(women in Afghanistan)
by Mariam Rawi
New Internationalist magazine,
Equality for women was non-existent in
Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But is the situation any better
today? Mariam Rawi of the Revolutionary Association of Women of
When the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan
on 7 October 2001, the oppression of Afghan women was used as
a justification to overthrow the Taliban regime. Five weeks later
the US First Lady, Laura Bush, stated triumphantly: 'Because of
our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no
longer imprisoned in their homes... The fight against terrorism
is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.'
But in a detailed report released on 6
October 2003 Amnesty International had a rather different picture
to paint: 'Two years after the ending of the Taliban regime the
international community and the Afghan Transitional Administration,
led by President Hamid Karzai, have proved unable to protect women.
'The risk of rape and sexual violence
by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high.
Forced marriage, particularly of girl children, and violence against
women in the family are widespread in many areas of the country.'
In truth, the situation of women in Afghanistan
remains appalling. Though girls and women in Kabul, and some other
cities, are free to go to school and have jobs, this is not the
case in most parts of the country. Armed local warlords have their
own rules and governments which brutalize people - especially
In the western province of Herat warlord
Ismail Khan imposes Taliban-like decrees. Many women still have
no access to education, are banned from working in foreign NGOs
or in UN offices, and there are hardly any women in government
Women cannot ride a taxi or walk unaccompanied
by a close male relative. Women seen with men who are not close
relatives, can be arrested by the 'special police' and forced
to undergo medical exams at a hospital to find out whether they
have recently had sexual intercourse.
Because of their continued oppression,
a large number of young girls commit suicide. Tens of self-immolation
cases are reported every month in Herat city and its surrounding
provinces. Indeed, the rate of suicide among women is much greater
than it was under the Taliban.
Women's rights fare no better in northern
and southern Afghanistan under Northern Alliance (NA) commanders.
One international NGO worker told Amnesty International: 'During
the Taliban era if a woman went to market and showed an inch of
flesh she would have been flogged; now she's raped.'
Even in Kabul, where thousands of foreign
troops are present, women do not feel safe and many continue to
wear the burka for protection.
In some areas where girls' education does
exist, parents are too afraid to allow their daughters to take
advantage of it following the burning down of several girls' schools.
Girls have been abducted on the way to school and sexual assaults
on children of both sexes are now commonplace, according to Human
In spite of its rhetoric, the Karzai Government
actively pursues antiwomen policies. Women cannot find jobs and
girls' schools often lack the most basic educational materials
such as books and chairs. There is no legal protection for women
and the older legal systems prohibit them from getting help when
they need it. Women singers are not allowed on Kabul TV and women's
songs are not played, while scenes of women without a hejab (head
covering) are censored in films.
The Karzai Government has established
a Women's Ministry just to throw dust in the eyes of Afghan women
and the international community. In reality this Ministry has
done nothing for women. There are complaints that money donated
to the ministry by foreign NGOs is grabbed by powerful warlords
in the Karzai Cabinet.
The 'war on terrorism' has toppled the
Taliban regime, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism,
which is the main cause of misery for Afghan women. In fact, by
bringing the warlords back to power, the US Government has replaced
one misogynist fundamentalist regime with another.
Western hypocrisy But then the US never
did fight the Taliban to save Afghan women. As recently as 2000
the Bush Administration was giving the Taliban $43 million as
a reward for reducing the opium harvest.
It is painful for us to hear Western leaders
and media speak about the 'liberation' of Afghanistan when the
US is lending generous support to the Northern Alliance (NA),
brethren-in-creed of the Taliban.
The NA was responsible for killing more
than 50,000 civilians during their bloody rule in the 1990s. The
rulers of today - men such as Karim Khalili, Rabbani, Sayyaf,
Fahim, Yunus Qanooni, Mohaqiq and Abdullah - were those who imposed
the first antiwomen restrictions as soon as they came to power
in 1992 and started a reign of terror throughout Afghanistan.
