Tehelka.com (New Delhi) , March 20, 2001
'The Taliban do not accept women as a part of society'
The members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) are struggling against vast odds, often risking their own lives for a democratic, non-fundamentalist and women-friendly regime in Afghanistan. In an exclusive interview with V K Shashikumar, Mehmooda of RAWA talks about the almost pathological misogyny of the Taliban, and of RAWA's struggle to survive
Women's rights have moved rapidly backwards into the unknown in Afghanistan under the Taliban militia's horrifically stringent rule. The ravages of three decades of continuous conflict, drought and disease has turned this hardy land into a nation of refugees, single mothers and orphans. Together, they make up a large portion of the country's considerable refugee population.
Women and children comprise a large percentage of the estimated 170,000 refugees who have poured into the poorly-equipped and overcrowded refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan, since September last year. RAWA, based in Quetta, has been in the forefront of the women's movement in Afghanistan. It calls itself the only feminist anti-fundamentalist organisation of Afghan women".
Mehmooda outlines the reasons behind the almost pathological misogyny that underlies much of the Taliban's actions. "Most of the Taliban (cadres) have experienced sexual abuses by their seniors during their youth in the religious schools (madrasas). It may have created a kind of complex in them, which has made them so bestial towards women. It must be clear that these vale “Champions of Islam” are accustomed to raping young boys to satisfy their criminal lust."
What are the living conditions of women and children in Afghanistan today?
Life for women under fundamentalist regimes like the Taliban is terrible. The fundamentalists do not accept women as a part of society. Afghanistan is now a ghost country, and due to the heavy fighting and rising crime rates, women in the country are little more than zombies. They are not allowed to go for treatment, get education, or enjoy any entertainment. They are lashed on the streets for the strangest reasons and their hands and feet are cut off if they were to steal a loaf of bread.
The extremists have formed a state were women are seen as subhuman creatures, whose role is to satisfy men's sexual needs, procreate, and handle domestic affairs. Women are altogether deprived of an education, the right to work, and cannot leave the house without a male escort (usually a close relative). No woman can be treated or operated on by a male physician. They are forced to wear shapeless bags called burqas, in pale colours only, to completely cover their bodies. Not even their ankles or wrists may show. No make-up, heels that make a clicking sound, singing or laughing aloud is tolerated. These restrictions are imposed, because anything female is seen as tempting a man to depart from his duties to God. In their extreme dishonouring of Islam, even the windows of all homes have been painted, so that women cannot be seen from the outside. Women are not allowed to be photographed or filmed or printed in newspapers. These are just a rundown of their despotic limitations.
Women and female children are being killed in the name of honour, sold as cattle, forced into marriage, dying because of lack of basic healthcare, and doomed to a life of humiliation, servitude, ignorance and misery. Their potential is withering away in this dismal state. Quite frankly, instead of creating a pure, religious state, the Taliban is turning the people of Afghanistan into beggars.
How different were the lives of Afghan women before Taliban came to power?
In our opinion, there is not a big difference between the living conditions of women before and after the Taliban rule, and this is because of the fanatic and misogynistic nature of both the jihadis and the Taliban. All of them are enemies of women, democracy, education and progress. After the tragedy of April 28,1992, when the jihadi beasts perpetrated their aggression on Kabul and other cities, their depravity focused on raping women, girls and children. Leaders of different warring factions appear to treat the rape of women from vanquished populace as reward for their own "Islamic" soldiers. Some armed guards target women from ethnic minorities they regard as enemies. Several Afghan women have committed suicide to avoid being raped. Scores of Afghan women have been abducted and detained by Mujahideen groups and commanders and then used for sexual purposes or sold into prostitution. Young girls have suffered the same fate. Women and girls were not safe.
Why does the Taliban want to suppress and oppress women?
They think that by brutal treatment and intimidation, they can get rid of half our population. The Taliban are mostly illiterate. They are not taught social and natural sciences in religious schools. They only know how to exploit the verses of the Koran to justify their terrible atrocities. They are awfully backward, uncultured, uncivilised and completely alien to the good norms, values and achievements of the present era.
Most of the Taliban have experienced sexual abuses by their seniors during their youth in the religious schools. It may have created a kind of complex in them, which have made them so bestial towards women. It should be added that homosexuality is very much common among these "champions of Islam".
If religion is the cover for their suppression and oppression, then does Islam really sanction this?
The criminal Taliban and jihadis have their own interpretation of the tenets of Islam and, therefore, they could simply cover their brutalities by their desirable propagation of religion, which may not be sanctioned in Islam.
