New Afghan Law Comes as No Surprise: Women’s Rights Have Always Been Traded for Political Power

published in on April 6, 2009

The proposed new Afghan law requiring (among other things), women to have sex with their husbands on demand and not leave home unescorted, has shocked the West. But for women in Afghanistan whose rights have always been bargaining chips to be given or taken away for political gain, it comes as no surprise. Despite the rhetoric from the Bush Administration in 2001 that “to fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women (Laura Bush),” Bush’s own military strategy set the stage for the new Taliban-like law today. In hiring the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban, the US knowingly sacrificed women’s rights for political gain.

The Northern Alliance warlords were notorious misogynists, criticized harshly by women’s rights groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). In statement made days after the fall of the Taliban, RAWA urgently declared that “[t]he people of the world need to know that in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from ages seven to seventy, the track record of the Taliban can in no way stand up against that of [the] ‘Northern Alliance’.” It was a warning that went ignored to the detriment of all Afghan people, but especially women, who time and again have been promised liberation by (mostly male) warlords, foreign and domestic.

A Brief History of “Saving” Afghan Women

In 1979 the USSR invaded its Southern neighbor in part, it was said, to free women from the tyranny of Afghan fundamentalists. To that end, the Soviets even instituted some reformist laws during their brutal decade-long occupation granting city-dwelling women greater access to employment and education than before.

In response to the occupation and its reforms, extremist “Mujahadeen” leaders, taking advantage of the popular sentiment against the Soviet occupation, and of the billions of dollars of weapons and training from the US, waged a fierce war, again partly to “save” Afghan women from the “Godless communists.” After the Soviets left, these fundamentalist warlords turned their weapons on their own people, particularly women. According to Amnesty International, rape was “condoned as a means of terrorizing conquered populations and of rewarding soldiers.”

When the Taliban emerged in the mid-90s, sponsored by Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, Pakistan, they quickly swept into power, taking over the majority of the country. As expected, part of their mission was to “save” Afghan women from the violence of the Mujahadeen. They “fulfilled” their promise by being much better at enforcing many of the same harsh anti-woman edicts that were instigated by their Mujahadeen predecessors.

Enter Bush in October 2001, fresh from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ready to wage a “war on terror” to, (you guessed it) “save” Afghan women from the medieval-minded Taliban.

This pattern continues to the present with the Obama Administration making the same claims. At the March 2009 International Conference on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that “women’s rights are a central part of American foreign policy.”

Women’s Rights Systematically Eroded During US Occupation

Every step of the way, instead of being liberated, Afghan women have suffered: from the devastation of war and foreign occupation, to nation-wide oppression by indigenous and regionally imported fundamentalists. The past seven years have been no different since the launch of the US war in October 2001. Granted, at first many women were encouraged to start reentering civil society. But any progress made on the rights of women and girls was mostly on paper and has since been dramatically eroded. This regression began when the Northern Alliance warlords were rewarded for their role in the war with top posts in the new government in 2001/02. With their political power, these warlords began strengthening their militias, and repeating their crimes against women. In 2002 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally met the notorious warlord of Western Afghanistan Ismail Khan, referring to him in the press as “an appealing man.” Khan preserved Taliban-style edicts against women from 2002-2005 in Herat, arresting women for driving cars, appearing outdoors without a burqa, and speaking to journalists. Under his rule, local police even ordered hospital “chastity tests” on unescorted women.

Also in 2002 the US-backed then-interim president Hamid Karzai appointed a fundamentalist chief-justice, Faisal Ahmad Shinwari, who began interpreting Islamic law in a Taliban-like manner. Shinwari moved to reinstate the Taliban’s infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice under a new name: the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs. As a result women were systematically denied justice, particularly when it involved so-called “honor” crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in a 2003 report, “No-one listens to us and no-one treats us as human beings.” More recently, there have been reports of women being imprisoned for being victims of rape. The Independent (UK) reported in August 2008 of rape victims serving 20 year sentences for the “crime” of “illegal sexual relations.”

In 2004 while women were buoyed by the declaration of their equality to men in the new Afghan Constitution, at the last moment their joy was marred by the inclusion of an all-encompassing clause that made all laws of the land subordinate to Sharia law. This clause was an obvious gesture to the fundamentalist power structure that was reinforced, not weakened, by the US intervention. A Human Rights Watch report “Women Under Attack for Asserting Rights,” detailed the constant intimidation facing women’s democratic participation by both the anti-government Taliban and the warlords.

While a token minority of women is allowed to serve in Parliament due to quotas, those who have spoken out about the domination of fundamentalists have learned the hard way that democratic representation is just a façade. Malalai Joya, the popular young representative from Farah province, is the only MP who has dared to openly criticize the warlords. She has survived 4 assassination attempts, been publicly threatened with rape, and ultimately kicked out of Parliament for her views. Afghans across the country demonstrated against her suspension.

Violence against women and girls has surged as fundamentalism has spread. Sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and forced marriages to women and young girls, were denounced publicly in 2005 by the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. Last December, the UN Population Fund conducted a survey that concluded that 1 in 4 Afghan women face sexual violence. The violence has led to unprecedented numbers of women, particularly in the Western province of Herat, to literally burn themselves to death. Doctors had never before witnessed such large numbers of self-immolation by women.

Even though after the fall of the Taliban government, many girls across the country began attending school, over the past several years a majority of schools have been systematically burned down or shut down out of fear of being burned down. In the south of Afghanistan, over 600 schools were shut down in the first few months of 2009. In recent months a group of girls in Kandahar was attacked by Taliban with battery acid on their way to school. According to UNICEF, fifty percent of Afghan children do not attend school.

All Afghans, including women, suffer from grinding poverty. While Afghanistan has been impoverished for decades now, over the last 7 years the situation has worsened to the point where 1 in 3 Afghans now suffer from severe poverty, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The poverty is marked by a severe lack of adequate healthcare, particularly for women. Afghanistan suffers from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1 in 55), second only to Sierra Leone.

Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power

Most of these widely reported heinous abuses and overall oppression of Afghan women during the US/NATO occupation have failed to incite outrage from the West. It is no wonder then that President Hamid Karzai seemed taken aback by the righteous shock aimed at him by Western leaders for signing the new law reviving Taliban-like edicts against women. Karzai is simply continuing to implement a policy set down for him by his guides in Washington: appease misogynist fundamentalists to obtain “stability.” In 2002 then-US-Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad declared: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which requires accountability.”

Karzai has clearly forsaken justice, but along the way has lost the peace as well. He has earned the ire of his people for subjugating their interests to those of the warlords’. Recently he has also fallen out of favor with his US/NATO benefactors, whose bombs have exacted a terrible civilian toll that he has publicly criticized. Thus, he has turned to his only power-base, the mostly Shia warlords in Parliament, in exchange for their support in this summer’s election. It is for these men that the new “family law” circumscribing women’s rights was quickly pushed through Parliament and signed.

Karzai’s actions are a direct result of the past seven years of Western policy. He is only doing what many others have done before him: trading Afghan women’s rights for political gain. For those of us who have seen this dirty game played many times over, it comes as no surprise.

Sonali Kolhatkar is Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. Sonali is also co-author of “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.” She is the host and producer of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program with the Pacifica Network.

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

Perfect Girls, Starving DaughtersCourtney Martin’s new book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” addresses a topic that affects every single one of us, female or male, young or old, brown or white, rich or poor. It is a book about the physical, and, more importantly, mental effects of our obsession with being thin. Going beyond the usual reasons of how society influences our behavior, Martin candidly, and at times, poetically, explores the hidden world of our deepest, darkest, desires to be perfect. While the book focuses primarily on young women, it applies equally to those of us women in our thirties and older, as well as men who are increasingly adopting dangerous eating habits themselves or are surrounded by women they love who are anorexic/bulimic or on the verge.

“Perfect girls” are intelligent, high-achieving, often athletic, and effortlessly thin – or so they would like to seem. But inside each perfect girl is a starving daughter who is aching to fill a void inside herself, who binges and purges with regularity, or who counts every calorie and skips meals toward starvation. This analysis by Martin aims at a particularly vulnerable place for every single one of us. We all know the psyche of the perfect girl and the starving daughter. We have either been there ourselves or are surrounded by people who have. Refreshingly in her book Courtney Martin reveals her own past struggles with being on the verge of an eating disorder.

The only rational reason for wanting to lose weight, says Martin, is for health reasons. Yet, the drastic measures many women (and increasingly men) take to lose weight are anything but healthy. Yo-yo dieting strains the heart, over-exercising ruins the joints, constant starving and malnutrition worsens the immune system, bingeing and purging causes gastro-intestinal problems, anorexia while pregnant increases the chances of birth defects, and so on.

On the other hand, eating sensibly, while occasionally indulging in a glass of wine, or a slice of chocolate cake is far more healthy. A regular and reasonable exercise regimen of 3-5 hours a week improves the immune system, maintains a healthy heart, etc, etc. But, it may not be enough to make those among us who are naturally heavy, appear skinny. So our image-conscious, skinny-obsessed society condemns us to perceptions of laziness, ill-health, and avarice. When in fact it is likely the other way around. Worse, our society rewards the emaciated, the bony, and the unrealistically proportioned among us. Hence, it rewards starvation, body obsession, and ultimately, ill-health.

