Z Magazine, November 2000

Revolutionary Afghan Women

By Kathleen Richter

Most Americans are by now aware of the abysmal human rights abuses perpetuated in Afghanistan by the ultra fundamentalist Taliban regime-public amputation is the punishment for robbery, adulterers are stoned to death, and women and girls are barred from school and employment, and from leaving the house without a male relative. Those who fail to comply with the Taliban's rules are routinely beaten and tortured. Recently, however, some mainstream news media reports about the Taliban have been more positive. For example, Time published a series of mostly uncritical articles about the Taliban in May, pointing out that "crime is down" in Afghanistan, and highlighting the Taliban's recent agreement to open one school for girls under the age of 12 in Kabul. The pro-democracy, pro-women's rights Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), funded in 1977, is the only organization of Afghan women fighting for women's rights and a democratic, secular government in Afghanistan. It has about 2,000 members, half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan. RAWA runs clandestine home-based schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan, and for refugee girls and boys in Pakistan, as well as literacy courses for women in both countries. RAWA has underground mobile health teams in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the hospital they have been running for about 11 years is on the verge of closing, as they can barely afford to finance it. RAWA also organizes income-generating projects for Afghan women, like craft making and jam producing. RAWA provides human rights organizations with reports about violations carried out by the Taliban and other fundamentalists. The organization also produces educational cassettes, holds poetry and story nights, and publishes the quarterly magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message).

Mahmooda is a member of RAWA's cultural committee who got involved with RAWA to counter the "inhuman misogynistic barbarism of the fundamentalists" and help ease "the sufferings of my ill-fated people". She emphasizes RAWA's commitment to educating women and girls. This, she says, is the most powerful way to make women aware of their human rights. "We have concentrated our work on increasing awareness among women and educating [them about] the fact that without freedom and democracy, our land will never achieve prosperity, peace and happiness."

These things can only be attained by "decisive struggle against religious fascism and their foreign masters."

Needless to say fighting the fundamentalists is dangerous business. In February 1987, Meena, founding member of RAWA, was assassinated at the age of 30 in her house in Quetta, Pakistan. Tow of her family members were also killed. Amnesty International reports that the assassins were probably closely linked to one of the Mujaheddin factions. (The Mujaheddin were the fundamentalist group the U.S. hired to fight communists in Afghanistan, and from which the Taliban emerged). Before her assassination, Meena had received death threats for her "anti-Jihad (holy war)" activities.

She informed the Pakistan authorities, but reportedly received no protection from police. RAWA members still face great danger. The organization has no office, because this could expose members to persecution, and RAWA members change residences often. They receive death threats daily, some of which condemn RAWA as "an organization of prostitutes." A couple of counterfeit RAWA websites containing pornographic images and text recently popped up on the Internet. (After RAWA complained to webmasters, the sites were deleted.) As Sehar, a young, soft-spoken RAWA member, told the New York Times Magazine in May, the Taliban would "torture and kill me, stone me as a quote-unquote prostitute," if they caught her in Afghanistan.

But Mehmooda points out that RAWA members have had to work in hiding since the organization's inception. "To continue our struggle under the savage religious tyrants is not something new for us," she says. "We know how to cope with them." She adds that RAWA is operating its home-based schools and literacy courses in various provinces of Afghanistan, in such a way that it would be difficult for the Taliban to discover these programs. Even if they were discovered, RAWA has arranged for there to be no evidence of its involvement. Of course, Mehmooda is quick to point out, this does not mean that they will never be caught. "But we are determined not to stop our efforts easily. I am ready to devote myself for my nation and accept any danger as a member of RAWA."