If Islam does not sanction Taliban's brutal behaviour, could you please highlight the progressive ideas on women and their emancipation in Islam?
Religion should be regarded as a private and personal issue. Those who try to seek the resolution of everything, especially complicated social problems, through religion, are, in fact, misusing religion for their political end.
No doubt, there are many issues in Islam, particularly in connection with women, that are quite controversial. This may not make ordinary Muslims convert from Islam to any other religion. But when fundamentalists want to make laws on those points and then impose the laws through force and sword, people will resist it. It should be said here that in no time in their history have the Afghans been so disillusioned of religion since the coming to power of the criminal jihadis and Taliban.
The Taliban venomously attacks the image of modern woman. Just to disprove their point, name 10 highly successful women of Afghanistan, who have left a mark on your nation's contemporary history.
Meena, the founding leader of RAWA is the first conscious woman of Afghanistan who laid down her life for her ideals. Obviously, she is our inspiring heroine. Apart from some schoolgirls who were killed by the pro-Soviet puppet regime, there are many women in our ranks, who despite hardships have not given up and are staunchly fighting against all types of fundamentalists, for democracy…in my opinion, there are many who have left a mark, though not very visible, on our contemporary history. However, they are busy with anti-fundamentalist politics and it would not be safe to name them.
After all, men across all religions and in all countries and communities use scriptures, sacred texts and traditions to suppress women's empowerment. Why are the Talibs afraid of allowing women their rights? Do you think that the Talib are afraid that the women will be able to bring about a consciousness in the society to fight the evils of fundamentalism, which might then affect their rule?
That is right. The Taliban know that by suppressing and silencing women, they will get rid of half our population. Yes, the Taliban are afraid that our women will make miraculous initiatives if they are unchained.
We can also easily gauge the fundamentalists' fear of women's struggle from their cheap, vulgar and ridiculous attacks on RAWA. They cannot come up with any other ''reasoning'' towards us except reiterating that "RAWA is Maoist", "a group of prostitutes", "anti-Islam" and so on.
They have declared all RAWA members as enemies of the "Islamic emirate" and to be arrested wherever found out. Anybody found with (a copy of) Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message, a publication of RAWA) is enough for the conviction of the person, and she or he will be severely persecuted and will undergo torture
How has RAWA helped organise women in Afghanistan?
As an underground organisation struggling under the most barbaric fundamentalist regime in the world, RAWA is forced to further all its activities to raise political awareness of the women and get them organised, secretly. Even our social work is not open in Afghanistan. But as most of our women have experienced the bloody oppression of the jihadis and the Taliban, they understand our message easily; and despite harsh conditions, they are willing to resist. However, one of the greatest obstacles in their way is their terrible economic situation, which diminishes their burning will to fight.
The Taliban have drawn lessons from the fascist and criminal experiences of the KHAD (the Afghan secret service under the Soviet puppet regime), as well as jihadis, regarding suppression and controlling people. Therefore, fighting them is not an easy task, especially for the women.
Nevertheless, we are proud to be the only women's organisation that has not given up its engagement in organising our bereaved women.
What are the activities of RAWA inside and outside Afghanistan?
During the Soviet occupation, we were distributing anti-Soviet and anti-puppets leaflets, staging demonstrations and strikes in schools and universities, instigating the women to contribute in resistance war in any possible way, despite opposition from fundamentalists, running schools, a hospital, etcetera, for refugees, publishing and distributing Payam-e-Zan and so on.
It was in the course of such activities that a number of our activists were arrested in Kabul and underwent horrible tortures and some of them languished for about eight years in notorious prisons. Our founding leader, Meena, and her two aides were murdered at the hands of the KHAD agents and their fundamentalist accomplices in 1987.
After the fall of the puppet government and the invasion of the fundamentalist bands into Kabul, RAWA's focus has increasingly been on women's rights, human rights and exposition of the fundamentalists barbaric actions. (see RAWA activities: anti-fundamentalist defiance)
How is RAWA funded? Do expatriate Afghans help by giving donations?
The membership fee of our members, and donations from supporters in and outside Afghanistan is a major source of finance. We also generate some funds through selling carpets and other traditional handicrafts. The income from our publications, cassettes etc is also a source of income. In short, as an organisation deprived of any help from any government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), RAWA is in a critical financial situation. The donation we have so far received is nothing in comparison to the great need for funds in and outside Afghanistan to run our projects in education, healthcare and income-generation fields.
How does RAWA generate public opinion in influential countries in the West?
Thanks to the Internet, we have succeeded to build a rather vast network in many Western countries and are very proud of our supporters in North America, Europe, and Australia, who are making a wonderful contribution to our cause.
