The News International on Sunday, March 10, 2002

RAWA: a hard nut to crack

By Sultan Rahim Khan

Secular-democratic values that RAWA advocates are of universal importance and values. The people of Afghanistan will endure some more years without having industries, but we hope they will never be prepared to tolerate anti-democratic rule"

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women's rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan. Its motto is: 'RAWA is a bone, which if swallowed, will tear up the throat. RAWA is a very hard nut to crack.' During the Soviet occupation, it distributed anti-Soviet leaflets, staging demonstrations and strikes in schools and universities; instigating women to contribute in resistance war in any possible way despite opposition from the fundamentalists; running schools, a hospital etc for refugees; publishing and distributing Payame Zan and so on.

It was in the course of such activities, that a number of its activists were arrested in Kabul, who underwent horrible tortures and some of them languished for about eight years in notorious prisons. RAWA's founding leader Meena and her two aides were murdered at the hands of 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 focused more on women's rights, human rights and exposition of the fundamentalists' barbaric actions.

In the beginning of the US-Taliban war, RAWA was a powerful voice for the anti-Taliban cause. The group brought their chilling tales of abuse under the Taliban rule. Their web-site, videos and photos of Taliban evils were seen by millions. But when the respected human rights group issued a politically inconvenient statement about the Northern Alliance's own abuse of women, the information was met with mostly deaf ears. This has been happening with various resistance movements in Yogoslavia, Albania, Iraq and now in Afghanistan.

We interviewed RAWA's spokesperson, Mehmooda, about issues confronting this brave and consistent women's association of Afghanistan. Excerpts follow:

RAWA represents a revolutionary association. There are various forms of revolutionary concepts ranging from reformed Stalinists to orthodox Maoists. Where do you place yourself?

The term "revolutionary" in our name means first and foremost RAWA's staunch stand on secularism, women's rights, democracy and social changes according to social justice. In a backward and fundamentalism-blighted country like Afghanistan, they are all "revolutionary"; and we want all "men" and other organisations in the country to know that Afghan women can also fight and insist on some "revolutionary" positions and demands, and will never reconcile with the enemies of the said principles. Of course, after achieving a democratic government, our name would be changed to something more true to its duties. Struggle for women's rights in a country like Afghanistan is the biggest revolutionary task.

Your working methods appear like that of an NGO. How do you relate your revolutionary conception with your charity work? Aren't they contradictory?

Sadly most Afghan NGOs are bogus and corruption-stricken. RAWA tries to reach to the most downtrodden refugees and people inside Afghanistan. Moreover, especially our activities in educational sector are not "non-political" but based on an anti-fundamentalist and justice-loving agenda.

We want to show to our people that women can also do things, which have been taught as only men's business.

Our charity work has never been free of a revolutionary, feminist and anti-fundamentalist content. That is why fundamentalist bands have always been trying to create hurdles regarding our charity activities.

RAWA is in favour of the return of Zahir Shah. But past regimes failed to overcome the problems of Afghanistan and created a lot more. Didn't Zahir Shahs' policies lead to instability of the '70s, and the fracture of the Afghan society after the Soviet withdrawal?

Zahir Shah could be regarded as another ruler of our ill-fated country, who might have done nothing so beneficial to the people of Afghanistan; and thus he will not be the best choice. But as majority of our people horribly suffered at the hands of the pro-Soviet puppets, and especially the barbaric fundamentalist bands, they simply preferred him to all those criminals. As said the former king might have done nothing of historical importance, but anyway he was not trying to pull back Afghanistan to the Dark Ages, and hasn't committed even a hundredth of crimes of the fundamentalists.

RAWA's literature talks about revolution and women's empowerment through participation in public sphere. However, your working methodology seems to be inclined towards charity. As far as we understand, charity favours fewer people. Even when it succeeds it mostly looks like an attempt to create a middle class. Do you think that change can be catalysed via the middle class?

As mentioned before, our charity work is also revolution-oriented, and if it is developed in such way as to be viewed as a "class creator", it will be ok. Because even a middle class generally enlightened and imbued with progressive and anti-fundamentalist thoughts would be a very positive outcome.

RAWA condemns both Taliban and Northern Alliance. You do not appear to support any alternate group either. Do you wish to project yourself as an alternative?

Yes, we regard both Taliban and the Northern Alliance as criminal. We know that presently or even in the near future, RAWA does not want to project itself as an alternative. RAWA, however, wants not a single party, but all democratic forces to be looked upon as an alternative by the Afghan people.

According to one recent account published in the New York Book of Reviews Mishra writes that in rural areas anti-women laws were less strictly followed then in cities where women were severely oppressed. He says that this was so because of the traditional liberty that the rural culture offers to women, and the Taliban did not see anything that much objectionable in the rural life than they looked at the urban life 'deformed' by the Soviet rule. Please comment.

We don't think so. We are of the opinion that RAWA and majority of politically active women were in the cities and as the Taliban were afraid of their uprising; therefore, they tightened their religious fascist grip over urban women more strictly than rural folk.

The Taliban were following what their jihadi brothers preached. For instance, Rasul Sayyaf had shamelessly stated during his and his brother's murderous rule in 1992-96 that all inhabitants of Kabul should be eliminated as they had been contaminated by non-Islamic thoughts!

According to Western media, US intervention will emancipate women from oppression; and apparently after Karzai took over women have some freedom. Do you see substantive freedom already on the ground, or would you contest this hypothesis?