Other RAWA members share her determination. While they conduct most of their activities underground, they sell their magazine openly in Pakistan, at great risk to themselves, and also demonstrate against the Taliban in Pakistan. During the demonstrations, they are assaulted, rather than protected, by Pakistani police, as well as Taliban. Sehar told the Nation Magazine that, when their assailants come at them with sticks, "We hit them right back. We have sticks too." Another RAWA member recently hid a camcorder under her burqua and recorded the stoning to death of a woman who had tried to leave Afghanistan with a man who was not her husband. RAWA later released the tape to human rights organizations. If the woman had been caught, she would have been tortured and maybe executed. "

"RAWA is totally alone in [its] struggle against Islamic fundamentalism," Mahmooda laments. She says the fundamentalist Jihadis are the major group opposing the Taliban. Like the Taliban, they are "criminal, anti-woman, anti-democracy, and dependent on foreign powers." Ousted defense minister Ahmed Shah Massuod heads the Northern Alliance, another major faction fighting the Taliban. Even though France, Iran, India, and Russia support Massoud, RAWA claims he is not much better than the Taliban. According to Mahmooda, there are a few democratic-minded groups and individuals in Afghanistan, but pressure from fundamentalists and a lack of outside support guarantee that their role remains relatively weak. Furthermore, Afghan women and men are exhausted and hopeless after two decades of war. Many simply lack the resources and will to resist the Taliban. "A number of Afghan women's groups that exist are oblivious to the political situation crushing women and somehow capitulate to the fundamentalists," Mahmooda says.

The Rise Of The Taliban

The USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and occupied the country throughout the 1980s. The CIA hired the Mujaheddin (soldiers of God) to expunge the Communists from Afghanistan. The Mujaheddin were trained by Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence Directorate, and funded and armed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Britain, Israel, Iran, Japan, and China. The U.S. spent $5 billion to support the rebels during the 1980s, and used Osama bin Laden, then an ally of the U.S., to help recruit non-Afghan Muslims to the Mujahiddin.

RAWA has pointed out that there were several democratic-minded groups the U.S. and other countries could have supported if they had wanted to drive out the Communists and help restore independence to Afghanistan. Why did these countries instead back the fundamentalist Mujaheddin? RAWA member Sajeda told Said It magazine in August that pro-democracy groups would have refused to act as "puppets" for other countries, and would have made it difficult for those countries to "maintain their economic and political interests in Afghanistan".

When the Soviet Union withdrew its army in 1989, the Mujaheddin, under the command of the despotic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and still funded by U.S., began shelling Afghanistan's cities, killing thousands of civilians. After the Soviet's puppet regime collapsed in 1992, the country was seized by civil war. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in rocket attacks. The Mujaheddin stopped women from working and attending health courses sponsored by non-government organizations (NGOs).

Amnesty International reported that armed groups beat, raped, and murdered women in their homes. Young women were kidnapped as wives for commanders or sold into prostitution. Some committed suicide to avoid this fate, like one young woman who threw herself off a balcony in her house when soldiers came to kidnap her. In March 1994, a 15-year-old girl was repeatedly raped after soldiers killed her father for allowing her to go to school. Many people were victimized for belonging to a certain religious or ethnic group.

In 1995, the Taliban appeared. They were well-armed and well-organized, and overtook Hekmatyar's forces. Hekmatyar told the New York Times that Pakistan's military intelligence wing had likely switched its backing to the Taliban, and Time reported in 1996 that captured Pakistani soldiers fighting alongside the Taliban said they had been trained and funded by Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence Directorate. In 1995, the U.S. finally stopped funding the Mujaheddin, but Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1996, said in a BBC interview that the Taliban training schools in Pakistan had been paid for by the United States and Britain.

Mehmooda offers this account of the rise of the Taliban: "When Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. felt Jihadi blue-eyed boys couldn't implement their political plans in Afghanistan, they replaced them with a new ultra-fundamentalist group, the Taliban." When the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, she says, "their foreign masters" imagined that "'sufficient' fundamentalists [had] replaced 'insufficient' ones, and strong and one-handed government would secure their interest in the region." So many foreign countries increased their monetary and military support to the Taliban, "and they have really turned Afghanistan to a hell on earth."

The Taliban's human rights abuses have been widely documented. The UN reported that when the Taliban took the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, they executed and tortured thousands of civilians, most of whom were Hazaras, a predominantly Shi'ite Muslim ethnic minority. Hundreds of people were crammed into metal containers and left to suffocate during this frenzy of "ethnic cleansing."

