Workers Online, Issue No. 131

Beneath the Veil

A young Afghan woman has travelled to Australia to put a human face on the suffering of her people - and her gender.

By Jim Marr

Tahmeena Faryal has a dream - she wants women to be treated as human beings. Now, in some places, that might not seem like a big deal but in her corner of the world it's a matter of life or death, literally.

That's why we don't know her real name, where she lives, or her age. The Taliban might have gone but there are still enough fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, getting money and support from the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia or France to put her life in jeopardy. That's why all RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women from Afghanistan) spokeswomen travel incognito.

Faryal, who admits to being in her mid-20s, has pitched her dream to the powerbrokers of the US Congress and United Nations. Yet, the vast majority of Afghan women are still imprisoned by their burqas and up to 90 percent of those in the cities, where oppression is most virulent, are said by one US medical researcher to be mentally ill. So Faryal, and her organisation, are now urging ordinary people to pressure Governments into ensuring there is meaningful change in the land she fled as a child.

She wants Australians to write to MPs or the Government, insisting that a democratic, secular society be allowed to flourish in Afghanistan. But first, she needs to break down some misconceptions. The most important being that all is well now the Taliban has shot through. Then, there's the Amercian-promoted view that the Northern Alliance-dominated interim Government will be better.

Afghans had four years of Northern Alliance rule, between 1992 and 1996, during which the group raped and murdered with impunity. "They destroyed our country," Faryal says, "they committed terrible crimes and are hated by our people.

"They are fundamentalists, just like the Taliban. We will never have peace or human rights while fundamentalists are in charge." She scorns the image crafted of former Northern Alliance strongman, Ahmed Mahsood, boosted to near sainthood by the western media in the wake of his Taliban-inspried death.

"The Lion of the Panshir Valley, huh," she grimaces, "he was known to ordinary Afghans as the Goat of the Panshir."

It's one of a number of colourful phrases, most involving animals, which Afghans seem to reserve for would-be leaders.

The Soviet-backed Mohammad Najibullah was always The Cow but after he was overthrown and hanged by the seven groups making up the Alliance, Faryal says, the popular refrain became "better the cow than the seven donkeys". RAWA was founded in 1977 to improve the lot of Afghan women. Its first task was to operate schools, then medical centres, where women and children could access services denied by their state.

Faryal is a product of that system, having been educated in Quetta, Pakistan. As the name suggests, RAWA also has overtly political goals, dangerous business in Afghanistan, or Pakistan where the Government has denied it legal recognition.

Its demonstrations are routinely attacked by fundamentalists and their supporters from the Pakistani security services. Although, by 1997, RAWA had more than 100,000 active members it still hadn't registered on the western radar.

That all changed with one simple move, establishing its own website. From three or four hits a day, described by Faryal as "exciting at the time", it now runs seven mirror sites to accommodate traffic from around the globe. That development, perhaps the best-ever advertisement for the internet, rocketed RAWA into the consciousness of people and politicians around the globe.

It is now generally regarded as the country's only coherent political alternative.

And Faryal, feminist to her core, says the agenda has broadened to embrace human rights in general.

"Women were our first priority but, at this point in Afghanistan, we can't just struggle for the rights of women. Democracy doesn't recognise gender." Faryal knows what she is against, most immediately the fundamentalism that has tormented her sisters and tipped normal standards on their heads. So what's her definition of a fundamentalist?

"They are people who oppose democracy, women, culture and education and are dependent on foreign states for their power and influence," she argues. "Both these groups (the Taliban and Northern Alliance) share all those characteristics.

"We are not anti-Muslim in any way, fundamentalism is a complete distortion of Islam. We know of Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalists and they are equally dangerous, especially for women because, first and foremost, they are all mysoginists."

And RAWA knows what it wants - international acceptance that ...

- the Northern Alliance is no alternative to the Taliban

- fully-fledged democracy is the only way forward for Afghanistan

- foreign countries must cease financial and military support for the Northern Alliance and any other fundamentalist groups

- a fullscale United Nations peace-keeping force is the only way to prepare the ground for a democratic future. Faryal highlights the last point, arguing the US is already tainted, not least by bankrolling the Taliban and any number of other factions who have terrorised the population.

And she warns Australians to be wary of some of the lines being promoted by Afghans, refugees and otherwise, in their midst.

Confident, intelligent and articulate she is living proof of Afghanistan's untapped potential.


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