San Francisco Chronicle, Nov.3, 2001

Afghan women ask U.N. for postwar role
Representative in Bay Area tells of fear, hunger

Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer

Make no mistake: Women will help design a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, a representative of that nation's women said yesterday in San Francisco.

As simple as that sounds, the young Afghan woman who made the assertion could not even reveal her name for fear that pro-Taliban forces would harm her during her U.S. speaking tour or when she returns to Pakistan, where she lives.

She is traveling under a pseudonym, Tahmeena Faryal.

Neither a photograph nor a physical description of Faryal are considered safe to print.

And yet, Faryal insisted, "there is no way the United Nations can ignore us" in creating a new government.

"We want a society that respects freedom of speech and beliefs," she said. "We want a secular democracy that respects women's rights and human rights. We are talking to the U.S. State Department and Congress, but we think the United Nations is most important."

Faryal is with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a 24-year-old humanitarian organization that is perhaps that nation's most established voice for women despite having to run its schools and clinics in secret. RAWA, as it is known, cannot even open an office in Pakistan, its current base country, because of security concerns.

Yet on Thursday, RAWA members met in Islamabad, Pakistan, with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. secretary-general's new special representative for Afghanistan. He has been directed to help form a new government for that country.

"Afghan women have been silenced more than any other group, and the United Nations believes it is important to give them a chance to express their views about what they want the future of Afghanistan to be," said Eric Falt, director of the U.N. Information Center in Islamabad.

More than 12 million women live in Afghanistan. Whether such meetings will ensure them a voice in the creation of a new government remains an open question.


"There should be a role for women in the process, and the Northern Alliance has said there's a place for women in their universe," said Len Scensny of the U.S. State Department's South Asia bureau.

Assurance from the Northern Alliance is scant cause for hope among women, however. Throughout Faryal's visit to this country, a fund-raising tour planned months before Sept. 11, she has said the Northern Alliance is no solution to the Taliban.

"They committed worse crimes in some ways," said Faryal.

Between 1992 and 1996, warring fundamentalist factions now known as the Northern Alliance controlled Afghanistan. They fought among themselves and "destroyed 70 to 80 percent of Kabul," Faryal said. "They looted museums and hospitals and schools, and sold what they found. They raped women and even children. They committed the worst crimes in Afghan history."

Faryal's face remained grim during an interview. Although only in her 20s, she spoke with the certainty that comes from experience.

Faryal was 10 years old in the 1980s when her family fled from Soviet- occupied Afghanistan to Pakistan. Her mother was an early member of RAWA, and her father a supporter. In Pakistan, Faryal attended RAWA schools. And like many girls brought up in that egalitarian environment, she stayed to work with them.

During secret forays into Afghanistan, Faryal visited clandestine home- based classes begun by women after the Taliban declared schools "gateways to hell."

One day, Faryal stood in a crowded marketplace under the required full-body covering known as the burka. Peering through the mesh that covers the eyes, Faryal felt ill.

"I couldn't breathe," she said. "So I lifted the front part for air."

Suddenly, a nearby woman hissed in warning. The Taliban, who beat -- and sometimes execute -- women who break the rules even inadvertently, had come. Faryal dropped the cloth.


Yet, Afghan women often break rules, such as the one that forbids them from appearing in public without a male escort, Faryal said. As widows, she said, they have no choice.

"One day, I was walking in Afghanistan, and I met a woman begging. I gave her money, and I asked her story, though I knew it would be difficult to stand there for a long time because we would attract attention," Faryal said.

During the two-minute exchange between the shrouded figures, one blue, the other brown, Faryal learned that the woman's husband had been killed by fundamentalists before 1996. She supported her three children by teaching. Then the Taliban confined women to their homes. Now she risks her life daily, appearing alone in the streets and revealing her bare palm to beg.

"She told me that if not for her children, she would prefer suicide," Faryal said.

RAWA tries to create alternatives to begging and prostitution -- another clandestine profession among Afghan widows. The group provides raw materials for such projects as carpet weaving and helps market the goods.

"Whenever RAWA members travel, they take carpets with them to sell," said Faryal, adding that she brought some on this trip, her first to the United States.

By the time Faryal reached the Bay Area late Wednesday, she had toured the East Coast and seen store windows boasting jewelry, sports equipment and computers, visited restaurants and gazed at the stylish clothing that all spell America.

Faryal looks on such images longingly but does not want them. She wants something they represent.

"I keep comparing this society with mine," she said. "And I wonder: Why can't we have the same freedom?"

How to help

When the Web site of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan was created in 1997, members said women felt connected to the outside world for the first time.

"Two people signed on to the site, and we were so excited," said Tahmeena Faryal, a RAWA representative touring the United States. "In 1999, we couldn't believe it when 300,000 people visited the site. We didn't know that Oprah Winfrey had mentioned us."

For more information and to learn how to help women in Afghanistan, visit the following Web sites:

-- RAWA:

-- Acting in Solidarity with Afghan People (a group working with RAWA to reopen their hospital in Quetta, Pakistan):

-- Amnesty International:

Tahmeena Faryal is scheduled to speak at these times: 3 p.m. today at a fund-raiser for RAWA and Global Exchange at the San Francisco Women's Building; noon Monday at Stanford University; 6 p.m. Monday at the University of California at Berkeley, Evans Ha


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