The U.S. meanwhile, has lost interest in the civil war. But in 1998, America bombed Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden resides there, under the protection of the Taliban. The former U.S. ally is now accused of masterminding the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In 1999, the U.S. convinced the UN to impose economic sanctions on Afghanistan because of the Taliban's refusal to hand over bin Laden. The Taliban's overseas bank accounts are frozen, and Ariana, the Afghan airline, is grounded in its international flights, except for certain UN-approved humanitarian missions. It is unlikely that these sanctions affect bin Laden, but they certainly harm Afghan civilians. The grounding of Ariana, for example prevents food and medication from getting into Afghanistan.

Today, the Taliban control 90 percent of Afghanistan, including all the major cities. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognize the Taliban as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Afghan people. Neighboring countries provide weapons to their favorite warring factions.

Afghanistan's infrastructure has been destroyed. The country is littered with landmines. Eighty percent of its citizens are unemployed, and opium is its primary export. In 1999, Afghans were the largest refugee group in the world.

UNICEF estimates that 95% of Afghan children do not attend school (very few have ever attended school). Maternal mortality rates are some of the highest in the world, and literacy is, possibly as low as 4% for women. The Taliban have banned music, television, films, sports, dancing, and even kite-flying.

Women and girls have been especially targeted by the Taliban and harmed by the widespread poverty. Before the civil war, Afghanistan was not exactly a bastion of sexual equality, but it was demonstrating a growing commitment to women's rights. According to Amnesty International, in the 1960s, the government, under Prime Minister Daoud Khan, deemed wearing the veil discretionary, and awarded women equal rights and obligations before the law, which essentially mean that they could vote. Women and girls could also be educated. During the Soviet occupation, the minimum age of marriage was raised, literacy courses were established, and the importance of education was emphasized. Before the rise of the Taliban, Afghan women constituted 40 percent of doctors in Kabul, 70 percent of schoolteachers, 60 percent of Kabul University professors, and 50 percent of university students. However, Sehar emphasized in the Said It interview that the Soviets did not bring sexual equality to Afghanistan; instead, they detained and tortured people for their political views, and also tried to force women to dress in Western ways, men to shave their beards, and all citizens to stop praying. "They made our work for women's rights very hard," Sehar said, because when Afghans heard about women's rights, they think of the Soviet Union, and imperialism.

Today, under the Taliban, women cannot work outside the home, leave the house without a male relative, or wear shoes that make noise. The windows of women's homes must be painted black so they cannot be seen from the outside. They must wear the burqa, a hooded robe that conceals their heads and bodies, with only a piece of mesh over the eyes. Members of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice roam the streets and assault those who do not obey the rules. "Non-compliant" women are beaten and tortured, even for such minor infractions as inadvertently allowing an ankle to show from under a burqa. A woman who is raped can easily be convicted of adultery and executed. Because of the ban on female employment, war widows and other women must resort to begging and prostitution to feed themselves and their families.

Meanwhile, many women have died of treatable medical conditions because male doctors are not allowed to treat female patients, and all but a handful of female doctors have been stopped from practicing medicine. Also, if a woman fails to dress properly or bring a male relative when she visits a doctor, she can be turned away, even in an emergency. Depression and suicide among women have soared.

The Taliban have also banned education for girls, including a few home-based NGO-sponsored vocational schools. Recently the Taliban have allowed a very small number of home-based schools for girls to open in Kabul. But even these are open only to girls under 12, and their focus is teaching girls only enough to allow them to read and study the Qur'an.

Why the extraordinarily harsh treatment? According to Mehmooda, the Taliban have been "educated, nurtured and brainwashed to underrate and show utmost contempt for women. They take a kind of great pride in doing this, as [do] many others in our terrible male-dominated society." Also, the Taliban imagine that women are the weakest part of the population, so "they could be kept suppressed and silenced under various religious, traditional, moral and cultural excuses." Even though women, in their current position, do not threaten the Taliban's rule, "[the Taliban] can smell the unprecedented feminist-oriented changes in the world. So they plan ahead, before the calamity strikes them."

