Sojourner, Vol. 25, No. 3, November 1999
Afghan Women's Organization Fights the Taliban
- Interview by Sahar Muradi
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is best known for activism against the Taliban, the fundamentalist regime that currently controls the country. RAWA, however, began agitating for womens rights long before the 1995 Taliban takeover. The group was established in Kabul, the capital city, in 1977, two years before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. An independent organization of women fighting for womens rights and human rights, the founders were a group of Afghan women intellectuals headed by an activist named Meena (the majority of Afghan people have just one name). RAWA members report that Meena was assassinated in 1987 in Pakistan by KGB agents and their fundamentalist collaborators.
In 1982, in response to the rapidly worsening sociopolitical situation in Afghanistan, RAWA shifted most of its activities to Pakistan, where it established schools for Afghan refugee boys and girls, together with a hospital for refugee women and children in Quetta. Under constant threats from Islamic fundamentalists, most of RAWAs activities are clandestine or semi-clandestine.
According to RAWA member Huma Saeed, RAWA is fighting "for the establishment of a social order based on democratic values, freedom, and womens rights against fundamentalism of all shades and colors." The group works towards these goals in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition to providing educational, vocational, and health support for Afghani women and children, RAWA has openly criticized the Taliban regime, publicizing countless violations of womens human rights. The Talibans policies towards women include public beatings for not wearing a traditional burqa, denial of access to work, education, and health care, and virtual house arrest for women who do not have a male family member to accompany them in public.
Sojourner spoke to Huma Saeed about RAWAs work with Afghan women and about RAWAs views on Taliban rule.
Sahar Muradi: What sort of work are you doing on behalf of Afghani women and refugee women? What obstacles have you faced?
Huma Saeed: In the sphere of education we have nurse training and literacy courses for women and home-based classes for girls. With growing Taliban restrictions, arrangements for the education of girls are getting increasingly difficult [to manage]. We educate women about their rights as human beings and as women, and of the ongoing situation in our country. We teach them to create democratic organizations in order to be able to struggle against fundamentalism. Such educational activities are conducted for refugees in Pakistan as well.
In 1981, RAWA also launched a Dari (Persian) / Pashtu bilingual magazine called Womens Message.
In the field of health, our work inside Afghanistan consists mainly of support to female victims of war atrocities. RAWA has mobile health teams composed of our members and their Mahrams [men allowed to accompany women] who visit remote rural areas in Afghanistan and a number of refugee camps in Pakistan. For the purpose of better serving the needs of female Afghan refugees and their children, RAWA founded the Malalai hospital in Quetta in 1986. Financial constraints, however, have brought the hospital to the point of closure.
[We also work to help women generate income.] These activities include vocational training, provision of work tools and raw materials to women in tailoring, embroidery, poultry farming, dairy farming, and livestock husbandry, and facilitating workplaces for women inside Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The prime obstacle that limits our work is our acute financial problem. With the restrictions that the Taliban have created for women in Afghanistan, we find it very difficult to conduct our activities. As the only womens organization struggling against Islamic fundamentalism, we constantly receive death threats from Islamic fundamentalists by letter, phone calls, e-mail, etc. The Taliban and the Islamic fundamentalists in general are so intolerant of our activities that they even viciously attacked a peaceful demonstration we staged in Pakistan.
How have your focus and the way RAWA operates changed since the Taliban emerged?
Since the overthrow of the Soviet-installed puppet regime in 1992, the focus of RAWAs political activities has been against Islamic fundamentalists. The Jehadi, the incredibly misogynist force that seized power after the withdrawal of Russian troops, committed such inhuman crimes, especially towards women, that no precedent can be found in any annals of world history. The barbarism of the Taliban since its appearance in 1994 even surpasses the atrocities of its Jehadi brethren [who were in power from 1992 to 1996 when the Taliban entered Kabul]. From our point of view there is no difference between these two entities. Both are Islamic fundamentalists, anti-women, anti-democracy, and dependent on foreign powers.
