The Daily Herald, OCT. 15, 2001
Afghan women risk all to counter the Taliban and run secret schools and employment sites
By Susan Schmidt
The Washington PostWASHINGTON -- She uses a fictional name, communicates by cell phone and traveled here from Pakistan last week under a cloak of secrecy. Tahmeena Faryal, as she calls herself, is a member of the Afghan women's resistance, working to end Taliban rule and drum up more support for their cause.
Faryal's group, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), runs secret schools and employment sites for women and girls inside Afghanistan, where they are barred from both. RAWA, which was founded two decades ago and claims 2,000 core members in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also aids some of the hundreds of thousands of women and children who have fled the Taliban and are huddled in refugee camps on the Pakistan border.
In what may be its most daring work, RAWA brings brutal images of Taliban rule to the world through its Internet site, http://www.rawa.org/. RAWA members have photographed scenes of privation and punishment, and even the public execution of a woman in a Kabul sports stadium. They have risked their lives to capture the images using small cameras smuggled into the country and carried under the tentlike burqa garments women are forced to wear.
"Women of Afghanistan are very, very angry," Faryal said in an interview, explaining what motivates such risky ventures. "They are hopeless, helpless, but they are also very angry."
In the early 1990s, Afghan women in Kabul and other cities attended schools and universities, showed their faces and wore Western clothes. Nearly half the doctors and more than half the teachers in Afghanistan were women.
But since the Taliban came to power in 1996, women's rights and freedoms have been all but eliminated. Women in Taliban-controlled areas must paint their windows so no one can see them. They cannot leave their homes unless they wear a burqa and are accompanied by a male relative.
If the Taliban weaken, Faryal said, "the burqa would definitely be thrown out in Afghanistan with anger."
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, RAWA has increased its efforts to build support among humanitarian and women's rights groups worldwide. Hence, Faryal's visit here.
Her life may be at risk when she returns to Pakistan if her identity becomes known, so she says little about herself other than that she is in her mid-20s and from Kabul.
Her organization wants Americans to know that the Afghan people aren't the enemy; that they, in fact, have been terrorized by their own government. And it cautions the United States against building up the Afghan Northern Alliance, which it says has a history of lawlessness and violence exceeding that of even the Taliban.
"It's important not to bring the Northern Alliance to power," she said. "We want a government based on democratic values. That is not possible with the fundamentalists in power."
As the United States prepared to hunt down Saudi exile Osama bin Laden in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, it gauged the political strength of his military ally, the Taliban. One factor in that calculation is the existence of women's resistance organizations, which persist despite the risk of death or imprisonment.
"They have a lot of energy, and women are half the country," said a State Department official. Such groups "have a place along with the other Afghani groups in charting the future for their country -- in trying to establish a broad-based government for their country."
RAWA is in touch with refugees in Pakistan who go back and forth to Afghanistan, so members are kept current about conditions in the cities and on refugee routes. But because women in Afghanistan are so far removed from political discourse and decision-making, U.S. officials said, it's unlikely they would know much that would aid the United States or its allies in its military planning.
Taliban women and those associated with bin Laden's forces are especially cut off from what is happening, even in their own part of the world.
"Women in rural areas are not going to have much information because they are not out in public. They stay behind the walls and work in the fields," said Thomas Gouttierre, a State Department consultant and dean at the University of Nebraska's Center for Afghanistan Studies. "They have no transportation. They do go to bazaars, but once a season or less."
Gouttierre said there is no mixing between the Taliban women and Arab women in Kandahar who are relatives of bin Laden troops.
Some of bin Laden's Arab followers have taken Afghan wives, said Sima Wali of Refugee Women in Development, a group that has aided Afghan women and whose work has been recognized by Amnesty International. Often the marriages aren't by choice, she said, and the women are forced to undergo female circumcision. "Their own women are unhappy. What woman would opt for that surgery?" But, they are so isolated, Wali said, "no one knows what their concerns are."
Wali's humanitarian organization, like RAWA, helps fund clandestine schools and textile workshops run out of urban homes in Taliban-controlled areas. But the two groups don't share the same goals.
"RAWA is very controversial," Wali said, stating that RAWA comes from the extreme left of the political spectrum. "They don't represent the Afghan norm," she said, though she acknowledges that they are well organized and have garnered substantial resources from the West.
"Women in Afghanistan are so besieged," Wali said. "They are hungry. They want jobs and education."
Faryal readily acknowledges RAWA has a political agenda that separates it from organizations that provide humanitarian aid.
RAWA's founder, Meena (many Afghans use only one name), was assassinated in 1987 by fundamentalists and the Russian KGB, according to the organization.
"Hers was a powerful voice for the liberation of women and the liberation of our country," Faryal said. Meena's death is a reminder, she said. "RAWA members have been very careful. If they were arrested, the same execution could happen to them."