An interview with Tahmeena Faryal of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

An interview with
Tahmeena Faryal of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

By Sonali Kalhatkar


KALHATKAR: Afghanistan has experienced brutal war for the past 20 years. There
have been many different eras of conflict from the Soviet invasion and
 occupation to the subsequent pullout of the Soviets to  a puppet regime
installed by the Soviets and then toppled by the U.S.-backed Mujahadeem to
brutal civil war and the Taliban’s rule. Now we’re seeing a bombing campaign by
the United States. What has been the worst era for Afghans and why?

think that first of all, I should make it clear that these eras are related. It
is like a chain. Had the Soviets not invaded Afghanistan there would not have
been the U.S.-backed fundamentalists and the current Taliban. From our point of
view, the tragedy began in Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion, but everything
got worse, especially towards women, when the fundamentalists took power in
1992. There were eight parties fighting each other and their main and easy
target was women.

And these are
the groups that are now called the Northern Alliance?

Well, not all of
them are in the Northern Alliance, but some of them are. One of the groups,
called Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar, is not in the
Northern Alliance. In fact Hekmatyar is very much against the Northern Alliance.
He was one of the main parties fighting and killing hundreds of innocent people
from 1992 to 1996.

He’s also
pretty anti-American, isn’t he?

Well, at this
point, yes, because now he is supporting the Taliban and wants to be in a
coalition with Taliban. But during the Cold War, he was a favorite of the United
States and he got the most military and financial support.

And his record
of women’s rights and human rights?

He has the worst
record of human rights. Not only when he, along with other groups, took power in
Afghanistan in 1992, but even in Pashawar, a Northern city in Pakistan, where he
was based, a lot of crimes and atrocities happened. He killed, if not hundreds,
tens of intellectuals in Pashawar, including the assassination of our founding
leader, Meena.

RAWA says the
Northern Alliance is no better in terms of their human rights record, yet the
United States is supporting the Northern Alliance to advance its war in
Afghanistan. Should Afghans be afraid of the Northern Alliance taking over the
country as they did in the early 1990s?

The people of
Afghanistan are terrified of the Northern Alliance being a part of any official
government in Afghanistan. The period from 1992 to 1996 was the blackest in the
history of Afghanistan. People will not forget that the hospitals, the schools,
the museums, and the 70-80 percent of the capital city of Kabul were destroyed
during that time. Many cases of rape, women’s abduction, forced marriages
happened at that time. That would happen again, if they take power.

What has
RAWA’s appeal been to the international community?

RAWA warned in
the early 1980s—when many different countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran,
United States, and France started supporting financially and militarily the
fundamentalists—that they were going to be a very dangerous phenomenon, not only
for the people of Afghanistan and that region but for the whole world. RAWA had
anticipated incidents such as September 11.

RAWA has been
calling for years for UN intervention in Afghanistan in order to disarm groups
in Afghanistan as well as to sanction, militarily, the countries that supply
arms and financial support to the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Such as Saudi
Arabia and United Arab Emirates…

Saudi Arabia,
United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India. These last countries
support the Northern Alliance. We believe that if they want to seek a real
solution to the problems in Afghanistan, the first thing is to sanction, again
militarily, the countries that support them.

You mean
stopping the weapons’ sales?

Yes, the weapons’
sales, any financial or any other support. Then these groups should be disarmed
inside Afghanistan. As long as they are armed, as long as they are supported by
other countries, they’re not going to stop fighting.

What is RAWA’s
position on the bombing campaign by the United States?

It is unfortunate
that all of the attention toward Afghanistan came after September 11. Before
that it was the largest forgotten tragedy in the world. We welcome the combat
against terrorism. In fact, this combat should have started years ago in terms
of preventing incidents like September 11. But this combat against terrorism
cannot be won by bombing this or that country. It should be a campaign to stop
any country that sells arms or supports financially the fundamentalists’
movements or fundamentalist regimes.

Seven million
Afghans are on the verge of starvation today who were dependent on aid agencies
supplying them with food. UNICEF has estimated that 100,000 children will die
this winter from starvation because we couldn’t reach them with aid. How should
the international community respond to this impending disaster?

humanitarian aid is the first thing that should be done. In Afghanistan, because
of the bombing, many of these humanitarian organizations have trouble getting
in. In Pakistan, Iran, or in other neighboring countries, where thousands of
refugees fled after September 11 and after the U.S. bombing, it should not be
very difficult for these humanitarian organizations to provide for those
refugees. In Pakistan, after September 11, more than 100,000 refugees came. Or
last year, from the drought and cold and war, we had more than 100,000 refugees
come into Pakistan. This seven million on the verge of starvation, by the way,
happened months ago.

