RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation


The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the US on September 11th, 2001. Despite interviews with Larry King Live, and promotion by Oprah, few mainstream media outlets examined the radical nature of RAWA’s political vision and strategy, or their organizational structure. Sadly, many on the left have also overlooked the lessons we can learn from this extraordinary women’s movement, choosing instead to relegate support of RAWA to mainstream feminist groups.


Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, women’s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?


To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, “With All Our Strength” by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).


Historical context


Afghanistan’s brutal history of war naturally shapes RAWA dramatically. The 1970s were a time of intense student activism and protest. In 1977, a young Kabul University student named Meena founded RAWA to struggle for women’s rights. RAWA was born into a nation on the brink of imperial war, occupation, and reactionary forces from which it has yet to emerge. A year after RAWA’s formation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began a ten year long occupation. RAWA’s initial goal of women’s emancipation, was broadened to include national emancipation. They participated in the nation-wide non-violent resistance, or jihad, against the occupation. But RAWA was also seen as a threat by the fundamentalist, misogynist forces which the US chose to work with. In fact, RAWA’s work was increasingly threatening to both Soviet imperialists and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1987, Meena was assassinated by a collaboration of both forces – KHAD (Afghan secret police, controlled by the Soviet government), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the largest recipient of US financial aid).


Rather that destroying the organization, Meena’s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meena’s face has essentially become RAWA’s face.


Political Vision


RAWA’s underlying philosophy sees women’s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, women’s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the US, leftist Afghan women like Meena realized that the men in their movements paid lip service to women’s rights but did not see it as important as class, or other struggles. Women were told that their freedom would automatically follow from other social changes and that it was not necessary for women’s rights to be central to their struggles.


RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate “economic democracy,” and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.


Excerpts from RAWA’s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aims[1]as:


(1)   women’s emancipation, “which cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole,”

(2)   separation of religion and politics, “so that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives,”

(3)   equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups,

(4)   “economic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation,”

(5)   commitment to “struggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture,”

(6)   “to draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially,”

(7)   to serve and assist “affected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy,”

(8)   establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations “based on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs,”

(9)   “support for other freedom and women’s movements worldwide.”


RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and “the party line.”


Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:


We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Sudan and other fettered peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting for their rights against reactionary and anti-liberty states and powers.[2]




For the formation of a free, independent and democratic Afghanistan the joint striving and struggle of pro-liberty and democratic forces is indispensable. This objective can only be achieved through relentless struggle, not through compromise and capitulation.


– RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.


RAWA’s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.




Education is seen as part of RAWA’s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.


RAWA’s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled “income-generating projects.” The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.


RAWA’s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that “Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education … speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses.” RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.


Health Care and Humanitarian Aid


Despite much-touted progress, Afghanistan still suffers from shockingly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality. In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 in the UN’s Human Development Index. With so much suffering around them, it is impossible for RAWA to speak of human rights and women’s political rights, without also addressing the lack of access to food and health care, which are prerequisites to other rights.


RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s refugee camps. In many cases, the people they serve have no other access to health care. When the need arises, RAWA conducts emergency relief operations alongside their political and educational work. They often assists refugees during harsh winter months  with blankets, food, and medical aid.


Because of the large numbers of orphans in Afghanistan, RAWA runs several orphanages for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (They do not, however, offer Afghan children up for adoption in Western countries and urge instead urge Western supporters to sponsor orphans so that the children can remain in their own country while having access to education, shelter, etc.)


Media, Documentation, and Technology


From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.


Payam-e-Zan (translated as “Woman’s Voice) is RAWA’s main publication – a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan “operates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment tool” for RAWA, “serv[ing] as a place to document RAWA’s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.”


As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from Afghanistan, decided to document the rampant human rights abuses through still photography and video. Photographs documenting the victims of the fundamentalists, or in some cases, violence in action, are published on their website and magazine, along side reports by the RAWA members with details such as the date, time, names of victims, and perpetrators, etc. Digital cameras have made RAWA’s documentation much easier and also enabled RAWA to share the images of human rights violations more easily with an international audience via their website.


Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWA’s own archive. The most famous example of RAWA’s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in Kabul stadium. After 9/11, this video was viewed all over the world, despite the fact that it was more than 2 years old. When initially offered to news media in 1999, no one would touch the gruesome footage until it was politically convenient. The footage was also used in Saira Shah’s widely acclaimed documentary, Behind the Veil, which was re-aired repeatedly on CNN after 9/11.