But who among us has not observed our thick waistlines in the mirror and balked in disgust? Who among us has not skipped a meal as a result of that disgust? And who among us, after feeling starved for a few days, has not broken down and consumed a pint of ice cream or a package of cookies? The only ones among us who are effortlessly thin are those who are genetically pre-programmed to be so. They are the lucky ones whose DNA has hit the jackpot in our thin-rewarding-era. No matter what or how much this small minority eats, they remain skinny. The rest of us pretend we are really naturally skinny people trapped in the bodies of outwardly normal people. We want our battles with weight, when they are successful, to seem effortless, as though we too are among those pre-programmed by our DNA to be thin and thus powerful. But eventually we have to face our truths and our bodies as they are. And we have to love ourselves as we are.

But it is SO damn hard when everywhere around us women are pictured on billboards as stick figures coveted by all, filled not with flesh, but power. These emaciated women, whose thighs are the size of my upper arms, are physically waif-like, but appear omnipotent. And if the women in the magazines and on billboards are not really as skinny as they are supposed to be, a little creative Photo-shopping will do the trick! Such images must make even the models and actresses themselves unable to live up to their air-brushed selves. And if they can’t who can?

One of the most disturbing things Martin reveals near the end of her book is the increasing prevalence of pro-Anorexia and pro-Bulimia websites run by and for young women looking for positive affirmation of their endless pursuit of skinniness. The sites are short-handedly called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia.” Imagine if alcoholics began posting to one another about the pleasures of their addictions, happy to have found a community of like-minded drunks!

Three times a week I sweat away at a local gym, lifting weights, dancing on steps, struggling to lose my pregnancy weight. I often notice the bodies of two of my instructors in particular – women taut with muscle but also fleshy. They teach up to 4 classes a day at various local gyms. I envy their bodies but then realize that I would have to match their grueling exercise routines in order to get where they are – and these two women are not even skinny enough for MTV or Cosmo! And then I wonder – what would their bodies look like if they didn’t work as exercise instructors, spending 3-4 hours, 5-6 days a week, working out? Perhaps they would look like mine.

And if I spent all that time working out, I would have little time left in the day to play with my son, cook a creative meal, enjoy eating it with my husband, read books like Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and, of course, write blogs like this. I would spend more time worrying about my appearance than enjoying my brief time on this earth. I would waste away striving for a perfection that is illusory and more painful than it is worth. No thanks.

I highly recommend Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters to parents of young girls who may have started to become self-conscious about their growing bellies and hips, friends of “perfect girls” who seem to be disappearing in front of their eyes, and anyone who has ever personally struggled with their weight.

For more information about Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and its author, Courtney Martin, visit

NOTE: I interviewed Courtney about her book when it first came out in hard cover last year. Read/listen to the interview here.

Enemies of Happiness (Film Review)

Enemies of HappinessEnemies of Happiness is not The Beauty Academy of Kabul. It is not about a Western woman traveling to a war-torn country to save brown women. It is about an Afghan woman, Malalai Joya, who has chosen to risk her life to fight for her own people.

Eva Mulvad’s award-winning film opens with footage of Joya’s dramatic public denunciation of the criminal warlords who dominated the 2004 loya jirga (constitutional convention) in Afghanistan. This was the fateful moment when ordinary Afghans discovered their most dedicated spokesperson—a twenty-six-year-old woman who was willing to risk her life to give voice to her people. It was also the moment that cast Joya into international fame, and into the crosshairs of the most notorious Afghan criminals—the “enemies of happiness.”

The loya jirga incident was the impetus for Joya’s bid for a parliamentary seat, and her election campaign is the focus of the rest of the film. It is Joya’s unconventional method of winning over the voters of rural Farah Province that makes this film utterly fascinating.

Joya does give an inspiring campaign speech or two to women who have never voted and cannot read or write. But the poor residents of Farah are more impressed by her dedication to solving the myriad social and political problems that plague their society. A drug addict who abuses his wife and threatens to leave his family receives a stern lecture from Joya. A warlord who is intent on forcibly marrying a young girl is reported by the girl’s family to the police at Joya’s urging.

Enemies of HappinessAnother reason why her people love and trust her is that she is quite literally one of them. Eva Mulvad’s skillful and unobtrusive camera work captures the impoverished lifestyle that is unfamiliar to Joya’s Western supporters. We see her cooking a modest meal, squatting on her haunches as she washes her clothes, and sleeping within a ramshackle hut. Mulvad’s decision to forgo a narrator gives the film a rare intimacy and authenticity. Malalai and other Afghans speak for themselves, allowing the film to avoid the paternalism that affects most Western-made documentaries about “Third World” nations.

Throughout the campaign Joya remains stoic, knowing that if elected, her intent to expose the warlords will bring her even closer to death. Many Afghans have been brutally murdered for doing and saying far less. But in one meeting with a close friend, the immense gravity of her actions becomes apparent and she breaks down, begging Mulvad to turn the camera off.

Enemies of Happiness leaves off where Malalai Joya’s contentious career in Parliament begins. The film’s only flaw is that its triumphant ending obscures the greater danger that lies ahead: in May 2007, Joya was suspended for “insulting” her fellow MPs and ordered to face a court of law.

Still, this remarkable story of how one woman has risked everything for her people is devastatingly compelling. It is a lesson in deep democracy that elected representatives in the United States could stand to learn.

—Sonali Kolhatkar

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2007-08 issue of make/shift magazine (

Find out more about the film at, and about Malalai Joya at

RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation

Published on Znet on June 1, 2006
By Sonali Kolhatkar

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the US on September 11th, 2001. Despite interviews with Larry King Live, and promotion by Oprah, few mainstream media outlets examined the radical nature of RAWAÂ’s political vision and strategy, or their organizational structure. Sadly, many on the left have also overlooked the lessons we can learn from this extraordinary womenÂ’s movement, choosing instead to relegate support of RAWA to mainstream feminist groups.

Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, women’s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?

To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, “With All Our Strength” by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Historical context

Afghanistan’s brutal history of war naturally shapes RAWA dramatically. The 1970s were a time of intense student activism and protest. In 1977, a young Kabul University student named Meena founded RAWA to struggle for women’s rights. RAWA was born into a nation on the brink of imperial war, occupation, and reactionary forces from which it has yet to emerge. A year after RAWA’s formation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began a ten year long occupation. RAWA’s initial goal of women’s emancipation, was broadened to include national emancipation. They participated in the nation-wide non-violent resistance, or jihad, against the occupation. But RAWA was also seen as a threat by the fundamentalist, misogynist forces which the US chose to work with. In fact, RAWA’s work was increasingly threatening to both Soviet imperialists and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1987, Meena was assassinated by a collaboration of both forces – KHAD (Afghan secret police, controlled by the Soviet government), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the largest recipient of US financial aid).

Rather that destroying the organization, Meena’s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meena’s face has essentially become RAWA’s face.

Political Vision

RAWA’s underlying philosophy sees women’s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, women’s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the US, leftist Afghan women like Meena realized that the men in their movements paid lip service to women’s rights but did not see it as important as class, or other struggles. Women were told that their freedom would automatically follow from other social changes and that it was not necessary for women’s rights to be central to their struggles.

RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate “economic democracy,” and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.

Excerpts from RAWA’s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aims [1] as:

(1) women’s emancipation, “which cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole,”

(2) separation of religion and politics, “so that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives,”

(3) equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups,

(4) “economic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation,”

(5) commitment to “struggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture,”

(6) “to draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially,”

(7) to serve and assist “affected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy,”

(8) establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations “based on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs,”

(9) “support for other freedom and women’s movements worldwide.”

RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and “the party line.”

Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:

We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Sudan and other fettered peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting for their rights against reactionary and anti-liberty states and powers.[2]


For the formation of a free, independent and democratic Afghanistan the joint striving and struggle of pro-liberty and democratic forces is indispensable. This objective can only be achieved through relentless struggle, not through compromise and capitulation.

— RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.

RAWA’s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.


Education is seen as part of RAWA’s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.

RAWA’s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled “income-generating projects.” The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.

RAWA’s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that “Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education … speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses.” RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.

Health Care and Humanitarian Aid

Despite much-touted progress, Afghanistan still suffers from shockingly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality. In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 in the UN’s Human Development Index. With so much suffering around them, it is impossible for RAWA to speak of human rights and women’s political rights, without also addressing the lack of access to food and health care, which are prerequisites to other rights.

RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s refugee camps. In many cases, the people they serve have no other access to health care. When the need arises, RAWA conducts emergency relief operations alongside their political and educational work. They often assists refugees during harsh winter months with blankets, food, and medical aid.

Because of the large numbers of orphans in Afghanistan, RAWA runs several orphanages for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (They do not, however, offer Afghan children up for adoption in Western countries and urge instead urge Western supporters to sponsor orphans so that the children can remain in their own country while having access to education, shelter, etc.)

Media, Documentation, and Technology

From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.

Payam-e-Zan (translated as ‘Woman’s Voice’) is RAWA’s main publication — a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan “operates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment tool” for RAWA, “serv[ing] as a place to document RAWA’s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.”