When the
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, one of the pretexts used was that the
Soviet Union was coming in to liberate Afghan women from fundamentalism. Today
the United States government and supporters of the bombing campaign in
Afghanistan seem to be using fundamentalist oppression of women to justify its
bombing campaign. Can you comment on this manipulation of women’s issues?

During the Soviet
invasion and the puppet regime, there were claims that it improved women’s
situation in Afghanistan, but that was not true, because the situation of women
in Afghanistan was beginning to improve in the early 20th century. During the
reign of the former king or during the first president or before even the former
king, women had the very basic right of education and the right to work. We had
women in the government. The government in some parts forced people to send
their children, especially girl children, to school.

While the Soviets
claim that it was during their time that the women’s situation in Afghanistan
improved, they were trying to give some rights to Afghan women that are
obviously okay in Western societies, but are not acceptable in our societies.
You really cannot bring all those changes overnight. For example, they wanted to
give so-called liberties of having a boyfriend or dancing in a nightclub, which
are not acceptable in our society. We really need to start from the very basic
things, like education. The Soviets never made women realize their real
potential. Then, after September 11 the U.S. realized, “well, this is not an
appropriate situation for the women of Afghanistan and this should change and we
should get rid of this regime by bombing that country.”

RAWA doesn’t
receive any support from governments. Why is that? Would RAWA accept
governmental aid if it were offered?

We’ve always made
it clear that in a country like Afghanistan, which is male-dominated and
fundamentalist, the existence of an independent women’s organization is
revolutionary. Not that RAWA is a violent organization, not that RAWA is a
pro-arms struggle organization, but I think sometimes certain governments or
NGOs think that RAWA is a pro-arms struggle organization or violent. When we
have tried to get financial support, they’ve openly told us, if we change this
or that policy we might be able to give you some financial support. Once we
approached the British Embassy in Pakistan. They said if you change this word in
your name, we might be able to give you some support. I think that RAWA would
not mind getting support from governments, as long as it doesn’t compromise our

What if the
United States government decided to support RAWA as a viable part of a future
coalition government in Afghanistan, a coalition government that would include
moderate elements of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Would RAWA accept

I think it’s
important to know what they mean by the moderate Taliban. If that moderate
Taliban is, for example, their foreign minister, then he wouldn’t be moderate
because he believes that the international community should help the Taliban
build another stadium where they could carry on amputations and executions, as
he stated in Saira Shah’s documentary, Beneath the Veil. But one can also
not claim that each and every person fighting with the Taliban, fighting with
the Northern Alliance, are as criminal as all of them.

Among the
Taliban, there are 70 percent who are forced to fight with them, just because of
the money. Ideologically, they are not with them. Whenever we talk about these
groups, we mean the main leaders and commanders who are criminals. They should
be brought to the international court of law. They should not be included in any
future government of Afghanistan. I don’t think RAWA would take part in a
coalition government if these criminals were included.

If the United
States were to promote RAWA, how would that effect RAWA’s credibility amongst

If they support
us with our policies of being anti-fundamentalist, for democracy, for freedom of
speech, freedom of expression, freedom of belief, for human rights and women’s
rights and obviously we have always exposed the countries who’ve supported this
or that fundamentalist group in Afghanistan, then I don’t think that we would
mind if they support us with all of our policies, but I don’t think that would
be possible.

Why do fellow
Afghan groups discredit RAWA?

We don’t really
care what they label us. If they think we are too radical, as Ms. Sima Wali in
one of her articles in the Washington Post on RAWA says, “RAWA does not
represent the Afghan norms.” I don’t know what the Afghan norms are. And because
we are for freedom, because we are for democracy, because we are for rights, we
do not represent the Afghan norm, because those are not considered Afghan norms.
Afghan norms are women in burka, women at home, women comprising half a human
being. For that RAWA is extreme left? Then let us be extreme left and radical in
order to defend our country and people.

One of the
many comments about RAWA is that, because RAWA criticizes the Northern Alliance,
they don’t want minorities in the government; or because they criticize the
Taliban, they don’t want Pashtun representation. Forty percent of the country
are Pashtuns. What is the ethnic makeup of RAWA’s members?

