WIN - Women's International Net Magazine, Issue 36, October 2000


By April Thompson, Afghanistan

It is, unfortunately, not news that Afghani women -- who once comprised 70 percent of the nation's teachers and 40 percent of its doctors -- are now prisoners of their own homes. That the Taliban regime, which seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, has ordered all women to shroud every inch of their body with the "burqa," a ghostly garment with just a small mesh slit around the eyes. That offenders caught by the Taliban's "Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" squad are routinely beaten, imprisoned or publicly stoned to death. Nor is it news that Afghani women -- thousands of them war widows with no means of caring for their families -- are banned from going to school or work, from going outside their homes without a male relative, from visiting hospitals or clinics, or from collecting humanitarian aid. That their children are forbidden to play music, dance, or fly kites. That many women see beggary, prostitution or suicide as their only options.

But there is another type of Afghani women, one that shatters the stereotype of the silent victim. These are the members of the clandestine Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA <>, working with scant resources in a stifling atmosphere, runs secret schools, mobile medical units and income-generating projects

for men, women and children in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan. The group has organized thousands of women to protest fundamentalist activity everywhere from the United Nations building in Islamabad, Pakistan to the White House.

They do so at great personal risk. The Taliban and other fundamentalists regularly threaten RAWA members through letters and e-mails, promising death by stoning to anyone associated with the group. In Pakistan, a second home to the Taliban, RAWA members are often attacked when they march in the streets or sell their magazines in the markets. Organizers frequently change their residences, adopt aliases and limit class sizes to keep the Taliban from sniffing them out.

This summer, two RAWA organizers based in Pakistan were invited by the Feminist Majority Foundation <> on a four-month trip around the U.S. Sajeda Hayat and Sehar Saba -- not their real names -- spoke about their work to schools, churches, newsrooms and even Congressional chambers.

"After two decades of war -- constant fighting, killing, arresting, torturing -- the people of Afghanistan are really tired. They just want to be in a peaceful society; that's all that now they can think about," said the petite, sober Sehar, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in downtown San Francisco.

In Afghanistan, women working to create such a society are a revolution in and of itself, according to Sajeda.

"The reason we call ourselves revolutionary is very simple. We are for a democratic government based on freedom of speech, thought, expression and religion. In a country ruled by backward fundamentalists, where women are not considered as human beings, that is a big revolution," said Sajeda, a gentle woman whose optimism matches her youth. (She is in her early twenties, but along with their names RAWA members don't want to disclose their exact ages for security reasons). "We think it may be the greatest revolution in the world, because we have to start from a very grassroots level, working with people to change their mentality."

For most of RAWA's 2,000 members, the journey from learning to read and write to struggling for women's rights was a long, hard one. Sajeda said that the first step is teaching women to value education.

"When we invite women from the villages to our literacy courses, we must first convince their men to let us speak to them. The women are often afraid of their husbands, who call them half-wits. They don't see why they should be educated," she said.

RAWA members also go into remote corners of the country to provide medical necessities like insulin and teach crafts like carpet weaving, which allow women to earn a living while remaining confined to their homes. For widows who have lost their breadwinners to war, the skills and services are literally lifesaving. As the women start learning more about the movement, some choose to cross the line into activism, passing their new skills and courage on to others.

Sajeda and Sehar both went to RAWA-run schools after their families fled to Pakistani refugee camps during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Now experienced activists, they remember RAWA teachers as friends who taught them how to think rather than to obey.

"If I had studied in any other school I wouldn't be like this today," said Sehar. "When I think of the opportunities Meena struggled for us to have, I cannot think about anything else now."

Meena is the feminist poet who started RAWA in 1977 when she was only 20 and her country was innocent to the decades of wanton destruction that lay ahead. Women were earning PhDs and establishing careers in law, science and art. A progressive political movement cultivated by university students thrived in Kabul, the capital. Meena, whose last name is never used, was part of that movement, working to reverse centuries of inequality and establish a secular democratic government.

Then came the Soviet invasion of 1979. Afghanistan's dozen ethnic tribes united against the Russians under the banner of Islam. While the U.S. massively armed these so-called freedom fighters, Meena was organizing a non-violent campaign to resist the occupation. Her group opened schools, hostels and a hospital for the refugees the war was quickly churning out. Like thousands of other Afghan intellectuals, Meena paid for her protests with her life. She was assassinated in 1987, reputedly by KGB agents. Meena warned her people of mayhem if the militants ever secured power in Afghanistan. If Meena had lived a few more years, she would have seen her prophecy come true. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew their forces, leaving a vacuum of power, which seven fundamentalist factions viciously battled to occupy. By the time the Taliban -- "religious students" -- took over Kabul in 1996, the country was already thoroughly destroyed.

RAWA distinguishes itself from other Afghani groups who provide social services to women in one major way: the women aim to eliminate all fundamentalists from Afghanistan's political scene.

"When we say fundamentalists, we mean anyone who is against women, democracy and civilization," Sajeda explained. "Other groups are afraid to call themselves a political organization. Only talking about human rights or democracy in Afghanistan without struggling against these fundamentalists is meaningless."

The group has a long wish list to present to the world's governments, such as sending UN peace-keeping forces to Afghanistan, cutting off financial and political support to all fundamentalist parties, and imposing sanctions on Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries that support the Taliban.

"If the UN can send their peacekeeping forces to East Timor, why can't they do the same in Afghanistan?" said Sajeda. "Why has there been so much media coverage about Kosovo, but not about us?"

RAWA relies solely on foreign contributions and proceeds from the sale of pro-freedom posters and cassettes as well as handicrafts from its work projects. But inadequate funds forced RAWA to shut down its free hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, and several schools are on the verge of closure. The group's politics have kept RAWA from getting the kind of financial support available to other human rights organizations, Sehar asserts.

Now after two decades of working underground, RAWA is finally receiving international support and recognition. The turning point was in July 1999 when the association put up its provocative website documenting the Taliban's crimes. A RAWA member in Kabul smuggled a camcorder under her "burqa" to tape the first public execution of a woman. Others have since risked their lives to photograph beheadings, film stonings and interview victims -- horrifying material now available to anyone with an Internet connection The website has opened a virtual door to groups and individuals worldwide.

RAWA's networking efforts now seem to be reaching people in the right places. The organization was recently featured in the highly popular American television talk show, "Oprah," which resulted in 3,500 signatures for their petition within 24 hours and an overwhelming increase in the number of visitors to the website. "The New York Times" and "CNN" have profiled the group. With the help of Calif. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Sajeda and Sehar circulated a letter supporting RAWA through Congress, collecting the signatures of 44 bipartisan representatives. Given the success of their bi-coastal tour, RAWA may try to open a U.S. branch.

"Meena used to say that 'the women of Afghanistan are like sleeping lions. When they wake up, they will play a very important role in society,'" Sehar said. "When we think about the suffering of our women, our children and our men how can we stray from her way?"

Donations to RAWA can be sent to the Afghan Women's Mission, 260 S. Lake Ave., PMB 165, Pasadena, CA 91101 [NOTE: the address has been changed now]. $25 will provide one month's salary and board for a teacher in an underground school; $100 will cover a month's living expenses for a mobile health team.


[RAWA in Media] [Interview with New York Times Magazine]