Women for Freedom
— Tahmeena Faryal
By now I assume everyone knows about Afghanistan and what's going on in that country. But still people may not know how all this tragedy began in Afghanistan. Because of what they get from the media, many here might think that the tragedies in Afghanistan, especially for women, begin with Taliban.
Usually there are questions: Why don't the people of Afghanistan rise up? Are these atrocities accepted by the people, do they represent their culture and tradition or religion?
I hope to address some of these issues this evening. I will have to go a bit into the history of Afghanistan, which is important in relation to what has been happening since the fundamentalists took power, and to what is happening now and after the September 11 events.
The Afghan Tragedy
The tragedy of Afghanistan began with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Had they not invaded Afghanistan, we would not have had the fundamentalists, the jihadi bands now in the Northern Alliance. We would not have had the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the September 11 incidents.
As you know, Afghanistan has a very key position as a crossroads between central Asia, south Asia and the Middle East. Because of its importance in that region of the world, it has been invaded by different countries and powers throughout its more than 5,000 years of history.
The people of Afghanistan always rose against these invasions, fought and defeated them with their bare hands. Unfortunately, Russia had not learned from that history and thought they would be able to occupy Afghanistan easily and achieve their other goals in the world.
From the very first day, the people of Afghanistan rose against the Soviets in different parts of the country. The war against the Soviets lasted ten years. As a result, we lost more than two million people. More than five million people became refugees in different countries, mainly the two neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan; and around five million people were disabled.
While the Russians came to Afghanistan with direct military invasion, other countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and other countries had their hands indirectly in the situation.
They supported the fundamentalists with a sole purpose: to enable them to fight against Russia and make Afghanistan a Vietnam for Russia. Obviously, that was without any attention to the fact that one day these fundamentalists would take power in Afghanistan, and given their nature, what would happen to the people of that country.
These fundamentalists then and now are all misogynists, anti-civilization, anti-democracy, terrorists, and dependent on foreign countries. As RAWA had predicted, all the tragedies happened when the fundamentalists took power in 1992.
Unfortunately, in the beginning people thought they would be better than the Soviets and their puppet regime, as they came in the name of Islamic revolution. The people of Afghanistan made the same mistake as the people of Iran when Khomeini also came under the name of Islamic revolution.
But soon, because of the crimes they committed against humanity, people realized they were worse than the Soviets and their puppet regime. From 1992 to 1996, the criminals were known more as jihadis. (During the Cold War they were known as mujahadeen, which means about the same thing, those who fight for god.)
They committed crimes that we had never before witnessed in Afghanistan, and as a result of the internal fighting—there were eight parties all of which wanted to keep the power and control the country—70-80% of the capital city of Kabul was totally destroyed.
That destruction also occurred in other main cities where they had their strongholds and were fighting against each other like cats and dogs. The hospitals, schools and museums—and Afghanistan had some of the best museums in the world because of its very ancient history—were looted and destroyed by them.
Their first and easiest victims were the innocent women of Afghanistan. There were many cases of rape, forced marriages, and abduction of women. Many women killed themselves because they did not want to be married by force to one of those fundamentalist commanders. Fathers killed their own daughters because they didn't want them to be married to those fundamentalists.
But what makes that time even more tragic was that it never got media coverage, and that the regime was recognized by the international community. I don't think the Afghan people will forgive the international community for that. And RAWA, as representative of half the population, asks why the most brutal, misogynist and criminal regime was recognized by the international community. Unfortunately, it was only RAWA that covered the atrocities and crimes through its publications, and held many demonstrations in order to expose and condemn these atrocities, from a place that was and is obviously still not safe for us, Pakistan, because we wanted people to know.
The different countries involved in Afghanistan, mainly because of building the pipeline there, realized that they were not able to achieve their objectives. So they looked for another force to work with. And that force (or movement as they call themselves) was the Taliban.
Taliban means religious students who are trained and supported in Pakistani religious schools called madrassas. This began during the Cold War. Most of them were orphans of the resistance war. But at a very young age they were taken to those religious schools and brainwashed, and especially brainwashed about women.
During their many years of religious education, they lived with other boys and all their teachers were men. They never had the experience of living in a normal family environment. And that was the main reason that when they took power they imposed all the restrictions on women with such impunity.
At first, the Taliban emerged in some southern parts of Afghanistan in 1994. Then in 1996 they seized control of the capital city and advanced from there to take many parts of the country away from the other fundamentalists, because the people of Afghanistan were so tired and fed up with the other groups and thought the Taliban would be better.
The Taliban came under the banner of establishing peace and security and stability, which was what people needed. But instead they imposed a list of restrictions, not only against women but also many general restrictions.
Women and Men Imprisoned
Half of the population under the Taliban do not have the right to an education. The educational institutions were called gateways to hell.
Women do not have the right to work. Before the fundamentalists, women in urban areas used to take part actively in the society. We had 40% women doctors, 60% female teachers, including university teachers. More than half of the university students were women. Overnight, they were ordered to stay at home and not work any more.
