Revolutionary Afghan Women

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 Afghan Women (RAWA), founded 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. Two 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 Mahmooda 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, Mahmooda 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 power.” Ousted defense minister
Ahmed Shah Massoud 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

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 Mujaheddin.

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? RA-
WA 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 Hekmat- yar, and still funded by
the 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 Hekmat- yar’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. Mahmooda 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 Tali- ban.” 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-Sharifin 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 controls 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 percent 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 percent 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
meant 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 burqua, 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 burqua. 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 Mah- mooda, 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.

Mahmooda 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 Mghanistan, Mahmooda
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, Mahmooda 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 Mghanistan “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

Mahmooda 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,” Mahmooda
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.

Mahmooda 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.”

Kathleen Richter is a graduate student in biology at the California Institute
of Technology.