Women’s rights group struggles to gain respect among Afghans

Women’s rights group struggles to gain respect among Afghans

By Fariba Nawa
October 30, 2001
Agence France Presse

Peshawar, Pakistan — They have been called Maoists, spies for the Soviet Union, for Pakistan and now the United States.

They work undercover, breaking the hardline rules of Afghanistan’s Taliban militia and angering religious conservatives with their liberal politics in Pakistan.

But the aptly-named Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) says they are just trying to improve the plight of women in what is seen as the most repressive patriarchal society in the world.

One of the few political Afghan women’s groups, the organization claims 2,000 members, mostly among the huge Afghan refugee community in Pakistan.

Its aggressive media campaign has reached worldwide audiences through the Internet and evoked the sympathies of Western feminists, particularly in Washington and Hollywood. One spokeswoman appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live show three weeks ago.

But RAWA has little support among Afghan refugees here in the northwestern Pakistani border city of Peshawar.

“It’s their leftist activities and ideology — our people have suffered too much under leftists,” said Khorshid Noori, head of the Afghan Women’s Network.

“We respect their opinions and they are intelligent, open-minded individuals, but people are bitter and allergic to any leftist thought.”

With only a handful of women’s voices contributing to the debate over Afghanistan’s post-Taliban future, RAWA’s is one of the loudest, and they are not afraid to make their point in a strident, uncompromising language which some see as alien to Afghan culture.

Few are spared RAWA’s wrath, from the Taliban to the armed anti-Taliban opposition and even other women’s groups.

Salima, 33, a RAWA member who teaches girls at the Khaiwa refugee camp near here, was unapologetic.

“We do not compromise our beliefs like other groups do,” said Salima, who, like other RAWA members, gave only her first name. “We encourage the spirit of debate and we encourage independence. This is what gives us our strength.”

Shakiba, who works in the organization’s publication committee, was equally unrepentent. “We believe it’s our responsibility to expose corrupt leaders, including women’s groups,” the 24-year-old said.

The Taliban have sworn to kill any RAWA members they find in Afghanistan. The hardline Islamic regime, under US-led military attack over its support for alleged terrorists, is infamous for its gender laws which govern everything from the shoes women wear to the men they can see in public.

The militia bars women from most work and education, forces them to wear full-body veils and holds public executions of those accused of adultery.

Yet RAWA still claims to run 100 girls schools, income-generating projects such as sewing and carpet weaving, literacy schemes and political courses on women’s rights in the deeply impoverished country.

In relatively liberal Pakistan, RAWA operates a school and clinic in Khaiwa refugee camp and a few other schools in Peshawar and Islamabad. Yet even here, due to fear of Islamic “fundamentalists” and pro-Taliban extremists, RAWA members use pseudonyms and travel with bodyguards.

“The fundamentalists are against women. They do not count women as human beings. We have won the respect of men and women by making a lot of sacrifices,” said Salima.

The organization adheres to the ideology of their late founder, Meena. Afghan guerrilla soldiers assassinated the 30-year-old for being a “communist” in Pakistan in 1987 at the height of the war against the Soviet Union.

Members say Meena’s husband was a Maoist but their founder was only concerned for women’s rights.

“Just because her husband was part of the communist organization, we are stamped with the same label,” Shakiba said. “My blood should be shed like hers for her country.”

Last winter, police used tear-gas to break up a physical clash between the women and Taliban supporters in Islamabad after RAWA tried to hold a peaceful rally in the Pakistani capital.

Whether RAWA is really Maoist does not seem to matter to many Afghans — any group or individual connected with or even reputed to be a communist is regarded with deep suspicion following the brutal Soviet-backed regimes from 1979-92.

“They have been too political and that’s not proper behavior for Afghan women. They’re strident,” said Nancy Dupree, an American expert on Afghanistan who has written on Afghan women’s issues.

“They speak the feminist language, which is not the Afghan language, and they have a past of being leftist.”

RAWA’s website at www.rawa.org carries gruesome images, often smuggled at considerable personal risk, of massacres and human degradation.

“Caution, RAWA is committed to truthfully reflecting the reality of life under fundamentalist rule,” the site says.

“This website carries photos and links to video footage which some viewers may find extremely disturbing. Our apology for publishing such material is: This is the reality of life for the people of Afghanistan.”

The webpage, so inundated in recent weeks that it has been redirected to a larger mirror site, also offers RAWA mugs and T-shirts for sale.

Members insist they do not want to see a leftist government installed in Afghanistan if the Taliban regime collapses. They are equally opposed to any Taliban or opposition Northern Alliance members taking any part in politics.

The organization instead backs the return of exiled former king Muhammad Zahir Shah, but with an elected governing body representing all the disparate ethnic groups and, of course, women. Salima said RAWA finds a rich recruitment ground in the refugee camps along the Pakistani border, where some Afghan girls have spent their whole lives.

Potential members are singled out during literacy and other courses, usually those who show the strongest streak of independence.

Salima, for example, is a single woman from the western Afghan city of Herat, who now resides in the Khaiwa camp while her parents live in Kabul.

The fact that she is not yet married and lives apart from her family is already a radical departure from what is expected of Afghan women.

In the RAWA-run girls’ school, some students from first to 12th grade sit on chairs or a straw rug. The eighth-graders said they were RAWA members already. The girls were anxious to speak. “RAWA’s really good because they want us to be educated,” said 15-year-old Sahar.

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