalists. We have handicraft projects for women; we run chicken farms, a jam-making business and carpet weaving projects. We also have mobile medical teams that go in to the camps one or two days a week to give free medicine. We had a hospital called Malalai, but it closed because of our financial problems; one of our very urgent projects is to reopen it.
What are your feelings about the attack on America?
We are so sorry for the victims of this terrorist attack. We want to shower them with deep solidarity. We can understand their sorrow because we also suffered this terrorism for more than 23 years. We were already victims of this tragedy.
On the other hand, unfortunately, we warned the United States government about this many, many times; as well as the other countries that are supporting and creating the fundamentalist parties. They helped create these terrorists during the Cold War; they supported Osama bin Laden [during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan]. Fundamentalism is equal to terrorism; it's equal to crime. We said, this germ won't just be in Afghanistan, it will spread out all over the world.
Today we can see this with our own eyes. We warned them but they never listened to our cry, to our voice.
How is the crisis in America affecting your work at RAWA?
Thousands of families are escaping from Afghanistan, leaving everything behind because they are afraid of war. Thousands of others that are living in Afghanistan don't have the possibility to immigrate here; and now, even the borders are closed. That means that our people have to burn in the flame of war and all the doors are closed.
In fugitive camps it's really hard to work, especially hard because millions of fugitives have just arrived. They are in shock, and have nothing but themselves and the clothes on their back. I met a family yesterday that wanted help from RAWA, they cried and said they walked through the mountains because the border was closed. Their child fell down the mountain and died, but they couldn't stop because they had to escape.
Our people escape from Afghanistan because of the fear of killing and rape and torture, but they will die in the refugee camps because of lack of food, jobs and healthcare. Even here the situation is not good. We are in a crisis in the camps; thousands have contacted us for help and we don't know how to help them. At every moment they want their children to be in our orphanages or our schools; they want a house, medicine -- they need everything, and we have no money.
Also we are so worried about our members inside Afghanistan, about their lives.
Are you concerned about a war with the United States?
We also want to convey a message to the American people that there's a difference between the people of Afghanistan and the criminal government of Afghanistan. There is a river of blood between them.
Do you support the Northern Alliance?
We condemn the cooperation of the United States with the Northern Alliance. This is another nightmare for our people -- the Northern Alliance are the second Taliban.
The Northern Alliance are hypocrites: They say they are for democracy and human rights, but we can't forget the black experience we had with them. Seventy-year-old grandmothers were raped during their rule, thousands of girls were raped, thousands were killed and tortured. They are the first government that started this tragedy in Afghanistan.
What government do you support, then?
We are ready to support the former king. It doesn't mean that the king is a very ideal person for us. But in comparison to the fundamentalist parties, we prefer him. The only condition we have for the king is that he must not cooperate with the Northern Alliance.
What does RAWA need right now?
We are in a very bad financial condition. We need anything we can get -- for our mobile team, for medicine, for our schools. Maybe $1 is nothing for them, but for us it means a lot. To run our struggle with empty hands is impossible for us.
Do you want to go back to Afghanistan?
I miss Afghanistan very much, it's my country. I love my city and my country a lot. I am a fugitive here. Whenever there is peace in Afghanistan we will never go to another country -- we will go back to rebuild Afghanistan and experience good days, I hope.