GOOD WEEKEND (The Age, Australia), November 3, 2001

The Invisible Sex


To laugh out loud is to risk a beating; to go to school, to work, or walk the street alone can be fatal. Half the population of Afghanistan is victims in a very different battle -the war against women. But some, it seems, are fighting back.

SUHIALA IS A PLEASANTLY PLUMP Schoolteacher with a musical voice, large liquid eyes and a tangle of pink plastic bangles on her wrists. At 25, she doesn't look like a radical, yet in the context of Taliban ruled Afghanistan, which is exactly what she is.

Suhaila is part of the Revolutionary Association of the women of the Afghanistan (RAWA), a secret feminist network of about 2,000 women working to undermine what the Taliban militia boasts is the world's purest Islamic state, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. One of the underground organizations with a significant presence inside the country, RAWA is also one of the few political organizations not the teeth.

Until October 7, when the allied bombings forced her family to flee Afghanistan for a Pakistani refugee camp, Suhaila ran a secret schoolroom in her home in the city of Jalalabad. Girls came to her house -In twos and threes so as not to arouses suspicion "hungry for knowledge" and the kind of life they are being denied by the Taliban rulers.

In another country, running schools for girls would sound like a modest pursuit. In Afghanistan, where such education is banned, and the ban can be enforced by public beating, it is a revolutionary act.

Even before the Taliban came to power, 20 years of war and he worst drought in living memory had turned Afghanistan into a black hole of instability and misery. And the greatest toll has been on the country's women, who in recent years have become almost invisible in accordance with their diminished status. In television broadcasts they sometimes feature briefly in the background, shapeless figures under the stifling, fully veiled-in the street.
"They [RAWA] take risks that nobody else has the gust to take," says a senior United Nations official, who asked not to be named.

Under the current regime, women are banned from, among other things, laughing loudly, painting their nails, being treated by male doctors or "washing clothes next to rivers or in a public place" (see below). Even hospitals can't save them. A women suffering from severe burns died in a Kabul hospital after a Taliban official prohibited doctors from removing her chaderi to tend to her wounds.

According to the United Nations Children's Found, one Afghan mother dies in childbirth every half-hour, and in June the UN's coordinator for Afghanistan said bride prices-the reverse dowry which seals marriages-had fallen to an all-time low, with fathers in some provinces "giving away their daughters at greatly reduced bride prices and at a young age".

It is no wonder that RAWA Web site, run by members living in the west, welcomes visitors with the statement: "thanks you for visiting the home page of the most oppressed women in the world." But if RAWA members are oppressed, they are certainly not passive. Aside from running the banned schools, they provide medical assistance and housing for refugees fro, Taliban rule. And they have played an active part in documenting the Taliban's more atrocious crimes: hangings, beatings and amputations.

In Beneath the Veil, a BBC documentary recently aired in Australia, one of the most stunning pieces of footage-the public execution of women in a soccer stadium as the crowd cheers-was captured by a member of RAWA. Filming is a crime punishable by death in Afghanistan.

"They [RAWA] take risks that nobody else has the gust to take," says a senior United Nations official, who asked not to be named.

"There's a certain amount of Maoist spirit, and probably a few Maoist cadres. But their history of non-violent struggle incredible odds speaks for itself."

Founded in Kabul in 1977, RAWA grew out of the left-wing rhetoric and feminism, which flourished briefly in Afghanistan at that time.

Its founder was a 20-years-old student known as Meena (most women in RAWA don't use second names), who become the movement's martyr when she was assassinated in 1987 in Pakistan. Though there are few available facts on Meena, her story is in some way a measure of the complicated issues facing a group like RAWA. From a secular middle-class background, she founded the group as a way to get more women involved in social and political life.

Two years later, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, she organized protest rallies. But the other groups agitating against the Soviets were Islamists who had no time for women's rights or democracy.

Meena fled the country for Pakistan, where she worked among Afghan refugees, running clinics and schools for women and girls. But she wasn't safe there, either. She had become a target for the Afghan fundamentalists, and they allegedly killed her in Quetta.

Today, RAWA's members still stand alone among the shifting alliances in Afghanistan.

They certainly don't support the Taliban. But nor do they back the Northern Alliance, which they say has acted as badly or worse than the Talibs. The only ideology they advocated is a commitment to democracy, human rights and justice.

Asked how she joined, Suhaila says she was shown RAWA's magazine by a friend and was so excited there was an organization working for women that she wrote to it immediately offering to help. She was contacted by a woman she already knew and the school, for which she received a modest salary, developed from there.

IN NEIGHBORING PAKISTAN, RESTRICTIONS on women are fierce, but they are not required to cover their faces or to travel only in the company of male relative. They can work, study and drive, and several occupy senior positions in the government.

