What Do Afghan Women Want?

The unveiling took place amid the giddy whirl of an all-star production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" on Feb. 10, 2001. Raucous merriment had come and gone: Ensler conducted a chorus of ecstatically groaning celebrities, Glenn Close urged the audience to reclaim the c-word by yelling it at the top of its lungs. Then Oprah Winfrey recited Ensler's latest monologue, "Under the Burqa," and a hush fell over the crowd as Oprah exhorted its members to "imagine a huge dark piece of cloth / hung over your entire body / like you were a shameful statue." As the piece wound to a close, a figure in a burqa ascended to the stage. Oprah turned and lifted the head-to-toe shroud.

Voila! There stood Zoya, a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the group of 2,000 Afghan women who had seized the West's imagination with ferociously anti-fundamentalist rhetoric, secret footage of Taliban atrocities and clandestine schools and hospitals for Afghan girls and women. Center stage, Zoya delivered a fiery speech about the oppression of Afghan women and RAWA's ongoing resistance to the Taliban regime. Eighteen thousand people leaped to their feet, and New York City's Madison Square Garden rang with cheers.

RAWA has always had a flair for the dramatic, and this appearance was no exception. It was pure, delicious theater: the stark words, the ominous, oppressive burqa and the "hey presto" transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem. The unveiling also captured part of RAWA's appeal to American feminists, as it let the audience appreciate the friction between the image of silenced Afghan women and the brand of outspoken feminism that RAWA espouses.

Although the Pakistan- and Afghanistan-based group was founded in Kabul in 1977, RAWA didn't receive worldwide recognition until U.S. feminist campaigns for Afghan women's rights hit their stride in the late 1990s. After September 11, the attention only intensified. Hundreds of articles and two books chronicled RAWA's struggle, the group's burqa-clad members spoke across the United States and, at one point, a flashing banner reading "Welcome, Oprah viewers!" greeted visitors to RAWA's Web site.

But is a group that is inspirational in the United States effective in Afghanistan? With its confrontational, no-holds-barred language and allegiance to a secular society, RAWA reflects much of the Western feminist community's own values -- a fact that has earned RAWA strong support in the West but few friends in a strongly Muslim country weary of political battles and bloodshed. Similarly, part of RAWA's allure, for Ensler at least, has been its militant, radical, "uncompromising" nature, as Ensler told Salon.com in November 2001. But this quality has a dark side. RAWA has denounced numerous other Afghan women's groups as insufficientlly critical of fundamentalism. It has also publicly attacked prominent Afghan women activists -- some of whom have in turn raised questions about RAWA's own political connections. As a result, Afghan women's nongovernmental organizations and Afghan feminist expatriates have expressed concern about a radical, lone-wolf organization garnering so much Western attention. In Afghanistan's slow, painful shift from war to nation building, they say, perhaps the country needs stronger support for voices of coalition building rather than for those advocating solitary revolution.

To understand the nature of RAWA's partnership with Western feminists, it helps to return to the starting point for U.S. feminist activism on Afghan women's rights: the Feminist Majority's "Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan." Although the campaign has come under fire for a few alleged missteps -- some critics have charged it with focusing too much on the burqa as a symbol of victimhood -- the Feminist Majority's project has earned widespread praise for mobilizing grass-roots support and scoring significant U.S. political victories for Afghan women's rights.

After the Taliban militia seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, the Feminist Majority's staff began noticing "one-inch Associated Press clips that women couldn't go out unattended, couldn't gather, wear noisy shoes, white socks," according to Eleanor Smeal, the Feminist Majority's executive director. Shocked by these reports and by news that the Taliban had denied countless women access to work, health care and education, Feminist Majority staff consulted with the U.S. State Department and Afghan women activists in the United States before launching their campaign in 1997. Through a series of petitions, protests, celebrity fundraisers and political negotiations, the Feminist Majority played a significant role in the 1998 refusal by the United Nations and the United States to grant formal recognition to the Taliban. Its next pressure campaign helped push U.S. energy company Unocal out of a $3 billion venture to put a pipeline through Afghanistan, which would have provided the Taliban with $100 million in royalties. Within three years of launching the campaign, the Feminist Majority and its allies had also improved U.S. refugee policy toward Afghanistan, set up support for Afghan schools for girls and pushed through increases in emergency aid.