As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from Afghanistan, decided to document the rampant human rights abuses through still photography and video. Photographs documenting the victims of the fundamentalists, or in some cases, violence in action, are published on their website and magazine, along side reports by the RAWA members with details such as the date, time, names of victims, and perpetrators, etc. Digital cameras have made RAWA’s documentation much easier and also enabled RAWA to share the images of human rights violations more easily with an international audience via their website.

Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWA’s own archive. The most famous example of RAWA’s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in Kabul stadium. After 9/11, this video was viewed all over the world, despite the fact that it was more than 2 years old. When initially offered to news media in 1999, no one would touch the gruesome footage until it was politically convenient. The footage was also used in Saira Shah’s widely acclaimed documentary, Behind the Veil, which was re-aired repeatedly on CNN after 9/11.

The advent of the internet catapulted RAWA into the international like no other new technology. Wisely seeing the potential for international solidarity, and drawing world attention to a forgotten crisis, RAWA launched www.rawa.orgin late 1996. One member explained:

We never imagined the internet would bring such a positive result for us. It is very important and something that now we can’t imagine we could work without … At the time I remember it was kind of amazing. The first email from the US that we got, we all called each other to come see this and our eyes were so big… [3]

Most of the relations between RAWA and their international supporters have developed through their website and e-mail. I too first discovered RAWA through their website and wrote to them expressing my solidarity.

RAWA’s website is the perfect portal for them to express their political views and publish their documents while preserving the anonymity of their members. Additionally, large amounts of material can be published and archived with little additional cost.

While Payam-e-Zan is still RAWA’s primary outlet to reach the majority of Afghans – who live in a poor country with little internet access, RAWA’s website is the main method of communicating with the outside world.

Political Demonstrations

RAWA organizes public protests up to several times a year to mark various dates: March 8th, International Women’s Day; April 28th, the “black day” when the fundamentalists entered Kabul in 1992; and December 10th, International Human Rights Day. According to Brodsky, “demonstrations are one of the large-scale non-traditional ways that RAWA educates and enlightens people.” [4] They are usually held in Pakistan, as Afghanistan is still too dangerous. Thousands of women are bussed in from across the border to march with signs and banners. Sometimes the women carry sticks for self-defense, or are accompanied by male supporters who walk beside the march. The demonstrations often culminate in a rally in front of the United Nations Office in Islamabad and elsewhere.

One member of RAWA explains the importance of demonstrations:

When a demonstration happens, some in backward places can’t even think a woman can stage such a thing. Our mission is to change that mentality and let women know they are human beings and equal to men.[5]

RAWA’s demonstrations also highlight events in Afghan history that either are forgotten or have been re-written. For example, the bloody events of fundamentalist infighting and civil war that followed April 28th 1992 are resurrected each year on RAWA’s signs and placards.

The women in RAWA’s demonstrations march militantly with faces uncovered and fists in the air. Their signs are explicitly pro-democracy and anti-fundamentalist. As such, the public demonstrations also challenge pervading assumptions among Westerners who were obsessed by images of mute, burqa-clad, helpless looking Afghan women, after 9/11.

Organizational Structure and Decision making

While RAWA had adopted a committee structure from the beginning, their founder Meena operated as a de-facto President. Her tragic assassination in 1987 highlighted the organization’s vulnerability with having a high-profile “leader” who could be easily targeted. After Meena’s death, RAWA changed its structure so that no single member could assume a leadership role. Their goal was to “create a leadership structure that was democratic, collective, and as non-hierarchical as possible, thus promoting the equality and democracy that RAWA seeks for Afghanistan at large.” [6] This manifested itself in the form of a “leadership council” of 11 members. These members are elected every two years by the entire membership.

The election of the Leadership Council is to my knowledge, unique among “subversive movements.” Because of RAWA’s underground nature, its members are geographically dispersed and cannot communicate with one another frequently. Consequently there are no nominations or election campaigns. Members simply submit in writing 11 names of members that they think ought to comprise the Council. The top 11 vote-getters are then elected.

Leadership Council members simply continue in their daily functions as RAWA members, while taking on the responsibilities of that particular committee. They meet several times a year to oversee RAWA’s operations and author RAWA’s standpoints and statements in a way that reflects the membership’s sentiments by conferring with the spokespeople from all the underlying committees. Their names are never revealed outside the membership for security reasons. RAWA’s structure is consistent with their philosophy of the collective being more important than the individual.

The remaining RAWA members join any one of the following seven standing committees (see Appendix B). These are:

1. Education
2. Social (humanitarian)
3. Finance
4. Reports
5. Publications
6. Foreign Affairs
7. Cultural [7]

Each committee has a number of sub-committees focused on its various responsibilities. All committees, including the Leadership Council, are composed of an odd number of members to avoid deadlock in decision making.

Each committee has a “mas’ul” which is Persian for “responsible person.” The mas’ul functions like a spokesperson for the committee, to whom members can turn for mediation, or to make complaints. They are also responsible for communication between various committees. Brodsky elaborates: “Overall, RAWA’s committee structure can be thought of as having branches in which each mas’ul is the sole connection between the committees and members she is responsible for and the next level up in the committee structure.” This fosters the “relatively independent operation of each committee,” and ensures projects that are “locally responsive.” [8]

As any serious activist knows, committees cannot function without regular meetings, and RAWA members have their fair share of frequent meetings. One of RAWA’s most interesting type of meeting is a mechanism that enables them to deal with internal conflict: the “jelse entaqady” or “mistake meeting.” This is an “evaluation and correction mechanism that operates at all levels of the organization in order to facilitate RAWA’s distributed decision making style, and address mistakes, problems, and differences of opinion.” [9] Differences of opinion or disagreements are directly addressed with the people involved. The committee mas’ul is often a mediator in such meetings, and an odd number of attendees ensure that there can be no deadlock.

Secrecy is a huge factor in RAWA’s operations because of the dangerous nature of their work. As a result most members often know only a small number of other members personally at any given time. RAWA’s dispersed committee structure, and its members’ belief in the collective having more importance than the individual, ensures the organization’s continued functioning.

Only Afghan women based in Afghanistan or the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran can be RAWA members. Men are not allowed to be members. However, many male relatives of RAWA members are dedicated to supporting the organization in any manner available to them. Male supporters often help with security at public events, escorting foreign supporters, passing out RAWA literature, etc.

What we can learn from RAWA

RAWA’s approach to activism is very practical and tailored to suit the needs of their situation. Their political vision is simple, yet adheres to some basic fundamental truths such as the universality of human rights and democracy. While this may make some Western leftist ideologues scoff, it is an approach that, at the very least, works in a country like Afghanistan which has lost so much and is struggling to preserve the most basic of rights.

However, RAWA’s simple political vision enables it to be flexible to situations as they arise. For example, RAWA does not denounce capitalism. Rather they call for “economic democracy.” This enables them to train women in marketable skills through their “income-generating projects.” The practical short-term goal of enabling economic independence for a poor struggling, often illiterate woman, is achieved in this manner. RAWA does not engage in micro-lending however, preferring to grant women the basic foundation they may need to start up an operation, free of charge.

RAWA’s organizational structure is also quite practical, having preserved the organization for nearly two decades after Meena’s death. Rather than strain to achieve some idealistic but impractical notion of absolute participatory democracy, they have instead conceived a structure that has limited hierarchy (the Leadership Council), which is outweighed by ample democracy through simple and functional elections and committee membership.

RAWA’s emphasis on the collective over the individual is also a philosophy worth aspiring to. Among Western activists we have seen an increasing tendency to valorize individual figures, at the expense of collective action.

Appendix A

RAWA’s Educational Policy, from

We teach our students:

Recognition of these basic principles and values:

– Everyone must respect all human beings regardless of language, religion, race, color, etc.
– There is no difference between people; no human being is superior to any other because of class, color, language, race, or religion.
– All human beings do not have to think alike or live the same way.
– It’s to the benefit of society that all human beings live in peace, understanding, and harmony.

Religious Tolerance:

– Respect all religions and their followers.
– Understand that followers of all religions can live in harmony and peace.
– Do not discriminate against the followers of religious sects different from your own.
– Understand that religion is a private matter that cannot be forced on anyone else and nobody should be allowed to misuse it for any end, it must be kept separated from politics.
– Do not allow criminals in the future to dare to commit crimes in the name of religion, as did the Jahadis and Taliban.

Ethnic Tolerance:

– Respect all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
– No ethnic group is superior to any other and no one should be allowed to look down on others.
– All members of all ethnic groups have the right to speak their own languages.
– Respect for each language means respect for the culture of those people who live in different regions and cities.
– Prevent ethnic divisions and the kind of conflicts that, unfortunately, today have reached their peak because it is practiced by the criminal fundamentalists.- To know the history of their own and other countries and about those who sacrificed their lives for freedom; set them as an example for themselves.

Gender Tolerance:
– No human being is better than any other because of gender; contrary to the belief of the fundamentalists who treat our women as cattle and represent them as mentally deficient.
– Avoid any kind of behavior that promotes gender apartheid.
– Invalidate antiquated myths stories or poetry wrapped with religious, traditional or cultural reasons that portray women as powerless and less equal than men.
– Respect all people who have infirmity, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
– Promote a good relationship with the handicapped, and promote their involvement in society.
– Respect and promote the right of all children to live in harmony.