In the capital city of Kabul alone, there are more than 70,000 widows. Those who had lost their husbands and other family members could lead a decent life when they had jobs. After they were ordered not to work, they had to go to beggary or prostitution in order to survive and feed their children, or just experience a gradual death or see their children dying before their very eyes.
They are all ordered to be fully covered with the veil, the burqa. I brought one here, and you are welcome to try it on later if you wish. They are even ordered to paint their windows dark so they can't be seen by men from outside the house. They are not allowed to wear shoes that make noise or colorful clothing as, according to the Taliban, they would attract male attention to themselves.
As I mentioned, there are many restrictions on men. They have to have long beards if they go outside. They also have to be dressed in traditional clothing. If the Taliban finds any man dressed in Western-style clothing, he can be beaten or put into prison.
They have ordered the entire male population to pray five times a day in the mosque. In that prescribed time of praying, if any man is found walking on the street he can be beaten or imprisoned, or insulted in public.
It doesn't matter if he is ill or very old. We got an interesting report that the Taliban had beaten up a 70-year-old father because at the time of prayer he wasn't in the mosque because he was sick. He was beaten by a 17- or 18-year-old Iranian Talib, the age of his grandson.
Obviously, he could not bear that humiliation. He couldn't do anything back. But when he came home he said, I will shave my beard with wine—the beard shows the force of an Afghan man and wine is forbidden in Islam—so in order to show his anger, he did that.
They even go to people's homes searching for tapes and TVs and VCRs. If they find any, they hang them on the trees in the streets to show people that those are instruments of Satan, as they call them.
After more than two decades of war and with all these restrictions on people, especially women, the majority of the population today in Afghanistan suffers from mental and psychological problems.
According to a study by Physicians for Human Rights, 90% of Afghan women suffer from mental and psychological problems—and that study was done in 1997. So by now in this environment, if it isn't 100% it is 99% of women suffering this way. It will take a very, very long time to bring these people to a normal life and revive them and their minds.
The Roots of September 11
From the very beginning, RAWA had warned the many different countries creating and supporting the fundamentalists. We warned that the Taliban regime wouldn't just be a danger to that region, but to the world, and to the countries that once created and supported them. Unfortunately, on September 11 that's what happened.
With the loss of thousands of innocent lives, attention was drawn to Afghanistan, a country which for years Amnesty International called the largest forgotten tragedy. If September 11 hadn't happened, it would still be the largest forgotten tragedy today.
It is always our question: Why? Is it because the people of Afghanistan did not deserve freedom, did not deserve lives, do not deserve democracy? Is it because they are not human beings? If we believe in equal rights for people, and we beat the drum of democracy and human rights, there should have been some practical steps years ago toward ending the human rights violations in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, all the United Nations did was to express concern about the situation and try to bring the warring factions together and ask them to form a unified government. We knew that would never happen; they are too hostile toward each other and would never form a unified government. Even if they did, it would be yet another catastrophe for the people of Afghanistan.
Against Terrorism and Bombing
RAWA said that the combat against terrorism should have started many years ago. But we don't think the bombing is the solution . . . If today they get rid of Osama bin Laden and some terrorist camps in Afghanistan, tomorrow there will be hundreds more of them. There is always the danger and possibility that the Pakistan government will be toppled by fundamentalists.
Another issue that is very scary—and people in Afghanistan are already terrified—is the Northern Alliance. It is well-documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the State Department itself, and organizations such as RAWA that crimes and atrocities occurred when the groups now in the Northern Alliance had power from 1992 to 1996.
Again, there is no concern for the people of Afghanistan, especially the women in our country. If once again they take the power, the same crimes and atrocities will happen. The different groups in the Northern Alliance have come together because they have a common enemy, the Taliban. But if tomorrow they take power, these different groups will again start fighting with each other. And again the people of Afghanistan will be the victims.
But there has also been resistance. Women under the Taliban are not allowed to go on the streets alone; they have to be accompanied by a male relative. But if you go to Afghanistan you will find many women on the streets alone.
This is resistance begun by women who took the risk of going out alone because they didn't have any other option. They had lost all the male breadwinners who could accompany them. There are cases where women were beaten in public, put into prison, but still they didn't give up.
There are thousands of home-based classes run by women as individuals in different parts of Afghanistan. Since they banned education for women, this is the only option for many people to educate their children, and for many women to earn a decent living rather than beggary.
Some of these classes have been discovered by the Taliban. The teachers were put in prison or beaten up in front of the students. But again they wouldn't give up.
The main visible and mobilized form of resistance that I am happy to talk about is the work and the struggle of RAWA. It's actually the oldest women's group in Afghanistan.
It was established in 1977; its founding leader, Mina, was assassinated in 1987 by KGB agents with the help of an Afghan fundamentalist group in Pakistan. They thought with her assassination they would stop RAWA and the women's movement in Afghanistan.
In the beginning, RAWA was not a political organization. It was an organization of women struggling for women's rights in Afghanistan, even before the Soviet invasion or the fundamentalists. Particularly in the rural areas, women did not enjoy some of their basic rights. There was a need for such an independent organization to be established to struggle for those rights.
We do not have national emancipation. We cannot demand simply women's emancipation. RAWA took part in the war of resistance from Pakistan, along with the people of Afghanistan, mainly by establishing schools, a hospital, and some other projects for women and children.
