YnetNews, Nov.24, 2006
Afghanistan: Behind the burqas
By Tamar Dressler
Activist with Afghani organization for women’s rights RAWA tells Ynet women’s situation in Afghanistan even worse than before American invasion: Rape, kidnapping, murder go unpunished. ‘Without western interference, 9/11 could happen again,’ warns Sahar Saba
“I know what they tell you in the West about the situation here,” Sahar Saba sighs despairingly. Saba, an activist with the women’s movement RAWA which operates almost underground in Afghanistan, adds, “They tell you women’s circumstances have improved greatly, but in reality there is no improvement. In the capital, Kabul, and in a few more cities, women even work in government offices, but their numbers are very few, and many dangers still ambush women in the cities. And in the suburbs? For their own safety, women continue to wear burqas. Almost daily, we hear of kidnappings, rape, murder, suicide and disappearance in areas still ruled by the Taliban or the Northern Alliance, and we know there are many more incidents not reported.”
Thus, in fluent English and a businesslike tone, free of criticism or attempts to shake up her listener with horror stories of the type of incidents the movement is trying to eradicate, Saba tells of the lives of women for whom leaving the house is a luxury.
“Officially the situation is better since the international forces arrived, but most of the new laws have not been assimilated. The condition of civilians, especially women and children, has deteriorated. In areas ruled by religious extremists, most women feel only a change for the worse. In the past five years, for example, the number of female suicides has increased significantly. If our situation is so improved – why the increase? We pay the full price of war and poverty.”
Three decades of underground activity
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), founded in Afghanistan in 1977 by a group of educated women led by Meena Keshwar-Kamal, fights for women’s rights, for their assimilation into the political system and the establishment of a democratic regime based on secular principles.
But even after three decades of partially underground activity, "women’s rights" remains an unknown term in most of the torn nation. Women are still persecuted, kidnapped and raped, and no one pays the price for these crimes. The movement mostly deals with rehabilitating women and children hurt during the war years, aiding sexually assaulted women, providing medical services and operating schools in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
Before the invasion of the country in 1979, which ended two decades of Soviet rule, the Afghani government was relatively moderate. Women were allowed to study and work and served as teachers, doctors and lawyers. However, the invasion altered the situation, and RAWA founder Meena was murdered in Pakistan at the end of the 1980’s due to her opposition to the Soviet regime.
Despite being harassed during the years of the communist rule, the movement earned relative success. Some activists were even sent to Pakistan where they established homes for children and taught local women to read and write, English, and even nursing.“It is hard for us to see Islamic extremists and Northern Alliance members sitting in the government instead of being tried for their crimes,” she sums up. “We want to tell them we will not forgive nor forget; we’ll continue fighting for a democratic government despite the dangers we face.”
In 1996, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Shaaria rule was installed and Afghani lived under the terror of Muslim extremism. Women were forbidden to study, work or leave their houses without the accompaniment of a family member. They were forbidden to address judicial institutions, and were certainly barred from recreational activities, singing, showing their faces to men or wearing makeup. Women were stoned to death for daring to refuse an arranged marriage; young girls were kidnapped by soldiers and Taliban commanders, and after being raped were abandoned by their own families.
Persecuted and condemned for their secular beliefs, RAWA activists continued to fight the Taliban’s crimes. Simultaneously, they set up an underground network of temporary schools and orphanages, to avoid discovery and almost certain death.
Following the terror attacks on September 11 and the entry of American forces into Afghanistan, in 2001 the Taliban regime came to an end. However, its members continue to rule extended parts of the nation, and their power has even increased recently.
‘Telling our story everywhere possible’
“We fear the only way to break through the world’s awareness is to tell our story through any media possible, and this is why I am speaking with you,” Saba explains why, despite the dangers involved, she agreed to be interviewed for the Israeli press.
“My activities in RAWA enable me to take advantage of every opportunity to turn to officials in the West and tell them they must take responsibility for what is happening in Afghanistan today. You can’t close your eyes and think the war succeeded, because it didn’t.
"Unfortunately, if the West doesn’t interfere and help set up a true democratic government, September 11 could happen again. I see the Taliban gaining popularity lately and being strengthened in certain parts of the country. Therefore I turn to you with the request to help us continue to fight for women’s rights and a democratic leadership.”
Is there no change in civilian life?
"The situation is difficult not only for women but for the entire population. In many areas there is no water, electricity or employment. The world reports America’s ‘victory’ over the Taliban, but in real life it is not so at all. Thus, for example, although there is no official ban on women studying in university, few do so due to the dangers ambushing women in the city. If you don’t live in central Kabul, it is not safe to wander alone. Aside from that Kabul has only one university, and women have to deal with the family tradition that discourages (women from) studying.
“In spite of everything, our aim is to continue acting. We want to eradicate illiteracy and educate women. We dream of computer courses for women, and aim to open more hospitals like the one we established in Pakistan, which stopped operating for six years but was reopened in 2001. We are acting for the whole of the Afghan people, because you can’t advance women without advancing those around them.”
Do you feel you are endangering youself?
"Yes, definitely. Even today it is dangerous to be associated with RAWA and we operate almost completely in secrecy."
‘We’ll continue to fight for democracy’
Saba, who lives in Kabul, readily admits that her situation is relatively comfortable compared to most Afghanis – over 30 million residents, more than half of whom are below the national poverty level. She speaks fluent English; her education helps her maintain contacts with women throughout the world, and her cellular phone lets her tell her story to anyone willing to listen.
Compared to most Afghani women, Saba is lucky. The May 2005 Amnesty International report declared that countless women and girls suffer violence inflicted by family members and professionals, including police officers, and they don’t dare complain. The judicial system and the public show great mercy towards such criminals, and the local regime cooperates with extremist Muslim elements. Investigators further claim that aid provided by organizations in the past five years actually worsened women’s condition.
In the absence of public antagonism towards the severe abuses women suffer, Saba has difficulty numbering the female victims. She says that daily RAWA women report incidents of rape and kidnapping, but she estimated that the true numbers are much higher.
Via their website, which include dozens of reports, mostly accompanied by photographs that are especially difficult to view, they collect information and record every incident.
“It is hard for us to see Islamic extremists and Northern Alliance members sitting in the government instead of being tried for their crimes,” she sums up. “We want to tell them we will not forgive nor forget; we’ll continue fighting for a democratic government despite the dangers we face.”