Elizabeth Miller, April 20, 2002
An Open Letter to the Editors of Ms. Magazine
One of RAWA's strongest sources of strength and respect is their independence and willingness to take critical, honest and often dangerous standpoints.
From: "elizabeth miller" email@example.com
An Open Letter to the Editors of Ms. Magazine;
The feminist majority's self-serving appropriation of 11 pages of a magazine they now own, in order to claim a foremost role in "freeing" Afghan women (A Coalition of Hope, Spring 2002), confirms fears that Ms. magazine is now the mere mouthpiece of hegemonic, US-centric, ego driven, corporate feminism. One test of the editorial freedom of Ms. is whether its owners will allow it to spare the column inches for a letter that disagrees with their owner's ego-centric and self-serving view of history.
While the Feminist Majority does deserve credit for their early recognition (relative to others in the US) of the dangers to Afghan women under the Taliban and for their actions to educate US women and to intervene in US politics and policy, this article would suggest that they, other Western women, and a handful of expatriate Afghan women have single-handedly freed the women of Afghanistan from an oppression that started and ended with the Taliban. What is missing from this telling of the "Feminist Majority Story" is any credit to the independent Afghan women who stayed in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 23 year (and counting) crisis in Afghanistan and provided relief, education, resistance, and hope to the women and men of their country. Among these are such groups as HAWCA and RAWA, the latter of which is the only independent, feminist, Afghan women's political and humanitarian organization. Over the past 25 years of its existence, a longer history than the Feminist Majority can claim, RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has provided humanitarian assistance and political consciousness to Afghan women and men and has been the voice of the people, documenting abuses that would have gone unreported and are the basis of much of the knowledge that Western groups such as Feminist Majority have about the atrocities in Afghanistan. While many in the US are now familiar with RAWA, it is perplexing that the Feminist Majority should have somehow not thought to include RAWA in their telling of history. It was the Feminist Majority who first invited RAWA to the US in March 2000 for the Feminist Expo, and Eleanor Smeal spoke at a RAWA protest rally across from the White House in DC in April of the same year. There are many other points at which their failure to name RAWA is particularly striking, because RAWA was actively involved in many of the important activities within Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the international activities that the Feminist Majority chose to highlight in their article.
There are several hypothesis for the failure of the Feminist Majority to even name their sister feminists RAWA as important in the struggle for Afghan women's rights. Could it be that the Feminist Majority is somehow unaware of the work that RAWA has done for 25 years? Could they have forgotten RAWA's attendance at their own convention, or their President's attendance at a RAWA rally? Did they somehow overlooked the fact that RAWA was at the Brussels women's conference, which Feminist Majority helped support? Did they fail to notice that a RAWA member was one of the several women who toured the US as a representative of the Brussels summit, an event lauded in their article? Could they be somehow unimpressed with the educational and humanitarian mission that an independent, international, feminist organization has carried out under the most oppressive and dangerous conditions? Or worse, can they not stand to share the credit with this independent organization, which, while appreciative of the support of their non-Afghan sisters (and their Afghan and non-Afghan brothers), has never acted in the name of any other organization nor allowed outsiders to steer their course?
The other major omission from the Feminist Majority's version of history is any discussion of the uncountable atrocities committed against women from 1992-1996 under the rule of the same factions and individuals who now make up the so called Northern Alliance. Many of these atrocities were worse than those committed by the Taliban but these fundamentalist criminals have now been rewarded for their crimes by appointment to key posts in the interim government. It was in this period in Afghan history, under the control of warlords from the Northern Alliance, including Rabbini, Dostum, & Sayyaf, that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, and women and girls were systematically targeted by forced marriages, abductions and rapes, the threat and actuality of which realistically, if not legislatively (as under the Taliban), removed women and girls from schools and job and restricted them to their homes. Their crimes against women and all of Afghan humanity are well documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and RAWA, and are the basis of demands by the Basque government, RAWA, Mary Robinson, Amnesty International and others that rather than being supported, armed, and returned to power by the US and our allies, these men should be held criminally responsible for their human rights violations in a court of law. The current escalations in inter-factional fighting, lawlessness and regional, ethnic and gender violence portends a resumption of the 1992-1996 period that destroyed so many women's lives.