We have also made trips to the USA, some European and South Asian countries to spread the word and talk about the crimes committed by the jihadis and Taliban.
What has the role of Pakistan been in helping Taliban?
It is an open secret that Taliban are a creation of Pakistan and the US, just as the jihadis are dependent on Russia, Central Asian Republics (CAR), Iran and India. However, we have always concentrated on exposing the real nature of all these fundamentalist bands that, in fact, have invited foreign powers to interfere and keep them alive. When there is a government based on democratic values in Kabul, no country will dare interfere.
What do the Pakistani women think of the Pakistani government's covert and overt help to Pakistan?
As far as our limited contacts show, almost all women are very critical of the Pakistani government's help to the fundamentalists in Afghanistan.
How do you involve Pakistani women in your programmes and activities, in order to pressurise the government of Pakistan?
We have been trying our best to keep in touch with Pakistani women's organisations, invite them to our events and participate in theirs. But, unfortunately, they are not in a position to pressurise the government of Pakistan to change its policies. They have their own colossal problems. They are victims of "honour killing", as the women of India are suffering from being killed for dowry. We understand their difficulties.
Are there any prominent Pakistani personalities who support your endeavours?
Fortunately, there are several Pakistani personalities, who support our endeavours among them: Asma Jehangir, Hina Jelani, Professor Mubarak Ali, Ahmed Bashir, Afrasiab Khattak, Marshal Asghar Khan, Syeda Abida Hussain, Mariana Babar, Neghat Said Khan, Mahnaz Rafi, to name some.
Despite the Taliban restrictions, RAWA still manages to run schools and bakeries and help in the upliftment of women. How do you manage to do that?
As an organisation with over 20 years of experience of underground work, RAWA is quite able to run its numerous home-based classes, literacy courses, some mobile teams, income generation projects, etc, in Afghanistan. The fascist conditions prevailing, especially in the recent two decades, have educated us to live and continue the hard struggle, even under a theocratic rule more criminal than, say, the terrorist regime of Iran.
How can Indian women's groups help RAWA's activities?
First and foremost, their uncompromising fight against their own fundamentalist forces would be a great help to RAWA. But specifically, they should create and strengthen their relationships with us, invite our representatives for speaking tours, cover our activities, write about the horrible situation in our country, collect funds and supplies for us. More importantly, they should try to pressurise the Indian government to withdraw its shameful recognition of the Rabbani-Masood and Co "government".
Any country claiming to be democratic should by no means support a handful of criminals, who were the starters of the religious fascist domination after the fall of the puppet regime.
Do you envisage at any point in time, the return of democracy and a unified government in Afghanistan?
It'll be difficult to predict something exactly. However, we have no doubt that Taliban's days are numbered. And if their foreign masters do not install their jihadi brothers, Afghanistan will have no option but to resort to democracy.
How have the women of Afghanistan ensured that the Taliban gets the message that there are pockets of courageous women who are resisting their efforts to reduce women to a status "worse than that of animals"?
I think they get the message through our voice in Pakistan and the world printing and electronic media, Payam-e-Zan and other publications, as well as our awareness efforts among the women. Also as mentioned, when we see wild and childish attacks on RAWA in the Taliban's newspapers (The Shariat and others), we know that they have heard RAWA's message.
What can the world community do to lighten the suffering of Afghan women?
They can help us in many ways:
Stage protests, marches, demonstrations in support of RAWA and in solidarity with Afghan women Organise gatherings, meetings, seminars, etc to highlight the situation of Afghan women under fundamentalists Introduce RAWA and RAWA activities to individuals, groups, schools, organisations, and other congregations in your community Invite RAWA members to speak on its activities, situation of Afghan women, etc Give coverage to reports on Afghanistan and Jihadi and Taliban crimes in your publications, or somehow make people in your community aware of them Sell our publications in your community against advance payment of price and postage costs to us to raise awareness on the plight of Afghan women Organise a fundraising campaign with the help of friends or collect medicine, stationary, clothes, footwear, medical equipment, computers, fax machines etc and send them to us for our social activities. This is the more meaningful way to help us You also can write letters to your government, which should cover the following points:
- Do not recognise the fascist and anti-woman regime of the Taliban
- Work towards stopping the intervention of neighbouring countries and the United States in the internal affairs of Afghanistan
- Impose sanctions on those counties who provide financial and military support to Taliban and other fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan
- Start a campaign to establish a real peace, and prepare the ground for a free election in Afghanistan
- Show support for democratic, national and revolutionary organisations and individuals
- Expose the Taliban's crimes in international organisations