The Toronto Star , Oct.7, 2001

A post-Taliban Afghanistan must heed women

Michele Landsberg

AFGHAN WOMEN are frightened. In the coming week, war may be launched against the terrorists who are holding their entire country hostage.

"There is a strangling atmosphere of fear," said Tahmeena, who belongs to RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She spoke on the phone from New York, where she had just arrived from the seething refugee camps in Pakistan. "The borders to Iran and Pakistan have been slammed shut, but they are flooding through in illegal ways across the mountain passes.''

Already, last winter, the 2 million refugees huddled in the camps just across the border in Pakistan were freezing, dying, eating grass utterly abandoned by the great powers - except for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Last winter, refugee officials said that new arrivals from northern Afghanistan were in the worst condition: The monthly mortality among their children under 5 was, even then, 150 deaths per 10,000 children.

Now, after a summer of drought and escalating tensions, those crowding to the border from the starving north will be in an even more wretched state.

With the threat of war, misery is heaped upon misery.

But there is still more to fear.

"We are terrified that the Western coalition will put the Northern Alliance into power," Tahmeena said. "These are the people who ruled Afghanistan once before, and they are just as much terrorists as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

"It was this fundamentalist group that smashed the capital, Kabul, to rubble; 90,000 people were killed in the rocketing and shelling. They looted everything; they burned the libraries. Just like the Taliban, their first target was women. They committed such crimes as rape, kidnap and forced marriage. If families would refuse to hand over a pretty girl to a Jehadi commander, he would kill the father. Sometimes, in fact, daughters committed suicide; sometimes fathers even killed their daughters in order not to hand them over.''

For 20 years, the secular women of RAWA have resisted first the Soviet invaders, then the Jehadi, then the Taliban. For decades, their country was the staging ground for Cold War proxy battles between superpowers - battles that left the Afghan population at the mercy of ruthless, unelected warlords.

The RAWA operate in deepest secrecy inside Afghanistan, running mobile health units, income-generating craft workshops for destitute women and clandestine schools for girls. From behind their smothering burqas, they have summoned the almost inconceivable courage to photograph the vile public executions carried out weekly by the Taliban.

At all times, the RAWA women are at risk of death if caught. They are equally threatened by fanatic elements in Pakistan.

In the refugee camps, 1,000 RAWA members struggle to deliver food and blankets, operate clinics and co-ed schools, run nurse training courses and literacy classes. Last week, UNESCO reported that only 22 per cent of Afghan women are literate.

One would think that RAWA, the most stalwart resistance to the Taliban, would be vociferous in hoping for the overthrow of their oppressors at the hands of the U.S. and its allies.

"No, no, we don't want the Taliban to be toppled by force," exclaimed Tahmeena. "No more war! Only the Afghan people will be the victims. The way for peace is for the allies to stop those who are funding the fundamentalists. You know, the Jehadi (Northern Alliance) are getting money and weapons from Iran, India, Iraq, Russia and France.''

The RAWA have seen all this before. The last thing they want is another primitive group of rural fundamentalists to be put in power over them by outsiders.

RAWA's dream is that both sides will be forced, through economic sanctions, to disarm, at which point the United Nations will send in peacekeepers to supervise fair elections, as it did in East Timor.

Sally Armstrong, the Canadian journalist who has spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and written powerfully about the plight of the women, added a pointed footnote to this view when I spoke to her late last week.

"Whatever happens, remember that since 1996, only the women have spoken up against the Taliban, desperately trying to warn the world about these terrorists. Nobody listened, except other women. Now that the Taliban might be overthrown - and most of the Afghan groups hope that there will be a coalition of parties around the king - there must be women at the negotiating table.''

It's not long since the United Nations Security Council itself insisted that wherever there are peace talks, the women of those countries should be participants. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo have, in fact, been the first to implement this measure.

"If the women are not at the table," Armstrong insisted, "Afghanistan will remain a pariah state.''

Misogynists love to sneer at the thought that women might bring a different perspective to peace talks. Had we heeded the courageous voices of the Afghan women, however, and not dismissed them as marginal, the U.S.-created Afghan terrorocracy would not have held.

Far from any peace talk tables this week, the RAWA members continue their daunting work in the bitter despair of the refugee camps. Fortunately, the Americans and their allies, foreseeing the onslaught of terrified and starving refugees in the weeks to come, have provided a bulwark of money in order to help feed and shelter them.

When the time comes to rebuild Afghanistan, let's not lose sight of the incredibly brave women who fought the Taliban before, during and after.


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

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

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