The Toronto Star , September 18, 2001

Afghan Women Struggle To Be Heard

by Hamida Ghafour

In the din of voices last week there was a small, ignored one coming out of somewhere in Pakistan.

It was a woman's voice. It stood in solidarity with the "great American people" in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

The voice came from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a group breaking every law the ruling Taliban has imposed on the country.

RAWA, as it is known to its supporters and enemies, uses the Internet ( as a vehicle for its cause.

"We want to let the world know what is happening to our women," Dehjat, a member of RAWA said in an interview by mobile telephone in Pakistan.

"Afghanistan is a forgotten tragedy."

The group urges the United States to exercise caution in attacking Afghanistan.

"There is a vast difference between the poor and devastated people of Afghanistan and the terrorist Jehadi and Taliban criminals," RAWA says on its Web site.

Dehjat, who doesn't want her last name used for fear of reprisals, is one of about 2,000 RAWA members.

In Afghanistan, membership in RAWA is punishable by death.

The Taliban may have outlawed modern technology in Afghanistan - from television to the Internet to telephones - but RAWA uses all of those technologies in its fight.

The group's permanent home is in cyberspace and its members sneak into Afghanistan to record the lives of miserable people and broadcast world-wide.

When the Taliban blindfolded two men and hanged them from ropes attached to two cranes, a RAWA member took photographs in the dusty square from under her burqa robes.

"When our team filmed the execution of a woman in 1999 they knew if they were caught and arrested the same thing would happen to them," said Dehjat.

"Their story needs to get out right now because the world is going to war with Afghanistan and it should not be," said Dr. Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

RAWA doesn't get much support in Pakistan, either, Gouttierre said.

"They are seen by most people as a nuisance and not taken seriously," he said.

RAWA runs schools in refugee camps, sometimes using cardboard when there is no money for chalkboards.

It also runs mobile health units and income-generating projects such as fish farms for poor widows.

The group moves its Peshawar office every six months. Members routinely receive death threats, said Dehjat.

The founding leader Meena, was assassinated in 1987 and Amnesty International believes her death may have been closely linked to the radical Islamic group Hezb-e Islami.

It's those threats that forced RAWA underground. Even the location of its Web server is a secret.

"When we travel inside Afghanistan we are accompanied by male bodyguards," said Dehjat. "We don't use our real names even amongst each other."

RAWA was founded in 1977 by a group of university-educated women who were part of Kabul's then flourishing, liberal intelligentsia.

Those older members indoctrinated their beliefs to a younger generation of women now in their 20s through the clandestine schools they started in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Secret feminists fight tyranny of the Taliban
The Toronto Star, June 16, 2001

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