RAWA has Hazaras,
we have Pashtuns, we have Tajiks, we have Uzbeks, we have Pashai, Nooristani,
and people coming from the very removed areas of Afghanistan.

discuss economic models of development in any future stable and peaceful
Afghanistan and, if so, what economic models are those?

I don’t think
RAWA has discussed the future economic infrastructure. Maybe this is an issue
that RAWA should discuss. Obviously, I think that any economic structure that
RAWA would belong to would guarantee that people in Afghanistan should live
equally. That all the starvation or the lack of education or lack of basic
health services that we have witnessed in Afghanistan, not only during the war,
but also before that, shouldn’t happen again.

I recently
read that the World Bank already promising to aid reconstruction in Afghanistan.
How do you think Afghans would react to the presence of foreign corporations?

We definitely
need international cooperation and their support. But the support should not
include Afghanistan as a puppet regime.

Many people
have talked about the fact that the United States spent billions of dollars in
the 1980s to fund these men, some of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance,
including Gulbudin Hekmatyar. Billions of dollars of aid have been flown into
Afghanistan in terms of weapon and military training. We’re seeing the Northern
Alliance being helped by the United States, by Russia, by China, and by India.
What do you or RAWA in general feel about some sort of reparations with no
strings attached from the international community?

If these
countries are kind enough to offer a certain amount of money just to rebuild the
country, obviously no one would mind using that to rebuild Afghanistan. But if
that is going to the fundamentalists, to the elements that would plunge
Afghanistan and the people into deeper misery just because these countries own
interests in Afghanistan then that is a different issue.

If RAWA is
included in some sort of future government of Afghanistan, if you or other
members of RAWA are included as representatives of the government, how will that
compromise your security?

I think that a
democratic government, or relatively democratic government, would be the only
government that we would be willing to take part in. We can not take part in a
government that is led by the fundamentalists or the fundamentalist regime. Then
the situation is different and the security issue for RAWA is different. Maybe
by that time we won’t have to be a totally secret organization, as we are today,
and we will be able to conduct our business in public. If we achieve that idea
of society, then women can be part of that. And we don’t have the
fundamentalists and we don’t have all these threats, then we don’t have to be in

Does RAWA have
relationships with other women’s movements in the world?

Since 1997, we
have been in contact with hundreds of women’s organizations. But most of these
contacts are through email or our website. But many don’t have access to the
Internet or email. In this country, we enjoy support in many different ways and
so far we have seen the impact in saving maybe thousands of lives in Afghanistan
and educating thousands of children.

You’ve been a
member of RAWA for most of your adult life. What keeps you going and what keeps
other members of RAWA going?

It has a lot to
do with the situation. When you live in a country where you see people having
lost everything, their moral and material values, and you see women in your
country going through the most horrible experiences one can imagine happening to
a human being, I think that if you have a little bit of consciousness, you
cannot keep quiet. You need to do something. I think this is the main reason so
many women, educated women, committed suicide in Afghanistan, because they did
not have contact with an organization like RAWA. They found themselves totally
helpless and hopeless and out of options. But when you do something and you know
it saves lives, you can get energy and continue with that. Also, I think that we
are inspired by our other members. We are all inspired by the founder of RAWA,
Meena. And it is very strengthening and heartfelt that we have the support of
the international community. I think when we see the support of, especially
women, all over the world—like women who walk in order to raise awareness and
raise money or people going on hunger strikes to raise money for RAWA or the
committed supporters we have in this country like the Afghan Women’s Mission.

What can
people who believe in RAWA’s vision for Afghanistan do to help?

Financial support
is always the most meaningful and practical way to help. Also, especially at
this time, political involvement is very important. By writing letters to
representatives of their government, people can put pressure that would be
difficult for the government and the United Nations to ignore. The main issue
should be about the bombing. That the real combat against terrorism should be
stopping any financial and military support to the countries that harbor
terrorism or terrorists or fundamentalists, by disarming the groups in
Afghanistan, by putting pressure on the countries that support the armed groups
in Afghanistan, by putting pressure on the government not to include the
Northern Alliance, knowing their crimes and atrocities; that women should be a
part of any future government of Afghanistan. These are the most important
things that people can tell their governments about.


Sonali Kalhatkar is vice president of the Afghan Women’s Mission, This interview was recorded for the Los Angeles
Independent Media Center by Radio IMC-LA and the Community Voices Project.