Afghan Women Speak from Behind the Media Veil

"Now that the U.S. and the Taliban are on two opposite sides in a war, you've probably heard a lot about how the Taliban treat women," said Tamina. Tamina is a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, and her mother was a founding member of the group back in 1977. "You probably know a lot about the restrictions on women in Afghanistan, but maybe you've heard less about what Afghan women want instead."

There's no maybe about it. Late Tuesday night Tamina spoke to a group called New Yorkers Say No To War. About 75 people crowded into a room in Greenwich Village's Gay and Lesbian Community Center to hear her, because Americans have begun to see a lot in the media lately about the oppression of women under the Taliban. We've begun, finally, to hear about the women whom the Taliban ban from working, keep from school, flog for wearing makeup, even execute. Now that U.S. leaders are selling the nation on war against the Taliban, there are a lot of pictures of silent, shrouded Afghan women on the news. But the U.S. media veil Afghan women, too. You sure don't get to hear what any of them have to say.

Like any group of politicized people, organized Afghan women's groups differ in their views. Some have more confidence than others in the so-called Northern Alliance, the triad of ethnically distinct guerilla outfits who have been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan's north. Some believe that good could come of an armed U.S. intervention if it ousted the Taliban. Others see nothing coming of it but more political extremism and more war.

Wednesday's New York Times published an article by David Rohde about life for women under the Northern Alliance, datelined Gulbahar. "Life for women here in rebel-held northern Afghanistan is not without its constraints," Rhode reports. Women wear the head-to-toe burqa, but they may shop in the market and talk to male shopkeepers "if absolutely necessary." Girls may attend special schools.

Asked Tuesday if people in Afghanistan support U.S. collaboration with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban, Tamina said RAWA opposes pouring more weapons into an already starving and desperate land. "The first step must be to stop financial and military support going to the Taliban and all the militias," she said.

Recalling the period 1992-1996, when the groups that now comprise the Northern Alliance vied for power after the fall of the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime, Tamina noted that "Afghans know the Northern Alliance." They remember, she said, a time when women were raped en masse, and young girls were forced into marriages with military commanders. Thousands were killed and tortured. "We don't want that period back," she said.

RAWA supports a UN peacekeeping mission to disarm all warring factions, all fundamentalists, all terrorists, said Tamina. "The people of Aghanistan want peace, security and the opportunity to rebuild under a government established by legitimate elections where the people can read, and understand their options, and vote without a gun to their heads," she said.

"That sounds wonderful, of course," said Osmam, a younger woman in jeans who was sitting in the second row. Osmam said she and her family left Afghanistan when she was six years old. "But it's unrealistic. No UN peacekeeping mission has ever built a democratic society," said Osmam. The Northern Alliance may not be great, but they're not as bad as the Taliban, and getting rid of the Taliban must be the first step, she argued. "RAWA's vision is lovely but it's unrealistic."

"But the UN has been able to implement a transition to peaceful democracy," piped up Donna Sullivan, a professor of international law at NYU. Sullivan was sitting way in the back, flanked by several long-time women’s and human rights activists. "In Namibia, in East Timor ... My fear is those processes will be foreclosed by the U.S. erection of the Northern Alliance as the only possible mechanism for progress."

We're facing a situation, said Sullivan, where "you don't even have the UN failing to bring women into the peace process, you have the U.S. keeping women and the UN out."

It's the kind of discussion that would make great television, if the U.S. media were interested in great television. The ratings might even be good, I imagine, if the liveliness of the debate in Greenwich Village last night was any indication.

Journalist Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting."

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