But a long history of co-operation between Pakistani in intelligence agencies and the Taliban means that for RAWA, Pakistan is not a safe refuge. Two years ago Fatima, a RAWA member, was injured while taking part in an anti-Taliban demonstration in Pakistan: "We wanted to go in front of the United Nations building, but the Pakistani police wanted to stop us," she told Salan, the online magazine. "During the fighting they beat me and broke my hand."

RAWA members in Pakistan live a cloak-and dagger existence, regularly changing houses and arranging secret meetings. Fearful of telephone taps, their phone conversations are peppered with code words. The group is organized in a segmented structure to ensure that the detection of one cell not compromise the security of others.

As a private guesthouse in Peshawar's leafy University Town district, Tahira Shams arrives escorted by a young male protector. Tahira is not her real name and our meeting has been arranged by a go-between.

At 55, she has spent almost half her life in the movement, and the decades of struggle have given her features a grim, hunted look.

In the 1960s, the government of Afghani prime minister Daoud Khan made the segregation of women and wearing of the veil optional.

Women were given vote and several entered parliament and cabinet. Even before the reforms, Tahira remembers a culturally diverse childhood in which she rode to school on a bicycle, but wore a head covering out of respect when visiting her grandparents.

In public, the veteran freedom fighter observes the proprieties, hair covered by a thin cotton scarf. In private, she whips the inconvenient garment off at the first opportunity.

"Here in Pakistan, the fundamentalist parties are also strong," she says, emerald eyes cautiously darting back and forth form the lobby door. "The Afghan embassy in Islamabad is controlled by the Taliban. They also control the refugee camps. They have guns, influence and can do more or less what they like."

With their underground network in place, RAWA would be the ideal vehicle for violent opposition to the Taliban, but so far they have not chosen to go down that route.

"We can't say we will never take up armed struggle," says Tahira, "but at the moment we don't see that as a solution, because the people are tired of war and sick of guns."

Like others in her organization, she is reluctant to support the Northern Alliance as an alternative government. Though it has been played down or ignored by the Western media, life under the late Alliance leader, Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, arguable placed women at more risk than they experience under the Taliban. Teenage girls were routinely gang-raped, and their parents shot if they dared intervene. Scores of Afghan women were abducted by militia commanders and used for case, a father shot his own daughter rather than allow her to be dragged away by Massoud's goons.

"Plenty of people who are now selling themselves as an alternative to the Taliban have just as much, if not more, blood on their hands," says Tahira. But she is anxious to dispel the idea that Taliban-style repression of women is somehow innate to Afghan and, particularly, the Pashtun ethnic majority culture.

"We accept that there are many points in our culture, tradition and even in our religion that need to be changed, and we will work for that. But Pashtun culture was not always so brutal as it is today. Much of the violence in Afghan culture now reflect the ravages of two decades of civil war," she says.

Do their men support them? Sahar, another RAWA activist, says, "Unfortunately, we cannot say that most Afghan men respect women. But educated men are much more supportive and respect what we do. It is very encouraging to have male supporters. And, of course, RAWA members are married." The main role of men associated with RAWA is to act as bodyguards.

AS FAR AS THEY BACK ANYONE, THE MEMBERS OF RAWA back the exiled king of Afghanistan, 87-year-old Zahir Shah, whom they see as the best bet for a broad-based interim ruler. But they also fear that if he were returned to power, he would agree to an alliance with the Northern fighters. Says Sahar, wok works in Islamabad, "If they bring the Northern Alliance back to power it will only bring more war." Does RAWA see itself as part a future government? Most definitely, Sahar asserts. She thinks it is essential that the voices of Afghan women are heard again.

They say they welcome Western support for their struggle, but they also struggle with the way western observers keep coming back to the veil as a primary issue. "To free women from the veil, you first have to change the world around them," Tahira explains. In a country where illiteracy and poverty are widespread only 5 percent of Afghan women were literate before the Soviet invasion-there are more pressing concerns. And first, they say, stopping the war and lifting sanctions against their country is essential. "The American bombing is a terrorist act against Afghanistan. It is inspiring a big hatred for America. The victims of sanctions are our people, not the Taliban," Tahira says. She does not buy the argument that it is being done with the best intentions: "Sanctions have been imposed only on the Taliban, when the opposition forces like the Northern Alliance are equally criminal."

And yet the question of the veil keeps coming back. As heart, RAWA is a feminist group and its constituency the invisible women.

Given the choice, and the opportunity, women like Tahira and Sohaila believe the majority of Afghan women would cast off their veils and go back to work and school. But they know that whatever lies ahead, change for women will be slow and painful.

Even the small freedoms available to women in Pakistan are too novel for the majority of Afghan women t embrace fully, since arriving a week earlier, Suhaila hasn't stepped outside the door, and if she did, she says she would don one of several chaderis with their anonymous face grilles brought form Kabul. As she points children, Taliban-raised, would questions her.

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