RAWA and Islam

Islam is the predominant religion in Afghanistan, and, as in most of the world, Sunni Muslims comprise the majority and Shi'ite Muslims the minority. Sunni Muslims are associated with the Sunna, the tradition of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad revered by most Muslims as supplementary to the Qur'an. Sunnis believe anyone pious and devout can be a caliph (a successor to Muhammad as head of Islam), whereas Shi'ites think the caliphate can only be held by descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. Shi'ites also believe Imams (descendants of Muhammad) can expand on the Qur'an and change laws and doctrines.

Mehmooda says that, besides Muslims, there were "some Hindu and Sikh minority till 1992, but when fundamentalists took power, they expelled and killed all Hindu and Sikh minority from Afghanistan. But we are so keen to have them again in the country. They also expelled and persecuted a small Jewish minority, but we are so interested to ask them to come back and live in their Afghanistan if they desire to do so."

To those who argue that Islamic fundamentalism is part of Afghan culture, and that RAWA is imposing alien, anti-Islamic values on Afghanistan, Mehmooda points out that the Taliban's "version of Islam" is much different from Islam as it is practiced anywhere else in the world. "[People from the west] must not regard ordinary Muslims and a handful of criminals as equal," she says. The Taliban justify their cruelty toward Afghans, especially women, "on the ground of cleaning Afghanistan from the evil of the west and other infidels, and also to establish the pure Islamic state in the world." In other words, the Taliban and the Jihadis "are violently misusing Islam, according to their own personal whims and political interests, and use religion as a cover to hide their heinous crimes. Our Muslim people hate the Taliban and their Jihadi brethren, though the fundamentalists call themselves 'the champions of Islam.'"

RAWA believes stability in Afghanistan can be restored only after all warring factions are disarmed. RAWA would welcome intervention from the UN peacekeeping forces to help disarm warring groups, impose curbs on countries that send arms and money to fundamentalist bands, and supervise fair and free elections.

RAWA also favors the return of the former king, Zahir Shah, who ruled Afghanistan for 40 years. While RAWA does not think highly of him, it hopes that his return to power could be a transition to democracy.

RAWA would like the United States to do a number of things to help bring democracy and women's rights to Afghanistan. First, Mehmooda says, the U.S. "must refrain from recognition of any of the fundamentalist sides," even if the Taliban agree to turn over bin Laden in return for America's recognition. The cause of the current situation in Afghanistan "is not Osama bin Laden but the domination of the fundamentalists of all brands. Therefore to target this or that individual will never resolve any problem." Instead, the U.S. "has to condemn the Taliban and Jihadis both as the worst ruling criminals in Afghanistan and the source of generating many other Osamas." The U.S. should push for Taliban and Jihadi leaders to be tried as war criminals.

Mehmooda adds that until the fundamentalists do not dominate Afghanistan militarily and politically, "the menace of war, [and] exporting terrorism and drugs in the world will never come to an end." RAWA wants the U.S. to support a complete curb of arms and money, for both the Taliban and the Jihadis. The U.S. "must exert any kind of pressure on those countries that are arming and financing the warring fundamentalist factions." RAWA wants the U.S. to impose diplomatic (rather than economic) sanctions on countries that recognize the Taliban regime, or send arms and money to the fundamentalists.

RAWA demands that the U.S. not give asylum to any fundamentalist "whose hands are stained with the blood of our people." The organization also urges the U.S. to provide some urgent help to thousands of Afghans who are going to die because of the fundamentalist regime. "However," Mehmooda adds, "the assistance should be given to the people without the least involvement of the Taliban and Jihadis." RAWA also wants permission to open an office in America.

Mehmooda points out that RAWA's major financial sources are the membership fees of their members and donations from supporters. RAWA receives no governmental or NGO support, and "is in a critical financial situation."


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