Environmental Sensitivity:
– Save mother earth with all its richness.
– Avoid using items that pollute the environment.
– Teach that animals have a right to live and avoid wanton killing; don’t kill them except for food purposes.
– Do not injure animals.
– Preserve animals that are endangered or threatened species.
– Preserve trees and jungles and don’t pollute the air and water.
– A culture of peace is not possible if it does not promote conservation of the environment.

– Avoid harsh treatment of human beings and animals.
– Recognize the causes of anger and actively try to help diminish the causes.
– Never hurt any human being who is not going to hurt you.
– Recognize the execution and killing of human beings as unacceptable and cruel.
– Avoid words, programs, toys, entertainment, and movies that promote and glorify violence and anger.
– Promote an understanding that anger and the exercise of violence is not the first and only way of solving problems.

Core Values of Life:

– Encourage a respect for the value of life and implement them in their lives.
– Honesty, decency, simplicity, unity, love, patience, responsibility, happiness, respect, and help for others are the values of life that should be inculcated and practiced routinely by everyone.
– Encourage eagerness in understanding the ideas of others.

Family Values:
– Encourage respect for one’s own family and those of others.
– Promote the understanding that everyone, regardless of where they live (suburb, city, or our country), is part of the bigger family that we all belong to.
– Respect the wisdom and dignity of the elders in every family.

Partnership Values:
– Encourage listening to the ideas of others.
– Respect teamwork and focus on the success of common goals.
– Engage in the activities of others and involve others in one’s own activities.
– Avoid unilateral decision-making and imposing one’s will on the majority.
– Should not allow themselves to make decisions individually and impose them on others.

Freedom Values:

– Promote respect for the difference between human beings and an understanding that all human beings don’t have to think alike.
– Avoid pre judgment.
– Avoid anything that damages and debases the values of human beings.
– Respect freedom of thought and avoid imposing one’s ideas on others arbitrarily.
– Respect the freedom of all human beings.
– That freedom has real meaning only with justice and democracy.
– Teach the idea that freedom doesn’t exist without justice.

Individual rights:
– Encourage an understanding of one’s own rights.
– Understand human rights and respect them.

Peace Values:
– Encourage work for world peace and make peace a priority over conflict.
– Exercise love for human beings.
– Promote peace by learning other countries’ cultures, and learn that living in peace and harmony is the only right way for human beings.
– Understand that peace will come to our country only when there is no sign of Jahadi/Talibi fundamentalists as military, terrorist and troublemaker force.
– To never let Afghanistan, which today has become a field for dogfighting and bloodbaths, be a place for the monster like fundamentalists, Parchami and Khalqi traitors.

Appendix B

From Anne Brodsky’s “With All Our Strength” (p. 159)

[1] Anne Brodsky, With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, (New York: Routledge, 2003), p169.

[2] RAWA statement, Overthrow of Jihadi and Taliban Criminals is the Only Guarantee of Human Rights in Afghanistan, December 10, 1998,

[3] Brodsky, p160.

[4] Brodsky, p110.

[5] Brodsky, p110.

[6] Brodsky, p153.

[7] Brodsky, p156.

[8] Brodsky, p157.

[9] Brodsky, p170.

Afghan Women Continue to Fend for Themselves

Published in Foreign Policy in Focus, March 4, 2004

Bombed into Liberation

A recent New York Times article accurately portrayed two Afghan women from the poor farming village of Haji Bai Nazar, as “heroines” for de-mining their village. 1 Khairulnisah and Nasreen have the United States military campaign in Afghanistan to thank for a deadly legacy of cluster bomblets that litter their village and that recently killed two young boys. These small yellow canisters are part of the “liberation” of Afghan women by a Bush administration that reminds us continually of the feminist achievements of Operation Enduring Freedom. The United States dropped over 1,200 cluster bombs over Afghanistan. Wrapped in an innocuous package each bomb deploys its deadly load of 202 bomblets, of which 10-22% remain unexploded, strewn over villages such as Haji Bai Nazar. 2 Afghan women are left to take responsibility for the U.S.’s unexploded cluster ordinance which has added to Afghanistan’s ten million existing land mines from previous wars.

For anyone who was under the impression that the bombings of wedding processions and other Afghan civilian gatherings were a thing of the past, this January, a U.S. helicopter murdered 11 civilians in their home, among them 3 women and 4 children. The district chief, Abdul Rahman told Associated Press, “They were simple villagers, they were not Taliban. I don’t know why the U.S. bombed this home.” 3 Even the U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai agreed with this assessment. 4 The official U.S. response to this was an insistence that in fact “five armed anti-coalition militia members” had been killed. 5 Impunity allows such a response to go unchallenged.

There has been a continuous, steady trickle of a few deaths here, a few there, in Afghanistan–not enough to warrant news headlines. According to the BBC this January, “In early December, six Afghan children died during a U.S. assault in eastern Paktia province. The next day, nine more died in a field in Ghazni province after a U.S. air attack.” More than two years after “Operation Enduring Freedom” began in Afghanistan, Afghan women and children are still enduring death by U.S.-style freedom.
The U.S.’s destructive role in Afghanistan goes back many years from the fueling of extremist fundamentalism in the “jihad” against the Soviet Union, to the lukewarm engagement with the Taliban. 6 And every step of the way Afghan women faced a worsening climate of fear, repression, and misogyny as a result. Today, the countryside is overrun with Afghan warlords, resurrected from the pre-Taliban era–these warlords, who also targeted women, were the main reason for initial widespread public acceptance of the Taliban’s promise of peace and stability in 1996. The warlords, many of whom hold high-level positions in the interim government thanks to the intervention of U.S. officials, are just as disrespectful of women’s rights today as the Taliban. 7

Rhetoric Versus Reality

An October 2003 Amnesty International (AI) Report entitled “‘No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings’: Justice denied to women” concludes that “Two years after the ending of the Taleban regime, the international community and the [U.S.-backed] Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA), led by President Hamid Karzai, have proved unable to protect women.” In fact, AI claims that “In parts of Afghanistan, women have stated that the insecurity and the risk of sexual violence they face make their lives worse than during the Taleban era” and that “women and girls in Afghanistan are threatened with violence in every aspect of their lives.” 8

In the meantime, desperately needed and promised aid has trickled in far too slowly. A report released by the international humanitarian organization, CARE last year declared, “Much of the country remains a tinderbox, with reconstruction all but stalled, and ordinary Afghans wondering if reality will ever match the rhetoric.” 9

But U.S. officials still repeat the lie of “liberation.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said this February of the Afghan and Iraqi people, “Under President Bush’s leadershipÂ,T (Bour men and women in uniform have delivered freedom to more than 50 million people in the space of two-and-a-half years.” 10 More specifically to Afghan women, a White House press release this January asserts that “Millions of Afghan women are experiencing freedom for the first time.” 11 The rhetoric extends to the spreading of democracy: Vice President Dick Cheney declared on February 7th, “Under President Karzai’s leadership, and with the help of our coalition, the Afghan people are building a decent and a just and a democratic society.” 12U.S. government officials seem to occupy a separate plane of existence from the rest of us. Amnesty International’s research revealed last year that the Afghan criminal justice system, the police, and the Afghan National Army are all implicated in women’s oppression. 13 Mariam Rawi of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan agrees that in addition to warlords, the Afghan government itself threatens women: “In spite of its rhetoric, the Karzai government actively pursues policies that are anti-women.” 14

Another example of rhetoric versus reality in Afghanistan is the hubbub over “Osama,” the first feature film from post-Taliban Afghanistan , which recently won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was written and directed by Siddiq Barmak, an aide to Ahmad Shah Masood. Masood was the late charismatic warlord leader of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, which may explain why the Bush administration and others such as Hillary Clinton are giving rave reviews and even arranging screenings for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell commented that the movie “will teach you why President Bush is right about waging the war on terrorists until there are no more of them.” 15

Despite being used to promote the Bush administration’s agenda, the actors in the film, played by untrained, poor, Afghan children, remain miserably poor–even after the international success of the film. Marina Gulbahari, the 13-year-old girl who plays the main character in the film was begging on the streets of post-Taliban Kabul when she was first noticed by the filmmaker. Today Gulbahari’s life remains about the same as it was before: “She still lives in the one-room mud house, and though she will be moving next month to a bigger house that Barmak bought for her, it is still a mud home without electricity or waterÂ,T (Bher youngest brother and sister still go out on the streets, to collect cans, she says, although it seems likely that they are begging.” 16 Ariff Herati, a 14-year-old who plays Marina ‘s friend in the film, was found at a refugee camp and, after the release and promotion of the movie, he “still lives in a windowless mud hut in the camp.” 17

Aid Eludes Afghans

Even the filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, whose film is being promoted by U.S. government officials, speaks of “friends” in “different countries” who “promise us a lot of things for our country, but they didn’t employ these promises [sic].” 18 CARE, which operates several programs in Afghanistan , agrees with Barmak: “Despite constant requests from the Afghan government for more reconstruction funds, and months of positive “signals” on funding from the United States and Europe, sufficient funds have yet to flow to reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.” 19

