Satya, October 2005
The Women of Afghanistan: AbandonedThe Satya Interview with RAWA’s ‘Sohaila’
After decades of conflict, Afghanistan is in the process of reconstruction. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is slightly smaller than Texas, with a population just under 30 million. In 2005, after billions of dollars have been poured into the U.S. invasion and “liberation” of Afghanistan, the average lifespan is only 43. According to the Afghan Minister of Public Health, 700 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases, while one woman dies every 20 minutes from complications during pregnancy or childbirth.
While Laura Bush crows that life is better for the women of Afghanistan today, thousands of women and girls continue to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, armed individuals, parallel legal systems, and institutions of the state, including the police and justice system. There are reported increases in forced marriages and rape; some women in difficult situations have even killed themselves to escape such a heinous situation, while others burn themselves to death to draw attention to their plight.
Under the leadership of Meena—who, in 1987 was assassinated in Pakistan by Afghan agents of the then-KGB in connivance with a band of Islamic fundamentalists—a number of Afghan women intellectuals founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA’s objective was to involve an increasing number of Afghan women in social and political activities aimed at acquiring human rights for women and contributing to the establishment of a government based on democratic and secular values in Afghanistan. Despite the suffocating political atmosphere, RAWA very soon became involved in widespread activities in different socio-political arenas including education, health and income generation, as well as political agitation. Among many other things, RAWA recently organized for secular political candidates in the parliamentary elections of September 19th.
Advocating for women’s rights is extremely dangerous in Afghanistan and members of RAWA live in constant fear and must take careful precautions. Kymberlie Adams Matthews recently had the privilege to talk with one of RAWA’s leaders and for safety’s sake, we’ll call her Sohaila.
What are the major issues facing women in Afghanistan today?
The problems of women in Afghanistan are not so simple as to be solved overnight by the removal of the Taliban. The main cause for pain in our country is the existence of Islamic fundamentalism as a military and political force. They are misogynist to the marrow of their bones.
Though the Taliban government was removed by the U.S. invasion in October 2001, by reinstalling the Northern Alliance warlords to power the U.S. government replaced one fundamentalist regime with another. In fact, the Northern Alliance is a more treacherous rapist and murderer than the Taliban, and now they are ruling most of the country and are backed by the U.S.!
Our women still do not have very basic rights. When Malalai Joya [a candidate in September’s parliamentary election] raised her voice, they suppressed her. And because of her few words against warlords in the Grand Assembly, she is now being protected by six bodyguards, due to threats from warlords who are seeking any opportunity to eliminate her. The Chief Justice of Afghanistan is a medieval-minded fundamentalist who opposes women. And he has opposed the appearance of women on TV a number of times. Last year, he sacked a woman judge from her job because she was filmed shaking hands with Mr. Bush during her visit to the U.S.
This is just the tip of the iceberg about the plight of our women today. You can feel the blunder of the Western mainstream media who frequently trumpet, “Afghan women are free now.” Afghan women are not free at all and we have a long way to go to achieve our rights with a staunch struggle against fundamentalists.
And these are the leaders the U.S. appointed as part of your interim government?
Some of the most evil men have key positions in the government of [President] Hamid Karzai and are not targets of anyone’s justice. They include men who were leaders in repressing women by throwing acid in their faces and should be tried in courts for their crimes against women. They are now the reactionary forces who are trying to silence any voice of democracy and justice in Afghanistan. And Mr. Karzai is collaborating with them. In a 133-page report published in July by Human Rights Watch under the title Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity, most of these men were accused of war crimes against the Afghan people, with facts and figures. Amnesty International and some other human rights groups have published the same remarks, but no one cares because these people have weapons, money and power.
Though the Taliban were defeated as a military force, their ideology is in place and they are still supported by some foreign groups. Even the U.S.-supported Afghan government has started negotiations with some very infamous Taliban leaders to bring them to power. For example, the Taliban Foreign Minister, Abdul Wakil Muttawakil has been allowed to run in the election, and some other Taliban leaders are freely roaming and have their office in Kabul! While [RAWA] still can’t open our office and are forced to work underground because of grave security threats.
The U.S. doesn’t care about what happens to the Afghan women, the children, the people. They want to control the oil pipeline, which is only possible by giving support to the fundamentalists. The U.S. government still distributes money among warlords to keep them under their control and turn their backs on their involvement in drug trafficking.
Drugs and warlords have not been eliminated. There is no peace, nor has there been any relief for women.
How do RAWA and Afghan women view the U.S. today?
Well, in the beginning there was a different reaction. People were deceived because they were really tired of the Taliban and all the miseries, the restrictions, the terrible life they had. So people thought maybe there will be change with the U.S. intervention. But now after these years, they see that the U.S. has failed in all its promises and nothing has really changed. We [RAWA] believe that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. The U.S.-supported government have gripped their claws over our country in attempt to bring their religious fascism on our people.
While we criticize the U.S. government for its support of the most dirty and criminal elements and groups in our country, we are of course thankful to the generous help and support of the U.S. people. There is a huge difference between the U.S. people and its government.
Have things improved at all for Afghan women since the U.S. invasion?
There is an improvement for women in certain limited parts of big cities—girls go to school and some women are allowed to work outside the home in the capital, Kabul. But the situation for women is worsening in the rest of the country. In most areas, rape and forced marriage are on the rise, women continue to wear the burqa out of fear, and are being traded in the settlement of debts. Women face discrimination from all society. Violence against women is accepted by the community and not addressed by the government.
