The Toronto Star , June 16, 2001

Secret feminists fight tyranny of the Taliban

Michele Landsberg

PICTURE the woman, shrouded head to toe in her blue burqa, peering at the world through a tiny mesh screen over her eyes. It's hot inside the burqa, stifling, and hard to walk without tripping. All the time you're wearing it, Treena tells me - she's a slender young Afghan woman in 20th century clothes, sitting in a Toronto hotel restaurant - all the time you're wearing it, you have to think about looking after it, hiding your hands, not bumping into things.

Picture a woman, muffled and hobbled this way, hiding a smuggled camcorder beneath her burqa amidst the roaring crowd in a Kabul stadium, where an "adulteress" is about to be brutally executed. The woman with the camcorder is a secret member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She has never held a camera before, and she could be killed for doing what she is doing, but she is determined to record the gross human rights violations committed by the thugs who rule her country. (The resulting film will be shown at a conference in Toronto next weekend.)

The facts about Afghanistan read like some post-nuclear horror film: A capital city reduced to rubble, children dying of cold and hunger, wild dogs ravening through the ruins and tearing at corpses, semi-literate bullies in power - a sort of fundamentalist motorcycle gang - who wantonly attack and beat the cowering citizens. Especially women, of course.

In this most heavily land-mined country in the world, the starving are eating grass and cattle fodder, and women have been stripped of every last vestige of hope, human rights and dignity, but few nations seem to care. The U.S. frets only about the presence there of its current favourite bad guy, terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, in recent months, the Taliban have ordered Hindus and other non-Muslims to wear yellow badges, and female foreign aid workers not to drive cars. (Against Islam, they say.)

Women are the chief objects of the Taliban's fury. They are not allowed to work, to attend school (pre-Taliban, 40 per cent of doctors and 70 per cent of teachers were women), to show a flash of ankle, to laugh aloud in the street, to go out without a male "guardian."

Nevertheless, increasingly, they do go out.

This is not because the Taliban are becoming more civilized. "No, the Taliban's mentality will never change," Treena said. "But the women, more and more, are resisting, and the Taliban cannot control this defiance." Although the fear, hunger, helplessness and claustrophobia have driven many women to suicide, they have driven others to fight back, like the woman who bore witness to murder with her hidden camcorder.

Treena, a slight and lovely young woman who was born in Afghanistan, now lives in Pakistan and works full-time for RAWA. She has slipped across the border into her native country, smothered in a burqa, wishing she could tear it off and throw it in the faces of the Taliban oppressors. But, despite the extreme situation, Treena (a nom de guerre) speaks thoughtfully and with restraint.

She is in Toronto briefly to appear at the Anima conference June 21 to 24 on "the soul of the feminine," organized at Victoria College by the Catherine Collective. Artists, analysts and spiritual leaders of many religions will participate. Treena is there to speak of the work done by RAWA -Afghanistan's only feminist organization, devoted to "freedom, democracy and women's rights." For 23 years, RAWA has resisted tyranny, first by the Soviets, then by a variety of fundamentalist regimes. It organizes thousands of secret classes for girls, as well as mobile health teams, workshops where women can eke out a living making carpets and embroidery, and political and social education.

RAWA desperately needs financial aid. Canadian women desperately want to help. Boycotts, sanctions and Internet petitions are beside the point: The Taliban are contemptuous of everyone. What is needed is pressure on the U.S. and its oil-producing allies to stop funding the Taliban through arms sales and the financial aid that pours through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.You can help Afghanistan's women by sending donations to the Catherine Collective, which will funnel it directly to RAWA. Check out the conference at or by calling 416-462-1219. Learn more about RAWA by reading the compellingly immediate first-person stories in Women Of The Afghan War, a fine book by Toronto activist Deb Ellis. And see the RAWA Web site,, for unforgettable news stories that we must not ignore.

Reach Michele Landsberg by e-mail at


Afghan Women Struggle To Be Heard
The Toronto Star, September 18, 2001

[Home] [RAWA in Media]