At a Tokyo donors’ conference in 2002, when aiding Afghanistan was a valuable public exercise, the international community pledged $4.5 billion over five years for reconstruction projects (excluding humanitarian assistance). More than half of these pledges have been diverted to humanitarian assistance rather than reconstruction projects over the past two years, and even that has not been adequate to fulfill needs. Less than $1 billion of international aid has actually come through for reconstruction projects. 20 Today, Afghanistan’s Finance Ministry has estimated that the country now needs roughly $28 billion over the next seven years! Meanwhile the U.S. has allocated $1.6 billion dollars to Afghanistan this year, a disproportionate amount compared to its investment in the higher-profile case of Iraq. The U.S. allocated $22 billion to Iraq, a country about the same size and population as Afghanistan, and whose “standard of living is decades ahead of Afghanistan.” 21

Researching the actual dollars set aside by the U.S. for humanitarian and other aid specifically for Afghan women is a tough exercise: the projects are high-profile but very small in scope. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently launched a new program in Afghanistan called “Learning for Life,” which according to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad “will raise Afghan literacy rates and health training and will help reduce high maternal and child mortality rates.” These lofty goals could fulfill some dire needs of Afghan women and give the impression that the U.S. is perhaps actually interested in Afghan women’s rights. But a simple examination will reveal why Ambassador Khalilzad does not provide specific numerical goals: only $4.9 million has been set aside for this program by USAID. For a country whose needs run into the tens of billions of dollars, a few million will do no more than make a negligible dent in health, literacy, and education. Compare this to $700 million allocated for “police and army training, and counter-narcotics efforts” (see below). More importantly, programs like “Learning for Life” will raise the profile of the beneficiary.

Examining the details of the paltry amount of U.S. aid this year reveals that most of the money is set aside for economic enterprises rather than specific humanitarian projects that would benefit women. According to a State Department press release, the $1.6 billion from the U.S. is designated to generate “visible, measurable, on-the-ground results” to be completed by the June elections. Of this, $700 million will fund “police and army training, and counter-narcotics efforts.” Certainly better security could do wonders for Afghan women’s safety, but the more important consideration, according to the State Department, is that “improved security Â,T (Bis needed for an improved investment climate and for raising economic growth.” Much of the remaining aid will go toward stimulating “private sector economic activity,” and “building 100 market centers and 5 new industrial parks.” 22 Impoverished Afghan women will simply have to find ways to take advantage of the “improved investment climate” and fit into the U.S. ‘s free market model of development after decades of U.S.-sponsored wars.

New Afghan Constitution Inadequate

One wonders how Afghanistan can dive headlong into elections sponsored by a power that is currently bombing it, or while Afghans are awaiting aid. Still, the United States is determined to push ahead; in early January 2004, a constitutional convention ratified a draft constitution presented by the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai, enshrining a strong presidency for Afghanistan. The constitution also asserted equality for men and women, something that even the U.S. constitution does not claim: “The citizens of Afghanistan–whether man or woman–have equal rights and duties before the law.” However, possibly negating any rights of women is the ominous inclusion of the supremacy of Islamic law in the constitution: “in Afghanistan , no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” As if to underscore the threat this statement presents, the Chairman of the constitutional convention, or Loya Jirga, Sibghatullah Mojadidi, said to the women delegates at the convention, “Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man.” 23 One young Afghan woman stood up to these misogynist sentiments: Malalai Joya denounced the presence of warlords, suggesting instead that they be tried in a court of law. In response, Chairman Mojadidi labeled her a “communist” and “infidel” and ordered she be thrown out of the meeting.

Despite the inhospitable atmosphere Afghan women faced at the convention, the constitution is being touted by the Bush administration as an indication of the arrival of democracy in Afghanistan . But, according to writer and filmmaker Meena Nanji, the document is inadequate for any implementation of democracy: “While on paper it does make sweeping enunciations of equality, democracy, economic, civil, and political rights, there is little about creating the institutions to uphold or implement these provisions. Without the means to actually enforce laws, the constitution carries little authority–perhaps none in the face of armed warlords.” 24

The U.S. and interim U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai are currently moving toward a June 2004 timetable for elections. But with U.S. bombs still dropping overhead, and warlords threatening to fracture the country, what is the hurry? The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) released a report in November 2003 saying “there are real risks in allowing foreign agendas to become the driving force pushing for elections within a timeframe that may jeopardize Afghanistan ‘s future.” The AREU hints that U.S. enthusiasm for this timeline is a “result of the Bush administration’s need for a foreign policy and ‘war-on-terror’ success ahead of the November 2004 presidential elections in the U.S. ” 25 The election of a U.S.-friendly puppet such as Karzai, would be just the feather in Bush’s cap come November.

Where does this leave Afghan women? At the writing of this commentary, less than 10% of an estimated 10.5 million voters have registered to vote in this election. Of these, only one quarter are women. 26 This is no surprise in a country where only approximately 4-15 % of women are literate (estimates vary). Even women who can read the ballot are expected to register to vote in an election they have had no say in or been kept out of by fundamentalist forces. Additionally, for some women, the election probably takes lower priority than obtaining adequate food, medicine, and other life-giving necessities.

Women candidates who try to work within the current election system face co-optation. Masooda Jalal is the only female presidential contender in the elections. The election of a woman as president provides no guarantee that women’s rights will be upheld, and is no indication of free and fair elections. However, it can be a strong indication of support for women playing a role in politics. Jalal won second place votes the last time she challenged Karzai at the summer 2002 Loya Jirga and is gearing up for a second attempt. Hamid Karzai, who, like the U.S., claims to uphold women’s rights, apparently tried to convince Jalal to run as his deputy instead of against him, ahead of the vote at the summer Loya Jirga. 27

“U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women”

Two years ago, with much fanfare, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (UAWC) was announced in post-Taliban Afghanistan . According to their website, the UAWC was founded “to promote private/public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions and mobilize private resources to ensure Afghan women gain the skills and education deprived them under years of Taliban misrule.” Headed by Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, and Habiba Sarabi, the Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs, this Council is a perfect showcase for the Bush administration’s rhetoric of liberation.

A year ago, in 2003, a delegation of American women from the UAWC, including Karen Hughes, former Counselor to President Bush, visited Kabul . At that meeting, Hughes was asked about the Afghan burqa by a reporter, to which she acknowledged that Afghan women still live in fear. The burqa is still considered by U.S. feminists and the media as the most important measure of Afghan women’s freedom, despite strong public critique of this type of cultural imperialist logic. Hughes’ sympathy knew no bounds and she offered her own presence as an antidote to the fear represented by the burqa: “One of the things that we heard in the meeting is that there is still a substantial amount of fear and so I think one of the whole purposes of a delegation of largely women visiting from the United States of America is to maybe provide some small sense of encouragement to the women of Afghanistan.” 28

The delegation is a yearly exercise–this February, a similar high-profile delegation plus Defense Secretary’s wife Joyce Rumsfeld, and others, paid a visit to Afghanistan. There they informed Afghan women that the women of the United States have not forgotten them. Afghan women are still useful tools for U.S. feminists to employ in their public relations campaigns, especially on the eve of International Women’s Day.

Apparently the words of Karen Hughes in 2003 made such a difference to the lives of Afghan women that a year later according to one news report, Ms. Hughes was impressed by the “different shades of dark hair visible on burka-free Afghan women.” She remarked “There’s a big change hereÂ,T (BThere’s more shops, there’s more energy. There’s more women on the streets [sic].” 29 But the yearly trips of the UAWC are largely restricted to the capital, Kabul, where International Security Assistance Forces have ensured a relatively secure atmosphere and spared the ladies the trauma and violence of the countryside. Operating mostly inside Kabul enables high-profile U.S. women to highlight their benevolent efforts toward Afghan women without addressing the reality of most Afghan women’s lives.

Consistent with the Bush administration’s main interest in stimulating “private sector economy” in Afghanistan, the UAWC’s core mission is to “develop and foster partnerships between the private and public sectors,” according to a U.S. State department press release. 30 In fact, the title of this press release underscores the real value of the UAWC to the U.S.– “U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women: The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council.”

So committed is the U.S. to Afghan women that the Council has no formal budget and instead “relies on its members–White House aides, State Department experts, businesswomen, and educators–to raise money, either U.S. government or private funds.” 31 So far the U.S. government has provided only $2.5 million, while corporate sponsors such as AOL/Time Warner, Daimler-Chrysler-Benz, and other various organizations have provided a few tens of thousands of dollars each.

The UAWC has also partnered with several organizations for skills and training resources for Afghan women. One partner of the UAWC is the particularly troubling University of Nebraska . The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska received funding from USAID for a program designed by the CIA in the 1980s to promote anti-Soviet propaganda among Afghan Mujahedin through text books that “promoted and strengthened an era of jihad violence” and teacher trainings. More recently the Center won a contract with the oil corporation Unocal, to train hundreds of Afghan men under the Taliban to construct an oil pipeline. 32 The pipeline project was protested vehemently by American feminists, who condemned Unocal for doing business with the misogynist Taliban. Today, the UAWC “has initiated a teacher training exchange that is bringing 30 Afghan women teachers to Nebraska every 6 months for training.”

In addition to ignoring the reality of Afghan women’s lives outside Kabul, the UAWC is a convenient showpiece of the Bush administration’s self-described “commitment to Afghan women,” and is consistent with the historical and current consequences of U.S. actions toward Afghan women.

