Women in Afghanistan

Since the tragic events of September 11, Americans have developed keener awareness of the political struggles within Afghanistan, including the plight of women. In a recent documentary by British-Afghan journalist Saira Shah entitled Beneath the Veil, Americans witnessed first hand the violence against women and the day to day struggles they face.

The documentary results from the courageous efforts of the members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). This organization, founded in 1977, exists as a political/social group of Afghan women fighting for human rights and for social justice in Afghanistan. Hiding video cameras under their burquas, RAWA members filmed the footage used in the Beneath the Veil documentary.

Since 1997, RAWA members have opposed oppressors of women's rights including the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the Islamic fundamental forces today-- including the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The Taliban regime banned women from attending school beyond the second grade; prohibited access to the limited social services and medical care available; forbade women from holding jobs; forced them to wear burquas which restrict air supply, shut out light and inhibit movement; and, threatened whipping if women laughed in public. RAWA's objective is to involve an increasing number of Afghan women in social and political activities aimed at acquiring women's human rights and contributing to the struggle for the establishment of a government based on democratic and secular values in Afghanistan. RAWA members secretly, under the threat of death, provide schooling for girls and boys as well as medical care and adult education for women. In neighboring Pakistan, RAWA provides Afghan refugees with aid, runs orphanages and sponsors income-generating projects.

Without question, the burqua has become the most notable symbol of oppression against women. Shrouded in clothing from head to toe, women are forbidden to leave their homes without wearing the burqua and being accompanied by a male relative. Despite RAWA's efforts, some women do not oppose the extremism symbolized by the burqua. Many women initially rallied around radical, conservative movements in reaction against corrupt secular leaders and frustration over poverty. Others choose to cover their heads and face out of piety.

The Chicago Foundation for Women recently hosted a series of lectures by RAWA member, Tahmeena Faryal. In her discussions in the Chicago area, Ms. Faryal informed many about her first hand account of the struggles faced by Afghan women and children. While RAWA condemned the September 11 attacks, she said RAWA opposes the U.S. military attacks on innocent Afghans in retaliation for crimes committed by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. According to Ms. Faryal, RAWA members hope that the American people can differentiate between the people of Afghanistan and a handful of fundamentalist terrorists. Ms. Faryal explained that at least 70,000 widows live in Kabul alone, many without a male breadwinner. They see no future for themselves and their children, a situation which forces some into begging and prostitution. Ms. Faryal closed her remarks by saying, "This is a situation that cannot last for a very long time. There is a ray of light at the end of the darkness. RAWA has found committed supporters all over the world and because of this, I believe the people of Afghanistan will have freedoms again some day."

To learn more about RAWA and Afghan women, visit RAWA's Web site at www.rawa.org.

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March 2002Volume 7Number 3