Revolutionary Afghan Women
by Kathleen Richter
Z magazine, November 2000
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 l 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)"
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? RAWA member Sajeda told Said lt 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
When the Soviet Union withdrew its army in 1989, the Mujaheddin,
under the command of the despotic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, 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 Hekmatyar'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 Taliban."
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 fazaras, 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 Quran.
Why the extraordinarily harsh treatment? According to Mahmooda,
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
RAWA and Islam
I slam 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 Quran 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 Afghanistan, 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
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 Afghanistan "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."
RAWA's web site is www. rawa.org. Donations can be sent to:
Support Afghan Women, PMB 226, 915 W Arrow Highway, San Dimas,
CA 91773. Checks should be written to Support Afghan Women
Kathleen Richter is a graduate student in biology at the California
Institute of Technology.