First, we are of strong belief that emancipation of women from fundamentalism or any other oppression would be the sole responsibility of women themselves. Unless and until Afghan women are not organised, conscious and determined to fight for their rights, they would achieve no genuine emancipation.

Second, US intervention helped just the NA to come again to the scene. And it is well-known that the NA is such an infamous fundamentalist camp that the Taliban's barbaric wrongdoings against women pale in comparison to what the inhuman crimes they (the NA) committed against our tortured women. The presence of NA criminals in the interim government is a painful insult to the freedom-loving women of Afghanistan.

Most of the women, even in Kabul, fear to throw away the disgusting burqas. They simply say: "Give us security, then we'll remove our burqas." RAWA is still not operating openly because of the upper hand of the NA in the Karzai administration.

RAWA supports UN forces in Afghanistan. But in the past the role of UN has been controversial in different countries, particularly in Africa and Kosovo. What do you say to that?

The UN will not have a brilliant history in Africa, East Timor and other areas, but still we support the deployment of its effective peacekeeping force in the country to disarm the fundamentalist groups, maintain security and supervise elections. The UN intervention won't be an ideal option, but we prefer it to the bloody rule of the fundamentalist bandits.

Your association is talking about broad-based secular government in Afghanistan. But for a common Afghan the term 'secularism' means atheism. So there is a problem there. When we go back in Afghan history there has been a secular government and those were the communists. But that also failed in restoring peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. Can secularism be a savior now, or is it that you see no other way around fundamentalism?

Yes, one of the darkest aspects of approach to the Afghan problem by the Afghan and foreign, including Pakistani intellectuals, is that they have never talked about the necessity of democracy in our country let alone the establishment of a secular government. And a lot of them, mostly in order to please the fundamentalists, have tried to call secularism equal to atheism. This is simply a lie. Secularism cannot, and should not, be portrayed as atheism or anti-religion. It only forbids religious hypocrites and terrorists to use religion for their political ends. In our view, secularism is the only school of thought which would be able to stand against fundamentalism and other fascist and terrorist ideologies, and frustrate their sinister designs.

Pro-Soviet Parcham and Khlaq parties were not communists but, first and foremost, anti-democracy and traitors, completely dependent on the Kremlin. People will never take the so-called secularism of any government seriously, that is so brutal, puppet and without strong footing among the masses.

In the past your association also opposed Russian invasion in Afghanistan. Any particular reason for that?

Though they were not fundamentalist, but they were criminal invaders who wanted to change Afghanistan into their colony and loot its resources for their own interests.

RAWA activities are limited only for females. Do you think without male participation you can emancipate women?

Not at all. We strongly insist that emancipation of women is closely related to the freedom of the country as a whole. And this cannot be achieved by women or men alone. Men and women both should fight for freedom, democracy and woman's rights.

RAWA demonstrated against the on-going war in Afghanistan after the attack on WTC. Some [religious] fanatic groups attacked your procession. Can you tell us more about that, and how have you organised any further demonstrations after that episode?

By threatening and attacking us, the Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalist bands wanted to intimidate RAWA and consequently stop it from tearing apart their real faces as blood-thirsty religious fascists. But they didn't realise that we have already sworn on Meena's blood, which will fulfill her great cause without fearing death and difficulties. So we continued to organise demos and other events. And they might have concluded that RAWA is bone which is swallowed, will tear up the throat.

Of course there is still the danger of such cowardly attacks on RAWA's events from the fundamentalists' side, but unlike all other Afghan women's groups we will never give up and collaborate with these criminals.

Do you think oppression of women is a result of male domination, and it is quite separate from the division of a backward, underdeveloped and culturally conservative society; or is it a matter of class?

We think that roots of oppression of women should be sought in terribly backward traditions, religion as well as class issues.

Your liberation movement utilises the Western European idea of women liberation. However, the European society is industrially developed while Afghanistan is highly backward ....

Definitely, Afghanistan is the most backward and poor country in the world. Nevertheless, liberation ideas cannot be classified as "Western" or "Eastern". None of the great thinkers in the West have ever presented their epoch-making thoughts as something for their "own" continent.

Secular-democratic values that RAWA advocates are of universal importance and values. The people of Afghanistan will endure some more years without having industries, but we hope they will never be prepared to tolerate anti-democratic rule. Democracy is just like fresh air without which a humane living would be impossible.

Like civil rights movements in the US and Northern Ireland, the women's movement of late '60s and early 1970 began to mobilise people against oppression created by the system. However there was a limit to which those struggles could be waged and in the end only a minority benefited, while the masses remained oppressed. What future is there for women's movement in a backward country like Afghanistan?

Women's movements in the West have achieved magnificent success, though not all what they have in the agenda. Afghan women will have a long way to go. However, we should enjoy fruits of the movements in the West and not forget that we are living in a computer era and must achieve at least some of our goals in shorter periods than our pioneers in the West.

Afghan war and fundamentalism both are the product of this system. However you appear to challenge only a part of it ie women oppression. In that light, how do you foresee a future of RAWA? Is freedom possible without a movement of men and women together?

As mentioned above, we have always insisted that emancipation of women should closely be related to the freedom of the country as a whole. And this cannot be achieved by women or men alone. We are trying on our part to educate that as women alone won't be able to emancipate themselves, men should also bear it in mind that no revolution, no fundamental change can be achieved without women's participation.

Our fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan undoubtedly needs a great movement of men and women together to bury feudalism and other anti-democratic and anti-people ideas once and for all.


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