There are an equal number of hypotheses for the Feminist Majority's failure to mention the atrocities of the Northern Alliance. Could it be they are ignorant of a time period before Afghan women were somehow newsworthy? Are they unwilling to report on this period of time in which they, like the rest of the world, were complicit in ignoring the pleas of our Afghan sisters for aid? Are they merely mirroring the US government and Western press, who find it easier to present the Taliban as evil and the forces that the US supported against them as good. Or have they joined with our government in the concerted effort to ignore these crimes and once again forfeit the lives and rights of women for our current national self-interest. Perhaps the Feminist Majority, in their push for US political and economic power, are being careful not to anger the political powers in the US who still deny and make apologies for the human rights abuses done by the likes of Massoud, Rabanni, Dostum, Hekmatyar and others who were trained, armed and supported by the US during the cold war years in Afghanistan, and then left in a power vacuum to destroy their people and their country.
While it would appear that these two omissions, that of RAWA and that of the darkest period in Afghan history are unrelated, one of the most parsimonious explanations to both of these omission is that they are connected. Throughout their involvement in Afghan issues, the Feminist Majority has made alliances with women who have ties to the Northern Alliance, ties that are an amazing compromise of value and integrity that comes at the cost of countless Afghan women's lives. One example is Sima Samar, the Minister for Women's Affairs in the interim government, who Feminist Majority put forward as the hope of Afghan women, despite the fact that she has been a member of the leadership council of one of the most notorious fundamentalist factions Hezb-e Wahdat. It seems highly questionable that a member of a fundamentalist, criminal, misogynist faction will be able to act in the best interest of the women of Afghanistan. As our own government is also filled with Northern Alliance apologists, Feminist Majority has much to gain from aligning itself with those who would sacrifice the lives of Afghan women for political expediency. Within this equation of compromise, apology, and politically expedient, hegemonic feminism, RAWA has no place. RAWA is the only Afghan women's organization brave enough to take an independent political stand and to expose the crimes of these Northern Alliance warlords, just as they did about the communist puppet governments and Soviets before them, and the Taliban after them. So the Feminist Majority has simply written both the Northern Alliance crimes and RAWA out of its history.
On the one hand, the Feminist Majority is just one organization, in a wide world made up of countless other organizations and individuals from Japan to Brazil, Australia to Italy, not to mention the US, who support RAWA. And the Feminist Majority is certainly welcome to their own US-centric version of history and to disagree with RAWA, although the grounds on which the Feminist Majority would base such objections is not clear. But what is troubling is that in carving out their version of reality they not only fail to give any credit to RAWA and others but they also claim to represent some sort of feminist majority. Their version of feminism, however, which blatantly ignores 25 years of work by their RAWA sisters in Afghanistan and ignores atrocities committed against women by groups the Feminist Majority has aligned themselves with, seems a blow to feminism and a blow to the building of a truly representative, principled, and effective feminist majority. One of RAWA's strongest sources of strength and respect is their independence and willingness to take critical, honest and often dangerous standpoints. But this does not mean that they do not need and appreciate the support of women and men around the world in order to carry on their necessary struggle for the lives and rights of Afghan women. And luckily they have this support from millions of feminists and others concerned with women's and human rights throughout the world. For the Feminist Majority to use the first issue of Ms. since its purchase of the magazine as a vehicle to write this indigenous, feminist group out of Afghan women's history is not so much a slap in the face of RAWA as it is an indictment of the compromises and convolutions the Feminist Majority seems willing to make for their own self serving purposes. It is also a sorry indication of the future of hegemonic feminism in the US, not to mention the future of Ms. magazine, the once proud, independent and inclusive voice of the women's movements the world over.