If the U.S. Were Really Interested in Afghan Women’s Rights…

In 2001, a month after Operation Enduring Freedom began, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “if we do everything we can to help reconstitute Afghan society and give people hope for a better future, we will not fail.” 33
But “we” have failed Afghan women, and in fact, failure seems almost deliberate. Putting aside for a moment the physical and political destruction of the U.S. military and government campaigns, a few concrete steps could have done much more in practical terms to help Afghan women. For example:

1. Instead of arming and empowering fundamentalist warlords who threaten women’s safety, the U.S. could have participated in disarming them. After all, the U.S. was the original benefactor to most of these armed men during the jihad of the 1980s. Today, the government of Japan , not the United States , is funding the crucial ” Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration” project supervised by the United Nations. This program has already disarmed 1,000 men from each of the armies of two rival warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Atta. The program registers the disarmed men to vote, provides them with a little cash and food, and informs them of their employment options. 34 Since the U.S. is still actively working with the warlords, the effectiveness of such a program is sadly in question.
2. Malnutrition, maternal mortality, and other treatable conditions still plague Afghan women. Instead of funding paltry private enterprise through the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and U.S. AID the Bush administration could have pledged billions of dollars in aid toward hospitals for women, food assistance, girls’ schools, and other life-saving actions throughout Afghanistan . If spending on the occupation of Iraq is any indication, the U.S. can clearly spare such amounts of money.
Colin Powell made a promise in 2001: “The rights of the women of Afghanistan will not be negotiable.” 35 Yet, more than two years later, the number and manner of dollars spent, and the actual situation on the ground reveals that Afghan women’s rights have been clearly negotiated in exchange for political gains, manipulated for public relations success stories, under-funded, or ignored altogether.

1. Carlotta Gall “Risking Death, 2 Afghan Women Collected and Detonated U.S. Cluster Bombs in 2001,” New York Times, February 22, 2004.
2. “Steel Rain: U.S. Cluster Bomb Use In Four Recent Campaigns,” Marc Herold,, June 16, 2003.
3. “11 killed in U.S. helicopter attack on Afghan house,” Associated Press, January 19, 2004.
4. “Karzai: U.S. Airstrike Killed 10 Afghans,” Stephen Graham, Associated Press, January 31, 2004.
5. “Afghan villagers ‘killed by U.S.’,” BBC, January 22, 2004.
6. Sonali Kolhatkar, “The Impact of U.S. Intervention on Afghan Women’s Rights,” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, June 2002.
7. Sonali Kolhatkar, ” In Afghanistan, U.S. Replaces One Terrorist State with Another,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 3, 2003. []
8. Amnesty International, “Afghanistan: ‘No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings’: Justice denied to women,” Amnesty International Report, AI INDEX: ASA 11/023/2003, 10/06/03.
9. CARE ” Good intentions will not pave the road to peace,” Afghanistan Policy Brief, September 15, 2003.
10. Remarks by National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice to the Reagan Lecture,” Press Release from the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, February 26, 2004.
11. “Progress in the War on Terror,” Press Release from the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, January 22, 2004.
12. ” VP Remarks at Missouri Republican Party Event,” Press Release from the Office of the Vice President, February 7, 2004.
13. Amnesty International, op. cit.
14. Mariam Rawi, “Rule of the rapists: Britain and the U.S. said war on Afghanistan would liberate women. We are still waiting,” Guardian, February 12, 2004.
15. Daily White House Press Briefing with Richard Boucher,, February 19, 2004.
16. “Street girl still in struggle after starring in Afghan film,” PakTribune, February, 20, 2004.
17. Thomas Wagner, “Danger: girl at work,” The Age, Australia, December 10, 2003.
18. “Foreign film illustrates Afghan plight,” Interview with Fred Topel,, .
19. CARE op. cit.
20. Barnett R Rubin, Humayun Hamidzada, and Abby Stoddard, “Through the Fog of Peace Building: Evaluating the Reconstruction of Afghanistan,” Center on International Cooperation, June, 2003.
21. Barnett R. Rubin, “Afghan Dispatch,” Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2004.
22. “U.S. to Give $1.6 Billion to Speed Up Afghan Reconstruction Projects,” U.S. Department of State, November 10, 2003.
23. Masuda Sultan, “Afghan Constitution a Partial Victory for Women” Women’s E News (, January 14, 2004.
24. Meena Nanji, ” Democracy in Afghanistan? An Authoritarian State Is In The Process Of Construction,” Z net online (, February 23, 2004.
25. “Afghan Elections: The Great Gamble,” Report by Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, November 2003.
26. Scott McDonald, ” Blue thumbs and ID cards mark Afghan voter drive,” Reuters, February 19, 2004.
27. “Massouda Jalal sets precedent for Afghan women,” Agence France-Presse, January 26, 2004.
28. U.S. Department of State Press Conference of U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, Kabul, Afghanistan, January 8, 2003.
29. Margaret Coker, “Bush adviser spearheads aid effort for Afghan women,” Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service, February 29, 2004.
30. “U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women: The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council,” Statement by the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues, January, 2004.
31. Coker , op. cit.
32. Brooke Williams, “Windfalls of War: University of Nebraska at Omaha,” The Center for Public Integrity.
33. Secretary Colin L. Powell, “Afghan Women,” Remarks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Washington, DC, November 19, 2001.
34. Shafiullah Noorzadah, ” Militia men give up their arms,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting, February 18, 2004.
35. Powell, op. cit.

Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at ©2004. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Sonali Kolhatkar, “Afghan Women Continue to Fend for Themselves,” Foreign Policy In Focus (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, March 2004).
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Production Information:
Writer: Sonali Kolhatkar
Editor: John Gershman, IRC

Afghan Women: Enduring American “Freedom”

Based on Conference Presentation at Afghan Women’s Mission Conference, October 2002. Published in Frontline Magazine (India), Z Magazine, and Foreign Policy in Focus

In January 2002, George W. Bush told us in his State of the Union address, “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free …” Almost a year later (11 Oct 2002), Bush again congratulated himself: “We went into Afghanistan to free people, because we believe in freedom. We believe every life counts. Every life matters. So we’re helping people recover from living under years of tyranny and oppression. We’re helping Afghanistan claim its democratic future.” The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was called “Operation Enduring Freedom”. With all this talk of freedom, it is important to ask the question, how are Afghan women enduring American-style freedom? When we think of women’s rights in Afghanistan, we think of the imprisonment of the Burqa, the traditional Islamic head to foot covering that the Taliban forced women to wear. George Bush certainly seems to subscribe to this view. But many Afghan women wore the burqa before and after the Taliban. In the rural areas of Afghanistan, the majority of women covered themselves. Contrary to what President Bush would have us believe, the problems facing Afghan women run far deeper than clothing. Food security, access to healthcare, and safety from physical violence are key aspects of women’s rights that the US intervention has largely ignored or even jeopardized.

Coming Winter Brings Starvation

By November, Afghanistan’s harsh winter will return and thousands of Afghans, devastated by three years of drought and 23 years of war and civil unrest, will be facing winter and starvation. Take the Badghis province of Afghanistan for example — one of the poorest. Roughly 50 percent of Badghis’s approximately 400,000 population cannot obtain enough food this winter. Fatema, a resident of Bagdhis, doesn’t know how she will feed her six children this year. Her 15 year old son is the only one in the family who can earn any money and he does it by selling grass for fuel and food. Two months ago they were refugees, but they recently returned. They are among the millions of refugees that have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, the millions who have been counted as a measure of success by the U.N. of the U.S.’s Operation “Enduring Freedom” (World Vision, October 17th).

When George Bush promised us that Afghan women were free he assuaged our guilt as the bombs rained down on Afghanistan, picking off wedding parties, cutting off crucial winter aid routes, delaying spring plantings of wheat. According to Bush, at least women can now walk around without a burqa if they want. But what good is an uncovered face if it is starving to death? Women’s rights are human rights: survival is more important than clothing and survival has been the most difficult challenge facing women both before and after the U.S. action in Afghanistan..

Women’s Health Still in Crisis

A recent report released by the US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) entitled “Maternal Mortality in Herat Province: The Need to Protect Women’s Rights”, said, “The rate of maternal mortality in a society is a critical indicator of the health and human rights status of women in a community.” The report documented 593 maternal deaths in every 100,000 live births, with the majority of the cases in rural areas. This maternal mortality rate is far worse than in all of the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The second worse neighboring country is Pakistan, with 200 deaths per 100,000 births. A researcher with PHR concluded, “What appears to be simply a public health catastrophe in Herat Province… speaks of the many years of denial and deprivation of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

Today one of the most vulnerable groups of women in Afghanistan are widows. In Kabul alone there are an estimated 40,000 widows who have lost their husbands in the decades of war in Afghanistan. Nationwide, the number of widows is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, since about 1.5 million Afghans were killed during the ten year Soviet occupation and the cross fire from warlordism that followed in the early 1990s. “While the plight of Afghan widows has improved psychologically, the main problems of finding shelter, food and income remain thesame,” says Awadia Mohamed , the coordinator for CARE International in Afghanistan. “Indeed, in some cases they have worsened.” Widows have very limited access to food and health services despite the absence of the Taliban. In fact, “51 percent of widows surveyed reported being unwell, of whom 57.6 percent had fever, 13.6 percent had diarrhoea and 10 percent leishmaniasis wounds…Furthermore, calorie intake was insufficient, with most of the women and their children subsisting on little more than bread and tea, resulting in malnutrition problems and micronutrient deficiencies”. (“Afghanistan: Focus on the plight of widows”, IRIN, 21st October, 2002).