Thousands of women and young girls were
raped by armed thugs and many committed suicide to avoid being
sexually assaulted by them. For good reason the British Independent
newspaper referred to the NA as a 'symbol of massacre, systematic
rape and pillage from 992-96'.Y
But lack of women's rights is not the
only problem faced by Afghanistan today. Neither opium cultivation,
warlordism nor terrorism have been uprooted. There is no peace,
stability or security in the country. According to the British
daily The Guardian, President Karzai 'is a prisoner within his
own government... who nominally heads a government in which former
Northern Alliance commanders hold the real power.
In such a climate the results of the forthcoming
June 2004 elections can easily be predicted: the NA will once
again hijack the results to give legitimacy to their bloody rule.
In November 2001 Colin Powell r said 'The
rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable.'
But the women of Afghanistan have felt
with their whole bodies the dishonesty of such statements from
US and British leaders, because it is crystal clear that they
have already negotiated women's rights in Afghanistan by imposing
the most treacherous warlords on the Afghan people. Their pretty
speeches are made out of political expediency rather than genuine
We cannot forget the silence of the world
with regard to the tragic abuse of women's rights in Afghanistan
for the past decade. From 1992 to 2001 Afghan women were treated
as cattle by all brands of fundamentalists from Jehadis to Taliban.
Meanwhile, Western governments and media showed no interest in
their plight. Take the example of the footage of our leader Zarmeena's
execution in 1999, which RAWA made available to the BBC, CNN,
ABC and others prior to 11 September 2001. We were told 'as the
footage is very shocking, Western viewers can't bear it so we
are sorry that we can't air it'. However, after 11 September these
same media channels aired the footage repeatedly. Similarly, some
of RAWA's photos documenting the Taliban's abuses of women were
also used (without our permission) in flyers dropped by US war
planes over Afghanistan.
Some Western writers have tried to suggest
that women's oppression has its roots in our tradition and that
it is disrespectful of 'cultural difference' to criticize it.
They don't seem to realize that, as with many other cultures,
women's oppression is the most despicable part of it, a part that
is unworthy and must be discarded.
Strong and resisting Yet Afghan women
are not silent victims. There is resistance. Last year, strong
voices of opposition against fundamentalists were heard from the
women in the traditional Loya Jirga assembly. And the continued
efforts of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan
(RAWA) towards freedom, democracy, secularism and women's rights
prove that feminism has roots in Afghanistan.
But the climate of fear and terror has
its impact on the resistance of women and the entire nation. Guns
and threats are used to silence any voices of opposition. Consequently,
any serious anti-fundamentalist group has to work semi-underground.
RAWA still cannot open an office in Kabul and many of our projects
inside Afghanistan bear no marks of RAWA.
We still cannot distribute our magazine
Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message) openly. A few months ago fighters
associated with the NA raided a bookshop in Kabul where our publications
were sold. They confiscated them and threatened the shopkeeper
with death if the publications were ever seen in his shop again.
In a similar incident, NA fighters tortured
and imprisoned a RAWA supporter who was caught copying one of
our statements for distribution in a Kabul market. People who
are caught reading our literature are still in danger. Today RAWA
uses many different tactics to distribute our literature, and
we warn our supporters to be careful.
Punishment for speaking out against the
warlords is severe. When Human Rights Watch issued its report
about the situation of human rights in Herat a few months ago,
Ismail Khan ordered his security forces to trace and punish all
those who gave them interviews.
Once the NA tighten their grip, there
will be even more obstacles in the way of those campaigning for
women's rights and freedom in Afghanistan. Clearly the biggest
of these is the presence of fundamentalism as a political and
military force, for wherever there are fundamentalists, there
will be hostility against women and their struggle for equal rights
with men. Only in a society based on democracy and secularism
can the rights of women be guaranteed. And in Afghanistan the
fundamentalists who misuse religion and ancient tradition to oppress
women still prevail.
The women of RAWA believe that education
is power and Afghan women cannot fight for their rights as long
as they are not equipped with this, the sharpest weapon against
ignorance and fundamentalism. For this reason we have concentrated
on organizing women in the legal and social sectors, and on increasing
education and literacy among them. Armed with the weapons of education,
Afghan women cannot continue to be ignored by any government in
Mariam Rawi, a member of the Revolutionary
Association of Women of Afghanistan, is writing under a pseudonym.
More information on RAWA can be found on www.rawa.org
Central Asia watch