RAWA was only one of about 240 U.S. and Afghan women's groups the Feminist Majority contacted over the course of its campaign. But when the Feminist Majority invited RAWA to its Feminist Expo 2000, the campaign helped catapult the Afghan group into the spotlight. Dispatches from the exposition, a conference of 7,000 feminists from around the world, invariably mentioned the RAWA delegates' powerful speeches and passionate conviction. RAWA had officially caught the eye of the feminist world.

Ensler, too, played a vital role in bringing RAWA to the U.S. public's attention. After seeing RAWA's Pakistan-based orphanages and schools, where little girls were "being brought up as revolutionaries," Ensler became "completely smitten by [RAWA]" and decided to help, she told Salon.com. "V-Day," Ensler's worldwide campaign to eradicate violence against women through performances of "The Vagina Monologues," awarded RAWA $120,000 in 2001 and a similar grant in 2002.

Nothing, however, drew attention to the plight of Afghan women like the aftermath of September 11. The Feminist Majority and RAWA were soon deluged with calls from the media. Smeal was quoted in countless articles; RAWA was so overwhelmed that members had to decline interview requests. RAWA's secret footage of public hangings and shootings, captured on video cameras hidden under its members' burqas, aired over and over on Saira Shah's Beneath the Veil documentary, which was in heavy rotation on CNN. Oprah viewers sent more digital cameras than RAWA could use, while poems from Western women imagining themselves under the burqa choked the group's Web site. The site also featured numerous songs, including one about RAWA's martyred founder written by the women's rock band Star Vomit. In short, RAWA became "the darling of the media and the feminists," recalls Illinois State University women's studies director Valentine M. Moghadam.

September 11 brought both the Feminist Majority and RAWA new momentum. The Feminist Majority purchased Ms. Magazine and published a special insert on its Afghanistan campaign to introduce itself to Ms. readers. Along with coalition partners Equality Now, the National Organization for Women and Ensler, the project, renamed the Campaign to Help Afghan Women and Girls, pushed for an expansion of security forces beyond Kabul and an increase in funding to the interim government and women-led NGOs. RAWA continued to raise funds for its schools and hospitals and went on speaking tours around the world. Both organizations were busy but productive, blessed with a resurgence of public interest and largely positive media attention.

And then came the letter.

On April 20, 2002, a U.S.-based RAWA supporter posted an open letter to Ms. on RAWA's listserv. It would later appear all over the Internet -- on Middle Eastern studies' listservs and feminist online communities. Written by Elizabeth Miller from Cincinnati, the letter called Ms. Magazine the "mouthpiece of hegemonic, U.S.-centric, ego driven, corporate feminism." Miller proceeded to take the Feminist Majority to task for failing to mention the work of RAWA in its Ms. Magazine insert; it also charged the organization with ignoring the atrocities Afghan women suffered under the current U.S. allies in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance. Even worse, the letter continued, was the Feminist Majority's support for the work of Sima Samar, then Afghanistan's interim minister of women's affairs. Miller claimed that Samar was "a member of the leadership council of one of the most notorious fundamentalist factions Hezb-e Wahdat [the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan]."

Asked about the letter, Smeal chuckles, then sighs. "The idea [behind the insert] was to introduce us by one of our campaigns," she says. Part of the insert's role was to tell "the pre-September 11, U.S. feminist story behind the campaign," according to Jennifer Jackman, the Feminist Majority's director of research. That story necessarily highlighted the unsung work of UN feminists, the two women appointed to the interim Afghan government and Afghan expatriate activist Sima Wali. The omission of RAWA was not political, Smeal insists. "We felt everyone knew RAWA," she said.

As for the letter's allegation that the Feminist Majority had not spoken out against the Northern Alliance, Smeal's own words to the media discount that. "The Northern Alliance is better than the Taliban toward women, but they are still not good," Smeal told me shortly after September 11. "We have to think beyond wartime, and we can't call some crowd 'freedom fighters' if they're not."

But the allegation against Samar was the most disturbing and difficult to dismiss. Human Rights Watch has charged Hezb-e Wahdat, a largely Hazara group, with taking part in reprisals against Pashtun civilians in northern Afghanistan. Some probing, however, finds little evidence that Samar has anything to do with Hezb-e Wahdat. Rather, what comes to light is a pattern of RAWA-led smear campaigns against other Afghan women who rise to prominence.

A strongly outspoken advocate for women's rights and a former RAWA member herself, Samar seems an unlikely member of Hezb-e Wahdat, although she is Hazara. Samar is renowned for her nonprofit group Shuhada, which operates hospitals and schools for girls throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. In light of her women's work, the allegation of Samar's affiliation with a fundamentalist group is "baseless," says Jackman, especially considering the recent ultraconservative attacks that effectively prevented Samar from being reappointed to her position as women's affairs minister.