Hunger and lack of healthcare indicate the deprivation of the basic rights of mothers, daughters, and widows. Where are the media and their cameras now?

Warlords Threaten Security for Women

Article 3 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” If the right to survival is a fundamental principle of women’s rights, freedom from insecurity is another. But insecurity is a euphemism for war, for conflict, for more violence and bloodshed. Unfortunately, “territorial skirmishes between heavily armed warlords” (“Fighting breaks out in troubled eastern Afghan province”, AFP, October 17th) are all too common.

Practically speaking, since the Taliban fell and warlords of the past returned to their old fiefdoms, they resumed fighting one another, exactly what they were doing when the Taliban first came to power. According to Agence France-Presse, “Northern Afghanistan remains plagued by factional and ethnic rivalries despite loose allegiances between warlords controlling the area, most of whom have offered pledges of support to the central Afghan government.” (“Violence in northern Afghanistan deterring refugee returns: UN”, Agence France-Presse, 20th October, 2002). Such clashes are frequent and deadly, in the northern and eastern part of Afghanistan.

The media fail to report prominently that many of these warlords, now members of the Northern Alliance, were first empowered by the United States in the 1980s to repel the Soviet invasion, and then again during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghansitan (RAWA) spelled out last year what empowering war lords will do for Afghanistan: “The Taliban and Al-Qaeda will be eliminated, but the existence of the NA [Northern Alliance] as a military force would shatter the joyful dream of the majority for an Afghanistan free from the odious chains of barbaric Taliban. The NA will horribly intensify the ethnic and religious conflicts and will never refrain to fan the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to retain in power.” (“RAWA’s appeal to the UN and World community”, November 13th, 2001). Rather than heed the words of RAWA and others,the U.S. engaged the services of the Northern Alliance, with the CIA paying warlords $100,000 each to gather armies (“Caught Off Guard, the CIA Fights to Catch Up,” Cloud, D. S., 15 April 2002, Wall Street Journal). Today, the three Vice Presidents of Afghanistan are all members of the Northern Alliance – General Mohammad Fahim, Karim Khalili and Haji Abdul Qadeer. And, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former Mujahadeen warrior, is now Defense Minister of Afghanistan.

The Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who recieved a plaque of appreciation from US forces for help against the Taliban last year, can add ethnic cleansing to his achievements. Dostum’s troops recently forced 180 Pashtun families (people who are the same ethnicity as the Taliban), from villages in northern Afghanistan in early October. Some of the women said they had been raped by his men and had their homes looted. (“Pashtuns driven from northern Afghan villages”, 7th October, 2002, Reuters).

While Afghan women are desperate for security and for the International Security Armed Forces (ISAF) to be expanded from Kabul to all of Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to deny this. Even Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, a puppet of the U.S., has asked for the ISAF to be expanded to all of Afghanistan, so that warlords can be disarmed and a transition to peace can begin. Instead the U.S. has been focusing on training a national army of Afghans which is undermined by the fact that Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim himself has a private army of 18,000 men. (“Afghans ask: ‘Whose army is it?,'” David Buchbinder, 17th October, 2002, Christian Science Monitor). With the U.S. empowering warlords, and undermining the ISAF expansion, there is little hope for peace and security in the country. Afghan women will pay the highest price as they have always done.

Girls Schools Still Under Attack

In March of this year the Washington Post happily ran a story headlined “The Girls Are back in Afghan Schools”. One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across America — the knowledge that our good war, meant to liberate Afghan women was working. But are the media reporting the recent spate of attacks against schools in Afghanistan? Schools have been burned down in Kandahar, Wardak and Sar-i-Pul. In the seventh incident in a series of attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan, gunmen forced a school in the Wardak province that served 1,300 girls to close. In recent weeks girls schools have been burned and bombed. (“UNICEF denounces violent attacks on schools in Afghanistan, 17th October, 2002, UN News Service).

“Saving” Afghan Women

It is crucial for us to understand that women’s rights are always politically manipulated by the powerful, to justify almost anything. In the late 70s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and claimed to be saving Afghan women. Then, they began assassinating men who opposed the invasion, leaving thousands of women widowed. The U.S. backed Mujahadeen (many of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance) claimed to be saving women, from the “godless” communists. Then, they simply raped women, forced them into marriages, and tortured their husbands. The Taliban took over from the Mujahadeen, claiming to save Afghan women. Then they forced them to stay at home (for their own good), stop going to school, and be denied access to medical care. And finally, George Bush came riding on a white horse to save Afghan women. Perhaps it is time to rethink promises made by powerful men to save Afghan women.

Afghan women don’t need saving. They know perfectly well how to save themselves: the brave work of RAWA in the fields of education, health care, political agitation and demands for secularism, democracy and women’s rights, is a testament to this. The West does not hold a monopoly on these issues. What Afghan women need is for the U.S. to stop imposing freedom through bombs, stop backing human rights violators and warlords, and stop hindering the security forces from expanding to the rest of the country.

The struggle of Afghan women has been reduced here in the United States to a simplistic discussion about the Burqa. Don the burqa and you’re oppressed, take it off and, lo and behold, you’re free. But what does this really mean? It means that to constantly portray Afghan women as weak, covered up, defenseless, needing our help, makes us feel good about helping Afghan women, about saving them. To express solidarity with Afghan women, we need to understand what affects them, starting with what we are responsible for and have the power to change — the use of bombs and warlords as tools of US policy. We need to begin treating Afghan women with dignity and not reduce them to a piece of clothing. Afghan women’s rights are a crucial part of the equation of Afghanistan. One year later, it is clear that Afghan women are not “free” — they are simply enduring American freedom.

“Saving” Afghan Women

Published online at Znet and various publications

As I got ready to be interviewed by Helen Caldicott, the famous Helen Caldicott, activist and feminist, I remarked to my fellow interviewee how exited I was to be speaking with one of my heroes. I had heard Helen on the radio and read articles about her and her brave campaigns to fight nuclear weapons and environmental degradation. Helen was late but it didn’t matter — I was elated about being interviewed by her. About forty five minutes after we were suppose to begin, we finally did. She began by asking me about my work with the Afghan Women’s Mission and Afghan women’s rights. Despite my nervousness, I answered calmly, but Helen wouldn’t let me finish my sentences. She kept asking me to talk about why Afghan men treated women in the way they did. I tried to talk about the US empowerment of misogynist fundamentalists in Afghanistan and how US support had raised a generation of men who abused the power of their guns on women. But she angled for another answer and kept pushing me to try to read her mind and tell her what she wanted to hear. Thrown off balance by her aggressive questioning, I finally gave up and she proceeded to tell me all about female genital mutilation which the Feminist Majority had apparently told her, took place among Afghan women. Aghast at this information, which in my years of carefully studying the issue of Afghan women’s rights, I had never come across, I mumbled that it was not something I was aware of. The interview ended as I took the headphones off and walked out, angry and frustrated with Helen ranting about the barbarity of women’s vaginas being sewn up and that Afghan men did not want women to be able to have orgasms.

I raced over to my computer to do some research. Could I have been wrong? Was FGM really prevalent among Afghan women? I couldn’t imagine it. I had known of it happening to women in some African countries. Surely I would have heard of it happening in a country geographically and culturally close to my home country of India, a country I had studied closely?

Well it turns out Ms. Caldicott was wrong. Female Genital Mutilation is not practiced in Afghanistan. I learned two lessons from my experience: 1) No pedestal is well deserved: greatness is an overrated perception, and, 2) Feminists like Helen Caldicott and the Feminist Majority, approach the women of the Global South with short sighted preconceptions of feminism and their superiority. Helen Caldicott, was more interested in exploring the fascinating desire of Afghan men to treat women like dirt, than in examining those forces (most often Western male dominated governments) that have fostered misogynist religious extremism at the expense of women’s rights.

It is easy to condemn the “barbaric” men of Afghanistan and pity the helpless women of Afghanistan. It is this very logic that drives the Feminist Majority’s “Gender Apartheid” campaign for Afghan women. Far more interested in portraying Afghan women as mute creatures covered from head to toe, the Feminist Majority aggressively promotes itself and it’s campaign by selling small squares of mesh cloth, similar to the mesh through which Afghan women can look outside when wearing the traditional Afghan burqa. The post card on which the .swatch of mesh is sold says, “Wear a symbol of remembrance for Afghan women”, as if they are already extinct. An alternative could have been “Celebrate the Resistance of Afghan Women” with a pin of a hand folded into a fist, to acknowledge the very real struggle that Afghan women wage every day, particularly the women of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who are at the forefront of that struggle. Interestingly enough, 50% of all proceeds go toward helping Feminist Majority in promoting their campaign on “Gender Apartheid” in Afghanistan.