Do you feel a broad-based multiethnic democratic government is the solution for Afghanistan?
We want a democratic government which, of course, presupposes secularism. No political settlement, including a multiethnic broad-based government as promoted these days by the United States, Pakistan, and other countries to end the Afghan tragedy, can be acceptable to our people if such a settlement does not indict fundamentalist murderers as criminals. Only by elimination of fundamentalists from any political formula can there be a democratic government that can represent all ethnic, religious, and national political interests and entities.
What exactly are some of the Talibans policies on women? Do you feel any of its rules will change in the near future out of desire for Western recognition and acceptance?
The Taliban force women to be fully covered with burqa, something covering women from head to toe. Publicly flogging and humiliating women for not wearing Islamic veils according to its strict specifications has been a daily routine for the Taliban.
When the Taliban seized power, their first and foremost action was against women. They closed down the doors of the schools for girls and women. According to the Taliban, all institutions of learning are "gateways to hell"!
Because of the medieval nature of the Taliban, there [will] never be any positive change in their policies. Even Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves saying that these Taliban activities are denigrating Islam! And Clinton felt it necessary to condemn the Talibans policies as a "terrible perversion of Islam" and to add that the Talibans treatment of women and children in Afghanistan is atrocious.
Abbas Stanikzai, the vice minister of health, told the Washington Post in a May 11 article: "We have many clinics and hospitals with wards for women, and according to Islamic rules, a woman who suffers from a disease has full authority to contact a male doctor." Is that accurate?
Though there are some clinics and hospitals for female doctors and patients, they have very limited equipment. The female personnel have to be under the veil inside the hospitals and even during operations! Can you imagine operating with something covering you from head to toe? However, the policies of the Taliban have forced most of the noted doctors and other staff to flee the country. One of the Taliban rules is not to allow women to approach male doctors. We have received several reports that women who contacted male doctors were beaten up by the Taliban.
These sayings of Abbas Stanikzai are just like the claims that the Taliban "ambassador" in Pakistan blurted without a modicum of shame: "One hundred percent of Afghan women are happy with Taliban policies," or "We have given all basic rights to women." (NNI News Agency, April 17, 1999)
Are you aligned with other womens groups?
Unfortunately, we are totally alone [among Afghan womens groups] in our struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. A number of Afghan womens groups are oblivious to the political situation crushing women and somehow capitulate to the fundamentalists. Some groups believe that instead of struggle, women should grovel to the fundamentalists, spread their headscarves at the feet of the so-called leaders (a symbolic act of abject supplication), and implore them to have compassion and strive for peace! RAWA asserts that in view of the great suffering of our devastated people, freedom-loving organizations and individuals need to abandon their passivity and "neutrality" vis-à-vis the fundamentalists and resist the barbaric rule of the Taliban.
We are in contact with various democratic womens organizations around the world.
How do you feel about U.S. feminist groups campaigns on Afghanistan, particularly the Feminist Majoritys campaign?
U.S. feminist groups and other international organizations have [publicized] the situation in Afghanistan, especially as regards women. But, as we have repeatedly mentioned, our people are in need of much more than expressions of solidarity. They need meaningful and practical help. The Feminist Majority is an established organization of women in the United States and we would like it to extend its activities in practice to help the most deprived women of Afghanistan.
What do you feel is needed in terms of support from individuals and organizations in order to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan and encourage action in response to it?
We request that individual human rights activists and womens rights organizations around the world do not forget the desperate plight of Afghan women. [We request that they] relay their cry of agony to the world community and extend to Afghan women effective and practical assistance.
For more information contact:
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
Mailing Address: RAWA, P.O. Box 374, Quetta, Pakistan
Mobile Tel.: 0092-300-5541258
Home Page: http://www.rawa.org
Sahar Muradi, a native of Kabul, has organized various events throughout Massachusetts to promote awareness of conditions for women in Afghanistan. She was a Sojourner intern during the summer of 1999.
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