The Hezb-e Wahdat allegation surfaced throughout RAWA's interviews with the press, and also in a series of e-mails that a RAWA supporter named Sarah Kamal sent to Afghan expatriate activist Zieba Shorish-Shamley and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, a Canadian organization that planned to award Samar a human-rights award in 2001. (The e-mails also included attacks against Fatana Gailani, executive director of the Afghanistan Women's Council and a four-time humanitarian-aid award winner for her work on behalf of Afghan refugees.) After conducting an investigation, the president of the organization wrote a letter dismissing the charges and lauding Samar's humanitarian work. Backed by Amnesty International research, the Canadian group found that Samar had set up schools and hospitals in Hazarajat, a Hezb-e-Wahdat-controlled area, and it concluded that "it would have been inevitable for Dr. Samar to be in touch with leaders of this party to facilitate her work. Contact with party officials is a common feature of humanitarian activity throughout Afghanistan but does not amount to taking up the membership of the party." Bolstered by references from organizations including the UN and the U.S.-based Afghan Refugee Information Network, the jury panel granted Samar the award.

As for Shorish-Shamley, she says she was initially supportive of RAWA but that her feelings changed when she saw the "vicious" nature of the accusations against Samar and Gailani. Shorish-Shamley shared an e-mail that she said RAWA wrote to Samar:

While our beloved land is being reduced for more than a decade to a pulp in the filthy claws of a handful of fundamentalist executioners ... and RAWA, as the sole anti-fundamentalists organization, is at a tough strife with the insane Taliban and Jehadi gangs, it sounds really illogical to discuss the 'fighting with each other' but we are committed to expose it, for you are no longer 'ours,' as it is long ago you have aligned yourself to the rank of the most traitorous enemies of our people. We, thereby, treat you as a leader of the fundamentalists' party; alas it is as a part of our struggle against fundamentalism.
After continuing on for eight more vitriolic pages (" ... persons like Sima Samar enjoy the favor of the fundamentalist slaughterers") the letter ends with an absurdly polite postscript: "As I was busy with many other preoccupations, sorry that it took time to reply [to] your letter."

Not surprisingly, RAWA's letter offensives and the distrustful atmosphere in Afghanistan have fueled rumors about the group's own political ties. Azadi Afghan Radio has reported that RAWA is "alleged to be run by men who belong to the former Afghan Maoist (pro-Chinese Shohla Communist Party) group." Other rumors include RAWA's alleged connection to Pakistani intelligence or Mujahideen-e Khalq, a group the U.S. State Department deemed a terrorist organization in 1999. RAWA member Saba denies all accusations, saying, "When women ... are leading a movement, it is difficult for people to tolerate. They think politics is only something for men."

The allegations haven't slowed RAWA down much. As the only Afghan feminist organization with significant Western support, media access and an Internet presence, RAWA has remained productive and resilient. Nor have RAWA's accusers chosen tactics likely to scorch the earth. The Azadi Afghan Radio, which has ties to the Northern Alliance, was careful to praise RAWA's "courage," and it advised Western supporters to speak to Afghans and NGOs about RAWA before making up their minds about the group. Afghan expatriate activists Wali and Shorish-Shamley have fielded many complaints from Afghan NGOs about RAWA, but both women were initially reluctant to air the grievances they heard.

Many of RAWA's Western backers, in turn, remain unfazed by rumors of unsavory political connections. Ensler has denied RAWA's alleged Maoist ties, telling Salon.com, "I may not be the most thorough investigator -- that's why I'm not a journalist." Nonetheless, she said in the same interview, "I've become RAWA's greatest defender."

The Feminist Majority, however, was none too pleased with RAWA's role in lobbing accusations at other groups. "We really have problems with groups attacking each other," says Jackman. "There needs to be solidarity among women's organizations." The Feminist Majority has refuted RAWA's attacks, but not as a matter of "public debate" because "we have not wanted to engage in debate other than over what strategies are most effective. It's not our role to be passing judgment on groups," Jackman says.

