Wired News , August 10, 2001
Risking All to Expose the Taliban
By Julia Scheeres
Wired Digital Inc., a Lycos Network site
The seemingly endless list of activities banned by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban includes taking pictures of people and animals, using the Internet, educating girls and badmouthing the government.
The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan does all of the above.
The organization of social activists risks incarceration and worse to expose atrocities committed by one of the world's most repressive regimes. RAWA was founded in 1977, but only garnered international fame in 1997 after it launched a website documenting the bizarre and tragic details of life under the Taliban.
"The Internet is the only tool that's available to us to make connections with the outside," said "Treena Hamra," a RAWA leader. "It's been very helpful to raise awareness and to get financial support for our struggle as well."
After RAWA was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show in December, over 300,000 visitors stormed the site, crashing the system, Hamra said.
The 2,000-member strong group is outlawed in Afghanistan and persecuted in neighboring Pakistan, where it is headquartered. For safety reasons, members do not use their real names, ages or any other identifying information.
There's good reason for their paranoia. RAWA's founder, who was an outspoken opponent of religious and political repression, was assassinated in Pakistan in 1987.
RAWA's site is not for the squeamish. Many of the images are appalling: photos of a man triumphantly hoisting up the amputated hands of a thief; a video of a woman avenging her son's death by hacking off the head of the alleged killer.
The front page warns visitors about the disturbing content: "RAWA is dedicated to truthfully reflecting the reality of life under fundamentalist rule.... To viewers intolerant of gory scenes and photos, we advise caution in viewing our photos and video links. Our apology for publishing such material is: this is the reality of life for the people of Afghanistan."
The word "Taliban" is the plural of the Persian word "Talib," which means religious student. Since the fundamentalist group rose to power in the war-torn country in 1996, only three countries have recognized it as the legitimate government -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The regime's peculiar flavor of Islam has amounted to a gender apartheid for women. Among other things, the Taliban have forbidden women from working outside the home, studying anything but religious texts, and wearing anything in public but a table cloth-like covering called a burqa.
Breaking the rules brings swift, draconian punishment. One woman caught wearing nail polish had the tip of her thumb sliced off; another was stoned to death for traveling with a male who was not her relative.
The Taliban has scoffed at international censure and continued issuing outrageous decrees, such as a May edict requiring Hindus to wear distinctive label on their clothes.
Because press freedom is shackled in Afghanistan, the eyewitness reports published on RAWA's site are the only alternative to state-controlled media.
Ironically, the same burqa that symbolizes the repression of Afghan women allows them to hide the cameras and notebooks needed to chronicle their gruesome reality.
Hamra said that Taliban supporters regularly send e-mail death threats to the RAWA site. For this reason, the group is asking for donations of miniature digital cameras and camcorders, which are easier to conceal and add the convenience of allowing the webmaster to directly upload images to the site. RAWA plans on distributing the electronic devices among members throughout Afghanistan in an effort to expand coverage of Taliban activities, she said.
The Web page also serves as a platform to collect petition signatures and to sell T-shirts and coffee mugs. Proceeds from the sales are used to finance clandestine girls schools, provide health care to refugees, and train women to support themselves by raising poultry or weaving rugs.
"What they're doing is amazing," said Steve Penners, an Pasadena office manager who started the Afghan Women's Mission after finding RAWA's website and exchanging e-mail with the group. "They're risking their lives to help other women and show the world what's happening over there."
According to an Indian videographer who spent six weeks filming RAWA's operations in Pakistani refugee camps, the group has been forced underground in that country too.
"The fundamentalists are powerful in Pakistan and sympathize with the Taliban," Meena Nanji said.
Nanji decided to visit the Pakistani camps, which host an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees, after hearing RAWA members speak at a Los Angeles book store. Her only link to the group when she flew to Islamabad last October was a cell phone number. And while she was there, she never learned the true names of her hosts.
"What they're doing is so huge." she said. "I don't know where to begin explaining the importance of their work."