The Statesman (India), 25 November 2001
Behind the veil
By Aditi Bhaduri
RAWA or Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan was founded in 1977 by a 20-year-old leftist student from Kabul University – Meena Keshwar Kamal. RAWA’s initial aim was to fight for a democratic government in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has never been a country known for women’s emancipation or rights. Even when its indigenous Ataturk – King Amanullah – tried to get Afghan women come out from behind the veil, his attempts were met with hostility and shock. Thus, the lot of Afghan women did not change much. Nevertheless, 30 years ago women did have some rights. There were women representatives in the government, more than 70 per cent of school teachers were women, boys and girls studied together; 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s doctors were women. It was under the Soviet occupation that women enjoyed the greatest freedom ever in the country’s history. Meena, however, did not welcome the Soviets in 1979. She began organising protests and demonstrations. The s, though, did not accommodate her in their plans and she had to flee to Pakistan. Tragically, fundamentalists targeted Meena even there and assasinated her in Quetta in 1987. She remains, nevertheless, the movement’s heroine and inspiration.
All RAWA’s 2000 activists veil themselves even in Pakistan, to avoid identification, and use pseudonyms.
After the Soviet invasion in 1979 and right through the country’s subsequent civil war, the group continued to provide educational and health care to Afghan women and children.
RAWA operates on two fronts – inside Afghanistan and in the Afghan refugee camps in northern Pakistan. RAWA’s weapons were simple but tremendous courage was needed to wield them. They were – conducting illegal classes for the education of girls; secretly photographing atrocities and documenting human rights violations first by groups of the Northern Alliance and later by the Taliban; advocating the use of nail polish and lipstick – the ultimate symbols of feminine emancipation in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Ironically, it is the Taliban’s insistence that women wear the burka that helped RAWA members to operate undetected. The burka concealed schoolbooks, newsletters, journals, video cameras. It was with concealed video cameras that RAWA members were able to assist Shariah Shah make her stunning documentary, Behind the Veil, showed the public execution of a woman, convicted for killing her husband. RAWA teaches women about basic human rights and educates them about the position of women in other countries.
In Pakistan the group mainly emphasises on health care and education. It operates hospitals, schools and orphanages in the refugee camps where about 2 million Afghans live and where the figure keeps rising every passing day. Even here, however, they are forced to operate secretly most of the time since Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province is also in the clutches of fundamentalists.
RAWA activists who are based mostly in Pakistan, regularly cross over into Afghanistan to continue and supervise the work there. With the constant danger of being executed looming large over them, this very act requires more guts than wielding Kalashnikovs.
The group raises money through different activities and with the help of supporters in other countries. RAWA also works on income-generating projects. These projects are meant to especially help widows, who being barred from work, have no other option but to turn to prostitution or beggary. Many commit suicide and the rate of suicides amongst women has assumed alarming proportions.
RAWA is also scathing in its criticism of the Northern Alliance. It describes it as being as fundamentalist as the Taliban. When Rabbani’s government took control of Kabul, one of its first act was to ban women from reading news on TV.
In fact, according to RAWA the Northern Alliance was in some ways worse than the Taliban; there were abductions of young girls and raping of even 70-year-old grandmothers.
Therefore, RAWA considers it imperative that it be made a part of any future government in Afghanistan. It’s a legitimate claim since RAWA also represents half of Afghanistan’s population.