Women and the Future of Afghanistan

News & Politics

Tahmeena Faryal, a 26-year-old member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has the makings of an Central Asian Victoria Woodhull.

Like the 19th-century feminist who ran for President of the United States in 1872, she speaks with blunt ferocity and sees the participation of women in politics as imperative. She also has devoted her life to improving the lot of the disenfranchised. And, like Woodhull, Faryal's mission is seen as far-fetched -- not because women are without political power today, but because in Afghanistan they are among the most oppressed people in the world.

Plus, as is now widely known, after two decades of civil war and the U.S.-led bombing campaign, Afghan politics are in complete disarray. A post-war coalition government that would include members of the country's 23 tribes is considered optimistic; one that also would include scores of women, given the extreme misogyny there, is deemed impossible.

I met Faryal at a pre-speech luncheon, on a U.S. speaking tour that was arranged before the Sept. 11 attacks. Previous to September few paid attention to women's rights abuses under the Taliban; now all eyes are on this bombed-out nation. So Faryal found ready ears for her story of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the oldest feminist organization in the country, and for this she is darkly glad.

"The people of Afghanistan are paying the price for Sept. 11," she said to an audience of 500 organized by the human rights group Global Exchange. "Yet we're happy to have the attention. Amnesty International reports Afghanistan is the largest human rights tragedy in the world. I am here to tell you where that tragedy started and why there seems to be no resistance."

"Seems" is the operative word here. In reality, there is a resistance, and Faryal is part of it. She left Afghanistan at age 10 with her family, who fled the then-Soviet-occupied country for Pakistan. Her mother joined RAWA soon after it was formed in 1977 by an Afghan student activist named Meena, who became part of the anti-Soviet resistance, connected it to women's rights and was assassinated by fundamentalists and the KGB 10 years later. In Pakistan, Faryal went to RAWA schools and six years ago began teaching and organizing herself. She has come to the United States under a veil of secrecy and a false name, but given the publicity she has garnered since late October I wondered aloud what awaits her return in Pakistan.

"I am not sure," said Faryal. "But what could happen to me is typical of what happens to Afghan women and children every day. Women are raped, beaten, humiliated and robbed of their life. Children starve and the male ones are brainwashed into becoming fundamentalists who in turn hate and oppress women."

Faryal said that since the Soviet invasion of 1979, RAWA has been on the forefront of the women's and human rights movement in Afghanistan. The group now has 2,000 members in Afghanistan and Pakistan and runs secret, and illegal, schools and employment sites for women and girls in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, where the group is permitted to operate more openly, RAWA holds teach-ins and, until recently, operated a hospital. (It was closed because of financial constraints.)

But the group has critics. Western observers have called RAWA Maoist and some feminists in Central Asia have accused the group of pursuing an overly radical agenda.

"During the Soviet invasion, the rule of the Northern Alliance and then the Taliban, the goals of RAWA has remained the same," Faryal said in the group's defense. "We seek women's emancipation, freedom of speech and other human rights guarantees. But much of our work now is in reaction to the emergency situation, feeding people, tending to the sick and educating them to the extent we can."

According to RAWA's literature, approximately 35,000 children live in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, and 72 percent of Afghan children have experienced the death of a family member in the past four years, with 40 percent having lost a parent. Afghanistan is also, according to international human rights groups, the second hungriest country in the world, with the second largest refugee population and the world's highest mortality rate. The average age for death of men is 43; for women it is 40. Only 17 percent of Afghans have access to safe water, and only 10 percent to adequate sanitation. As Zieba Shorish-Shamley, director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, put it recently: "If you could think of a worst nightmare, Afghanistan is it."

The situation for women is particularly nightmarish because of the restrictions imposed on them by the Taliban. Since 1996 women are not permitted to work (previously, 40 percent of Afghan doctors were female, 60 percent were teachers and half the country's university students were women). They cannot go outdoors without a male escort. They must darken the windows of their home and avoid anything that supposedly brings male attention: colorful clothing, shoes that make noise and, especially, exposed flesh. Afghan women who lift the veil of their head-to-toe burka have been known to be publicly flogged.

Faryal said that such horrific restrictions have resulted in thousands of female suicides. But she added that RAWA's members have not joined out of desperation, or the desire to see women get the vote or be free from the burka. Rather, she said, most RAWA members join through the group's literacy classes (a draw that makes great sense given the literacy rate for Afghan women is 15 percent). Another draw is the skills and income RAWA affords women through its projects, such as weaving carpets, which are sold through their Web site, rawa.org. Such projects, said Faryal, have prevented a large population of widows from starving and becoming prostitutes.

RAWA's clandestine work has also extended to media projects. Their Web site, which is receiving millions of hits, thanks initially to Oprah Winfrey who mentioned it in a show in 1997, is their main public relations and fund-raising arm. Over the past few years, members also have risked their lives shooting film, through tiny holes in their burkas, of public executions and Afghan street life. The BBC film that resulted, "Beneath the Veil," has produced some of the most shocking film ever seen on television.

All this makes the case for RAWA's inclusion in a postwar government coalition plausible, if not absolutely necessary -- not just because RAWA understands the humanitarian problems of Afghanistan but because they have found ways to remedy it under the worst of circumstances. Faryal is hopeful for this outcome, but believes it is possible only through strong international support and the intervention of the United Nations. "The U.N. must make political participation of women key to any future government in Afghanistan," she said.

And her case is not going unheard, at least by American academics. A study by Jennifer Seymour, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was used as proof in a Nov. 4 New York Times article for the importance of women's advancement in Afghanistan and the Arab world in general. Seymour found that national standards of living -- family income, education, nutrition and life expectancy -- all improve as women move toward equality. Poverty decreases and economic development and stability tend to occur.

But, as Fouad Adjami, director of Middle East Studies at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said in the article, "This is the warriors' time. The warriors, the martyrs -- they're all men. In this moment in history, with the world of the Arabs and the larger world of Islam on the boil, the whole question of women and women's progress is shelved."

Faryal is well aware of this situation. But, like Woodhull, who once said, "the impossibilities of today are the common-places of tomorrow," she is undeterred. "It will take a long time to rebuild the country of Afghanistan," she said. "And it will take much longer, many generations, to rebuild its people. Women will have the longest road to tread. But they will do it."

For more information, go torawa.org.

Also, to help RAWA reopen their hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, go to Acting in Solidarity with Afghan People.

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.

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