Now that the Feminist Majority is focusing on nation building rather than on fighting the Taliban's oppression of women, RAWA has ceased in any case to represent the strategy in greatest demand. "They're not involved in the [push for] security, women's participation, reconstruction, working with a lot of different groups," says Jackman. Some Afghan and Afghan-expatriate feminists put a finer point on this concern. The ability to work with others, build coalitions and use tactics that are in keeping with the more moderate "Afghan norm," says Wali, are all crucial skills for making the transition from resistance to reconstruction -- and they are skills that RAWA seems to lack.

Navigating the factionalism and distrust of post-war Afghanistan would be a challenge for any political group, but the ground is clearly most fertile for one that is moderate and inclusive. Civil war, drought and interference from neighboring states have contributed to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion among Afghans, according to Neamat Nojumi, a Central and South Asian specialist and former mujahideen unit commander in the Soviet-Afghan war who is currently a United States Agency for International Development consultant. After years of Soviet occupation and wars among factions with extreme agendas, intimations of Maoist, Marxist or any overtly political agenda are terrifying for many Afghans, he says.

In this fragile environment, RAWA's perceived strengths -- the uncompromising, radically feminist quality that Ensler recognizes as that of a "kindred spirit" -- seem more like liabilities. As Ensler's quote attests, for many Western feminists, RAWA reflects a familiar yet glorified self-image: the fiery words, the clenched fists and protest signs, the type of guerilla feminism that seems unflinchingly brave. But to many Afghan women, RAWA's tactics look altogether too dangerous. Says Sayed Sahibzada, an Afghan United Nations Development Programme officer who has worked with more than 40 Afghan women-led NGOs, "I have not heard one group that goes along with RAWA. They say, 'If there is a RAWA participant [in a training], we are not going to participate.'" New York City's large Afghan-American population is similarly conflicted about the group. Masuda Sultan of Women for Afghan Women lauds RAWA's "long and committed history" of bravery. But she notes that "most Afghan women don't feel that RAWA represents them," because of the group's revolutionary rhetoric and alleged ties to Maoism.

RAWA has done little to build bridges. In addition to the campaign against Samar and Gailani, it has often shunned other women's groups. RAWA member Saba took issue with all the prominent Afghan and Afghan-American women I mentioned, saying that they had been part of the Northern Alliance, or the Soviet regime, or hadn't taken a strong stand against fundamentalism. This stance hasn't won over many Afghans: One activist calls RAWA the "Talibabes" because of its fiercely judgmental attitude.

But to effectively counter RAWA's perceived intolerance, opposing feminist groups need to build coalitions themselves. "I'm not trying to bring [RAWA] down. We have to work across political boundaries and viewpoints," says Wali. "They are one of the diverse voices of Afghan women." But RAWA's radical language and tactics, along with the strategies of some Western feminists -- such as Ensler, who brought "The Vagina Monologues" to Pakistan and Afghanistan -- "backfire on people like us," says Wali. "We are trying to influence the men, many of whom still have Taliban ideology, and they say, 'You are part of these extremists.' It's not time yet. We can't do something extreme and leave Afghan women to deal with it. [RAWA has] a very Westernized radical approach. They are revolutionary. The Afghan people are saying we don't need a revolution, we need a democracy."

Afghanistan may be closer now than ever to a day when voices such as RAWA's won't seem dangerously radical. But in the meantime, Western feminists need to support, fund and take their cues from the other "moderate ... diverse voices of Afghan women," and keep the pressure on their own governments, says Wali. This is something that even RAWA fan Ensler is beginning to do by working with Samar, contributing to other groups, and cosponsoring a summit for Afghan women -- over 50 participants convened in Brussels and created an agenda for the inclusion of women's rights in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. The Feminist Majority has nurtured connections with Samar's Shuhada group, which kept open numerous clinics, hospitals and schools in the central part of Afghanistan despite the Taliban's restrictions, as well as with the Pakistan-based Afghan Women's Resource Center, among many other Afghan NGOs.

In their own way, these Afghan groups are themselves "revolutionary," says Jackman. "This is a place where giving a girl a book and a pencil is revolutionary." Equally revolutionary is the dedication "to sharing the same agenda," adds Jackman. Even women who were formerly "arch rivals" are working together, says Wali, and their willingness to reach across ethnic and political divides is an important step toward forging trust in the strife-torn country. "There are so many non-partisan Afghan community organizers and leaders," says Wali, "but no one hears them because they are trying to mend society. RAWA has a place in that society, but we need to sit down together -- especially with the dissenting, far-fetched voices -- and realize that we have a common agenda. ...We are waging a jihad of social justice and peace. We need to transcend our differences and work together -- that is the key to rebuilding Afghanistan."

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