New Internationalist 357, June 2003
Making Waves: Interview with RAWA
By Chris Richards
Anyone who doubts that women’s demand for democracy can be revolutionary need look no further than Afghanistan and its feminist poet, Meena Kishwar Kamal. Giving voice to the deprived and silenced women of Afghanistan at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, Meena campaigned against fundamentalism and the governing ‘Russian puppet regime’, and spoke out for democracy, peace and freedom. After 10 years – just before her 31st birthday – she was assassinated. The organization she founded in 1977 – the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) – regards her as a martyr and still holds fast to her core values.
‘Since Meena was murdered, we don’t let our senior members appear at press conferences or in public. We younger women do the representation. If anything happens to us our work will not be stopped, just damaged.’ I’m speaking with Marina, a 22-year-old woman, at her present home in Islamabad, Pakistan. She’s part of RAWA’s foreign office, staffed by a group of young Afghan women – multilingual and computer literate – who move every six months to protect their work and members.
They present the more public face of RAWA from Pakistan while the organization’s main policy-makers continue to live and work underground in Afghanistan.
‘RAWA is trying to achieve democracy – secularism,’ she says. ‘We respect Islam. But while any fundamentalist force rules Afghanistan – whether it be Taliban or Jehadis (such as the Northern Alliance) – democracy and secularism cannot be achieved.’
For RAWA, the political starts with the social. As Marina explains: ‘In order to achieve the political, you have to be with the people. RAWA has mobile health teams working in 8 of the country’s 30 provinces. They have teams providing food, clothes and water in an emergency. Afterwards, when our members come back, they are given a very warm welcome. The people know you; they trust you; you have a place in their hearts.’
The literacy rate among Afghan women is estimated to be just five per cent. Believing that knowledge is power, the establishment of literacy courses for Afghan women is one of RAWA’s most urgent priorities, says Marina.
‘In some parts of Afghanistan, especially where Pashtun tribes are living [Taliban troops were overwhelmingly Pashtun], few women come to the courses because their families oppose it. Sometimes we have to start the course completely underground so that no-one in the village knows about it except the women who attend. This does not mean that this is the way for every village. Of course not! In poor villages, economy… income… is the main thing. Our members help set up a carpet-weaving factory or an embroidery workshop; a chalk-making factory or a poultry farm. The women of the village go there: they tell you what they want – we can prepare them there for literacy classes. Out of every 10 women, you will filter 2 who will be interested in the political. These are the roots of our organization. If the roots are strong, the stem can grow better.’
And what about RAWA’s attitude to men? ‘We are not extremist feminists. Men can carry the message.’ Marina tells me about her father and male friends: detailing the support that they give so that she can do her RAWA work. ‘Please don’t print those details though. It is the political, not the personal, that is important.’
As for the claim by Western media that US intervention has helped liberate Afghan women, Marina is scathing. ‘Two women have been selected as ministers in the Cabinet of our country’s interim Government. The liberation of women does not mean two women in government.’
‘Since 11 September 2001, the ousting of the Taliban regime and the rise in power of the Northern Alliance has made RAWA’s work both more and less difficult. The Taliban did not treat us as political activists: instead they tried to degrade our moral standing with the people by saying we were infidels and prostitutes. But the Northern Alliance considers us to be political enemies. When they decide to smash democratic forces, RAWA will be their first target. Only a few weeks ago Jehadi gunmen rushed to a bookshop in Kabul and threatened to kill the shopkeeper if our publications were seen in his shop again. They tortured and imprisoned a RAWA supporter who was copying a RAWA statement in a Kabul market.’
‘More than two decades of war have had a great impact on our people. Many have been to other countries – especially to Pakistan [as refugees] – where they see people enjoy certain freedoms and that both men and women get an equal education. They realize that if you can’t express yourself, you can’t articulate the changes that you need. So the thirst for education among our women is growing. In today’s Afghanistan giving a pen to a woman is a revolution. And our members are working for this revolution with great determination.’