We had to transfer the bulk of our activities to Pakistan because the situation in Afghanistan was too risky to operate there, although some members did remain in Afghanistan. Some are there now, in the present situation.
Through various activities, such as demonstrations or our publications and later our web site (www.rawa.org), we tried to expose and condemn the criminal nature of the Taliban. Unfortunately, RAWA was the only women's organization in Afghanistan which took this responsibility. It has always been alone in exposing the crimes and the nature of the different fundamentalist groups.
Obviously, that's taking a great risk. Since its inception, RAWA has been an underground organization, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, since Pakistan has been supportive toward the fundamentalists.
RAWA has a number of humanitarian projects. Mainly in the educational field, income-generating projects, and mobile health clinics. RAWA had a hospital in one of the cities of Pakistan, which served 300-400 women and children a day.
We ran that hospital for many years, especially during the Soviet war. But after some of the NGOs that supported the hospital stopped their support, RAWA couldn't run it anymore and we had to close it down. We are hopeful now that we can soon reopen the hospital thanks to our supporters, mainly in this country, who are trying to raise the money to enable RAWA to reopen this hospital.
RAWA has many secret home-based classes for girls, as well literacy classes for women, inside Afghanistan. And we run schools for refugee children in Pakistan, mainly in the refugee camps. It has income-generating projects mainly for widows who, as I mentioned, have no other means to survive except beggary and prostitution.
These income-generating projects are usually carpet weaving or embroidery and other handicrafts. RAWA provides them with raw materials and helps them find a market and sell their products.
The mobile health teams are in different areas in Afghanistan and refugee camps. The health team is usually composed of one or two doctors, sometimes more than that, and a few nurses. The team spends a day in a remote village in Afghanistan or in a refugee camp where people have no access to a hospital, doctors or medicine. They treat as many people as possible. Obviously everything is free, including the medicine.
Lack of health care facilities is one of the main problems for the people in Afghanistan. People die from very treatable diseases. Fifteen percent of Afghan children die before reaching the age of five.
Another important activity of RAWA is to document the human rights violations in Afghanistan by filming and making reports. This is the riskiest part of RAWA's work.
A team of RAWA members documented the execution scene of women that happened in the public sports stadium in 1999. That was the first public execution of women, and RAWA members managed to document it, under the burqa.
That was a big risk. The team knew that if they were arrested with that tape they could have been executed like the women who were executed in the stadium. It has always been important for RAWA not only to condemn the crimes and to tell the Afghan people that we're with them, that we know their real miseries and tragedies, but also to alert the outside world of these real tragedies.
As you can imagine, our website made RAWA known to people in other countries. We always say we should be the most thankful people to the internet.
RAWA's website is the most complete website dealing with the plight of Afghan women. There are thousands of records, not only about the crimes of the Taliban but also about the crimes of other groups, jihadis of the Northern Alliance, and about RAWA and its work.
It also has RAWA's viewpoints, including our two statements on the September 11 incident and the U.S. bombing. There are many photos of the atrocities in Afghanistan, as well as photos of RAWA's work and activities.
RAWA began its website in 1997. It was only after that our message was heard and seen by many thousands, maybe millions of people, especially women, all over the world. Today RAWA and its website has hundreds of very committed supporters, in this country and many other countries.
We are very privileged to have their support and sympathy for our work. Even at the level of individuals, they have made a great difference in the lives of thousands of people, especially women and children, in Afghanistan. Usually they build awareness campaigns through whatever means they can—at the level of universities or colleges, or speaking at women's conferences.
These supporters have raised awareness about the situation of women in Afghanistan and the work of RAWA. And obviously raising that awareness is very helpful to funding and supporting RAWA's projects.
As a political organization, RAWA does not enjoy vigorous support from governments or NGOs. Whenever we approach them for support, they say you have these political viewpoints, or just sometimes the word revolution in our name is a problem. But thanks to the website, we have managed to receive financial support from some women's organizations, especially in this country, as well as many individual contributions, through which we are able to run our projects and activities.
Mainly through the website and the support we got, we were led to understand that we should not confuse the governments with the people. We want people in this country and around the world not to confuse the innocent, ordinary Afghans with the Taliban and terrorists.
Innocent Afghans hate the Taliban and other fundamentalists and terrorists as much as people in this country and throughout the world do. And they also want to see the end of their domination as soon as it can happen.
And we carry this message to our people: They should not confuse the governments with the people. If the government of Pakistan has always been supportive of the fundamentalists, the people of Pakistan have always been very respectful and hospitable to the Afghan refugees.
If the U.S. government has always played a negative role toward Afghanistan, the people of this country have been very supportive to our cause. In fact, maybe due to the language, or access to the internet, or the population of this country, we have most of our support and supporters in this country.
As the title for this evening says: The other America welcomes the other Afghanistan.
Tahmeena Faryal, a representative of the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), spoke in Chicago as part of a North American speaking tour. This presentation was made prior to the fall of the Taliban regime. Her talk was transcribed for Against the Current by Joanna Misnik and has been abridged for publication here.
from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)