On almost every image of Afghan women in the Western mainstream and even alternative media, images of shapeless blue clad forms of Afghan women covered with the burqa, dominate (Amnesty International’s poster of Afghan women, the cover of Cheryl Bernard’s new book on RAWA, etc.). We all know and understand the reactions which the image of the burqa brings, particularly to Western women and feminists. That horror mixed with fear and ugly fascination like knowing the site of a bloody car wreck will make you want to retch but you do it anyway. Whose purpose does this serve? How “effective” would the Feminist Majority’s campaign be if they made it known that Afghan women were actively fighting back and simply needed money and moral support, not instructions? It if for this reason, I have gathered, that the Feminist Majority is not interested in working with RAWA “RAWA is too independent and politicized. What good is it to flaunt images of Afghan women marching militantly with fists in the air, carrying banners about freedom, democracy and secular government? Those women wouldn’t need saving as much as the burqa clad women seem to. We may realize that groups such as the Feminist Majority are not necessary to tell Afghan women how to help themselves from their oppression. We may gather that Afghan women are perfectly capable of helping themselves if only our governments would stop arming and empowering the most violent sections of society. After all, it was the US CIA which armed and trained the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1970s, even back then famous for mutilating women with acid for failing to cover themselves up. Hekmatyar was known by the CIA for being a “fascist”. Where is the criticism of the CIA’s barbarity in Helen Caldicott’s remarks on Afghan women?

It is not just white women feminists in the US who seek to control the message of women’s movements in the Global South. This March, I excitedly obtained the endorsement of the board of the Afghan Women’s Mission for the Global Women’s Strike which happens each year on International Women’s Day. This was a three-year movement spanning tens of countries where women walked out of their homes and jobs to demand equal pay and compensation for child rearing among other things. This year’s theme was “Invest in Caring, not Killing” and, appropriately, the strike was dedicated to condemning the US War in Afghanistan. The local organizer, Margaret Prescod, was initially pleased that the Afghan Women’s Mission was signing on. However, Prescod and the main organizers of the strike who resided in England, objected to the language of our flyer only two days before the planned march in downtown Los Angeles. The main message on the front of the flyer was a condemnation of fundamentalism and an indictment of the US support for it, embedded in a quote by a RAWA member. It included the following sentence: “We welcome the combat against terrorism. In fact, this combat should have started years ago in terms of preventing incidents like September 11. But this combat against terrorism cannot be won by bombing this or that country. It should be a campaign to stop any country that sells arms or supports financially the fundamentalists’ movements or fundamentalist regimes”. Undoubtedly the bombing of Afghanistan was and is a large concern to the Afghan Women’ Mission and RAWA in whose support we work (AWM and RAWA have both released public statements condemning the bombing), but fundamentalism and the very real terrorism of the Taliban and Northern Alliance is a large part of the on-going problem that Afghan women live with every day, that kills them every day, before and after the bombing. Perturbed that our anti-war message was not clear enough, the organizers of the strike threatened to not allow AWM’s endorsement. This coalition of women was condemning the bombing while demanding equal pay and compensation for child rearing but could not fathom or appreciate that some women on the other side of the world had slightly different problems. Afghan Women’s Mission ultimately participated in the march while leaving our flyer largely intact.

RAWA has also faced some consternation from the progressive left. Upset at RAWA’s criticism of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, groups like the International Action Center, a.k.a. the Workers World Party, have silently ignored RAWA’s contribution. A friend at the Worker’s World Party claimed some years ago how she had seen pictures of Afghan women being beaten by Afghan fundamentalists in the 1970s and was so relieved when the Soviet Union went in to save them. Sounds similar to George Bush’s claim to have “saved Afghan women”. If one examines the various propaganda methods used to justify invasion of Afghanistan in past decades, a similar pattern emerges: saving Afghan women has been cited by the Russian, the US backed Mujahadeen fundamentalist war lords as well as the Taliban (!). In fact, the entire US war against Afghans has been made more palatable to Americans who were told by the President that it was those Afghan women we were going to be saving by bombing. First Lady Laura Bush developed a sudden interest in Afghan women’s rights and began spouting Feminist Majority-like rhetoric. George Bush claimed that we had saved Afghan women from oppression as he showed off his poster child, Sima Samar, the new head of the Women’s Affairs Department in Afghanistan. And the US State Department used RAWA’s images from their website without their permission, in their propagandist leaflets that were scattered over Afghanistan, to justify the bombing.

Of course, it’s not just women in the US who have exploited or misunderstood RAWA’s message. At a recent anti-war forum, I spoke alongside well known activist and writer Michael Parenti, who claimed that the Soviet Union was invited into Afghanistan in 1979, that it didn’t really invade. After I contradicted him in my speech, citing that the vast majority of the Afghan population were fairly united against the foreign domination and imperialist motives of the Soviet Union, Michael angrily asked me after the talk why RAWA does not concede to some of the good that the Russians did in Afghanistan. Wow. Do we ever dwell on the good that the US may have done in Vietnam? How could he ask this of a group whose leader was brutally assassinated by a Russian KGB operative in collaboration with an Afghan Mujahadeen, for being outspoken against the occupation and fighting for women’s rights?

Today, as the US sponsored government in Afghanistan which legitimizes the same Afghan fundamentalist war lords supported by the US throughout the 1980s, gets ready to convene a government, over a thousand Afghan refugee women have applied for a scant number of seats reserved for them in the Afghan grand assembly! Clearly Afghan women are tirelessly struggling. in the face of a fundamentalist tilted government which has already promised Islamic Sharia law, misogynist in its formulation, even before the assembly has met.

From Helen Caldicott to Michael Parenti, isn’t it imperative and a little bit obvious that when we speak of Afghan women and their rights, we must listen carefully to what they themselves have to say about it? As the admirable struggles of women of color, particularly in the Global South, come to the knowledge of the West, we must remind ourselves of the validity of their views and hopes, over our perceptions of what they should say and do, how they should dress and whether or not their oppression stems from being able to have an orgasm.

Where is the Real Feminism?

Published in on 30th November, 1999

Sometime ago my husband and I were in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed live-music capital of the world, and also one of my favorite cities. We stopped at Ruta Maya Coffee house, it being known as the “kewl” place to hang out. Having had interesting musical experiences there before I hoped we would witness a memorable show. As we stood in line to get our coffees we realised today was poetry slam night. There was an impressive looking blonde spouting her poetry on stage, sounding like she was confidently making it up as she went along. Following her were two more pretty women (was it Women Only Poetry Slam night?) who poured similar tales and had similar styles. Of the few choice gems I remember, there was one that lamented that as a woman the poet should be able to have bright red luscious lips whether she was fat or thin, sagging or taut, old or young, tall or short, and that men should just deal with it and so on and so forth. Another gem was about the poet finding a man to love her for who she was whether she could dance or not, cook or not, etc, etc. A third I remember (at this point wondering if it was Women Who Have a Problem With Men Only Poetry Slam Night) was about the poet being allowed to wear blue satin pyjamas to bed, not red or marron ones, but baby blue ones, etc, etc. Jim and I half heartedly clapped for each poem, wondering if the next poem was going to be about something else other than targeting men or by someone else other than young white pretty women. We were disappointed and left in betweeen poems, practically running out.

As we walked to the car we discussed what we found so infuriating about the poems and the poets we had just heard (other than their aesthetic quality or lack of) of the poems. Jim’s contention was, for women to specifically blame men for their troubles was just as stupid as men regarding all women inferior. Not a single one of these women had the insight to look beyond the superficialities of their lives or their percieved realities and question the entire system within which men get away with what they do. Men who are jerks are so because they are allowed to be jerks. This is a result of the patriarchical society we live in. That all men are jerks and to be blamed for women’s problems is a shortsighted and wrongful accusation. It is like a black man blaming all white men, every single one, for racism, rather than attacking the system within which white superiority and black inferiority are allowed to exist. The way in which these women were fixated on men by simultaneously blaming and desiring them was an insult to the feminist movement.

My contention, I said to Jim, was that all these women talked about was men. It is as if women are not expected to have strong opinions on anything other than issues concerning mistreatment by men, societal expectations of women, and other aspects of sexism. Since sexism affects women that is all they are expected to talk about, and, as we sadly experienced, that is all they do tend to talk about. When there is a group of women on stage reciting their poems one expects a range of topics from oppression in general to sexist oppression of women, and perhaps to nature, war, poverty, social structures, family life, history, the future, religion, and an endless array of topics. Instead we hear only about how aweful men are to women and how all men want is the perfect wife who looks like a supermodel and cooks like Martha Stewart and how all we women want is a man who will love us with all our celebrated flaws. Let’s let men (specifially white men, because men of color will want to talk only about racist oppression) talk about those other interrelated issues of life that are important. That was the feeling I was getting listening to the women poets who received deafening and enthusiastic ovations for their poems.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. I believe in that notion and unless women start behaving as if in addition to being women they are humans, feminism will always be considered a radical issue. If women involved themselves in discourses that touch upon all matters of life they would finally begin attacking the system of patriarchy which suggests that only men are capable of making intellectual decisions and controlling their own lives.

That said, I have to say that it is very important that we, women and men, point out specific instances of men committing crimes or simply discriminating against women. But just as important to realise and attack the context within which this takes place for we will never be able to improve the treatment of women until we change the system of patriarchical domination which the world functions in. It is imperative that women be worthy adversaries to men in public discourses that include other human issues. Simply behaving like human beings, I think, is one of the most effective ways in which women can demand to be treated as human beings.