The U.S has not removed religious fundamentalism, which is the main cause of all our fear and suffering. A lot of women hoped things would change for the better after the overthrow of the Taliban, so there is a great sense of disappointment.
It was on April 23, 2005 that Amina, a 29 year-old woman was publicly stoned to death on the basis of a district court’s decision in the northern province of Badakhshan for committing adultery. It is horrible. Also, three Afghan women were raped, strangled and their bodies dumped as a warning for women not to become aid workers in Afghanistan. And in some areas they are arresting women who do not have anyone to feed or take care of them—women who have lost their husbands and are forced into participation in smuggling, begging and prostitution. These women have no food!
What about the children, your families and friends? This must have an effect on them.
Yes, it does. In April, health minister Dr. Sayed Amin Fatimi said Afghanistan is facing a disaster worse than the tsunami. According to him, around 700 children under the age of five die every day in Afghanistan due to preventable diseases and one woman dies every 20 minutes due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. The facts speak by themselves. In Kabul, an estimated 500,000 people are homeless or living in makeshift accommodations. Only 40 percent of Afghan children are vaccinated against major diseases, and just 25 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. There is just one doctor per 6,000 people, and one nurse per 2,500 people. Some 72,000 new cases of tuberculosis are reported every year. Women account for most TB deaths. Up to 100 people are killed or wounded by mines and unexploded ordnance every month. Every year an estimated 400,000 Afghans are affected by natural disasters. In Kabul alone there are over 60,000 child workers.
How is this impacting women’s participation in the elections?
Women who have been outspoken on women’s rights issues, such as human trafficking or violence against women, have continually received death threats, visits to their homes by gunmen, and dismissals from their jobs. This causes fear and insecurity, and endangers women’s participation in the presidential elections and parliamentary and local elections.
Many democratic-minded women candidates are being threatened. We just heard that the warlords have published and distributed anti-Malalai Joya posters in Farah province to stop people from voting for her.
No wonder cases of suicide and depression are rising among Afghan women…
Yes, girls are burning themselves to death because they have no other option in life to escape violence. There are many cases of women burning themselves in the villages, in the city, in some of the provinces. But we can’t give any estimates on how many, partly because they never reach the hospital or because they die in their villages or city. These are the cases that never come to the attention of any public authorities.
The Afghan judicial system is extremely corrupt and under the control of the fundamentalists, so women are not supported by laws although our Constitution clearly says that men and women are equal. When women do not find any source of help in the male-chauvinistic society, they easily decide to kill themselves. According to surveys, over 90 percent of Afghan women suffer from some sort of depression.
What has the role of the United Nations been in all of this?
Unfortunately the UN is not effective in its programs in Afghanistan and most of its offices in the country are suffering from deep corruption. They have huge administration costs, but the outcome of their work for Afghanistan is limited.
The UN has not been able to address the problems properly. If the UN can send a large number of peace-keeping forces to places like Cambodia and Bosnia, why should it not be adopting a similar policy in Afghanistan? It is all the more important to have large peace-keeping forces in Afghanistan, not only in Kabul but in other provinces too, to control the warlords.
We advocate that the UN view Afghanistan as the homeland of the Afghan people, and not as the property of a few armed militias. The UN should take into account the will of the people and must not proceed according to the whims of the fundamentalists.
Many Afghans are suspicious about the activities of the UN and other humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan. They think that these organizations receive huge funds but do little for people. In the past four years, there have been very few reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The only widespread reconstruction projects you can see are those of the warlords who build luxury buildings and palaces for themselves.
Can you talk a bit about RAWA’s programs?
As a social/political organization, RAWA’s work has two sides. We run schools, orphanages, hospitals, handicraft centers for widows and other such projects to help women and girls. We also have mobile health teams in eight provinces, mainly treating women who cannot go to doctors because of their financial problems. Our teams are also running first aid courses for young girls and women.
We also contact women who have been victimized by the fundamentalists. We publish their stories in our magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message), alerting groups such as Amnesty International. We also provide psycho-social support. We transfer victims to Pakistan for medical treatment or children of traumatized families to Pakistan for rehabilitation and a better chance of education. We trace missing females and/or their family members. We assist families in evacuating from battlefields and areas affected by natural calamities and resettle them in safer places, supplying such families with basic living needs and—in extreme cases—identifying sponsors for ‘family adoptions’ of uprooted families or individuals and facilitating their integration. We also distribute food among needy families in drought/war/earthquake-stricken villages.
We organize functions, events, demonstrations, and other propaganda programs to raise awareness among Afghan women and give them political consciousness. We are of the opinion that by mobilizing and organizing Afghan women, we can fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. For this purpose, education is the key and power by which women can fight for their rights.
In the past few months our members inside Afghanistan have been actively working for the parliamentary election. We have candidates in some provinces and support a large number of democratic-minded and anti-fundamentalist women and men. Our aim is to form a secularist and anti-fundamentalist progressive group within the Parliament to be a force to oppose colonialist and anti-democratic legislation and disclose wrong policies of the government.
What are your hopes for the future?
We in RAWA dream of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan based on secularist values where men and women have equal rights and jointly participate in the reconstruction and development of the country.
For establishment of such a society, we must make many sacrifices and fight some strong dark-minded elements and groups. It is indeed a long process but we are quite sure that the future of Afghanistan will be in the hands of its people.
To learn more or to support the work of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, visit http://www.rawa.org/. To learn more about the candidate Malalai Joya, see http://www.malalaijoya.com/.