Women and the
Future of Afghanistan: An Interview
Association of the Women of Afghanistan is a non-violent
organization at the forefront of the international
campaign for women's rights and democracy in Afghanistan.
RAWA operates primarily underground as a network composed
of about 2,000 members, half of whom are in Afghanistan,
and half of whom are refugees in Pakistan.
RAWA actively opposes the fundamentalist forces of
Afghanistan. At the same time, they provide crucial
health care, education, and income-generating services to
women. RAWA has been relentlessly outspoken in its
opposition to both the Taliban (which currently rules 90%
of Afghanistan), and the fundamentalist factions that are
fighting the Taliban. "The nature and range of
crimes perpetrated against Afghan women by
fundamentalists has no precedence in modern
history," they declare. Their outspokenness, along
with their activities in educating and economically
empowering women, have put RAWA members at great risk.
Two members of RAWA, Sajeda Hayat and Sehar Saba, have
spent the last four months traveling in the United
States, educating the public about the political and
social realities of Afghanistan. They took an hour from
their schedule to do this interview with Said It.
It: You've been traveling and speaking in the
U.S. since April, starting with the Feminist Expo 2000.
What kind of reception have you gotten from people?
Sehar: We've gotten a wonderful response from the
people here, from students, from the men, the women, and
even from the children. They are very interested in the
situation in Afghanistan, and really want to help.
Unfortunately wherever we went, they really don't know
very much about Afghanistan. When we talk about the real
and painful tragedy of Afghanistan--that people can only
think about how they can find a piece of bread for their
children and themselves, or how so many are dying of very
treatable diseases--they're shocked. They say they can't
believe it. But they want to help.
Sajeda: We're really very grateful for our
supporters, for our wonderful American, and Iranian, and
also some Afghan supporters. The reason why we could have
such successful events here was because of our wonderful
supporters. If we didn't have them, we could not have
organized anything because we didn't know anyone here, we
didn't even know where to stay, how to organize, where to
Said It: What kind of response have you
gotten from public officials?
Sajeda: I think that was also very good. One of
our projects here was circulating a letter in support of
Afghan women and our organization and a statement on
Afghanistan to condemn the human rights violations. We
met with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), and she was
willing to circulate the letter as one of the
co-sponsors. We got 44 signatures of Congressional
Representatives in support of our organization, our work,
and Afghan women, with a statement condemning human
rights violations in Afghanistan.
We also met with some Congresswomen and Congressmen, who
were willing to help us. We wish we could have more time
because we were sure we could meet with other
Representatives as well.
Said It: I want to talk about the role
of the media. It seems to me that the mainstream media in
the U.S. have wanted to sanitize the Taliban, especially
in recent months. The New York Times published a front
page story on how the Taliban is starting to allow
underground schools for girls. Last month, Time published
a feature on Afghanistan, and included interviews with
Taliban officials. The interviews were pretty uncritical,
and their statements were left pretty much unchallenged.
It seems the mainstream media are trying to lead the U.S.
public into believing the Taliban could become more
acceptable. What are your impressions of the U.S. media,
and is it true that the Taliban could change for the
Sehar: The negative role of the media over the
last 20 years is something our people, especially the
women, will never forget. It's not been only the U.S.
media but the media throughout the world. They made those
criminals, those fundamentalists who killed our people,
into leaders. The leaders of the fundamentalist parties
became leaders through the media, especially the
Pakistani and the U.S. media.
They never reflect the real situation of the people. They
are always trying to do something in favor of those
fundamentalist parties. If they hear there will be a
little bit change with the Taliban, they make it a very
big issue and tell the world.
The media never talk about democratic forces of
Afghanistan. They never talked about RAWA's activities.
They never talk about the life of Afghan refugees in
The media could play a very important role for Afghan
people. Now they've started to publish some articles and
interviews (with this RAWA tour), but we can't say the
media reflect the real misery of the Afghan people,
especially the women. Mostly they just want to publish
those articles about how the Taliban makes one tiny
change, or they focus on other fundamentalist leaders
like (Ahmed Shah) Massood. We just watched a TV program
here which made Massood, who is the leader of the
Northern Alliance, look like a hero.
Said It: Why are the media doing that?
Why are the media failing to cover the movements for
democracy, and instead portraying fundamentalists as
"heroes," or in the case of the Taliban,
minimizing the horrors?
Sajeda: I think the media is something that's not
separated from the government. Whatever the government's
interests, the media mostly will reflect that. These
countries have their interests in Afghanistan. For
instance, France is one of the countries that support
Massood. The people in France think that Massood is a
very democratic person, that he's the only one who can
rule the country after the Taliban--and it's because of
Said It: And yet he's not much better
than the Taliban.
Sajeda: No. He's not better than the Taliban.
People here ask, "What do you think about the United
States' role in Afghanistan?" And we say that,
directly, the U.S. is no longer involved. There isn't any
evidence that they are giving money or weapons to the
Taliban. But indirectly, through this media, the way they
write about the Taliban, that the Taliban could be
reformed, or not believing in (the possibility of) the
overthrow of fundamentalists, in this way they indirectly
support the Taliban and the fundamentalists. Because they
have their own interests.
There are some writers who seem to be very independent. A
few articles in the LA Times were really good in
reflecting the situation in Afghanistan. One of the
articles analyzed the roles of the U.S. and the U.N.,
showing that they were involved in previous years because
of their own interests, and now they have turned their
back to these countries.
Said It: Let's talk about the history of
the U.S. support for the Taliban. The U.S. supported
fundamentalist forces during the Soviet Union's
occupation of Afghanistan. Is that right?
Sehar: Yes. One of the reasons the fundamentalist
parties became so powerful--in fact, one of the reasons
they became parties and leaders at all--was because of
the role of the U.S. in particular. During the first days
of war in Afghanistan, the government of the U.S. was
trying to find some people, some parties, that they could
train to resist the Russian occupation. These parties
that received U.S. aid, nobody had previously known
anything about them, but when they came to Pakistan, and
Peshawar, one of Pakistan's cities, became their center
of all their activities and crime, they received large
amounts of money and weapons. But our people, the real
freedom fighters who struggled against the Russian
invasion, they really didn't receive help.
Said It: So the fundamentalist groups
had no real support from the Afghani people, but they
became powerful while in Pakistan through the financial
and military support of the US?
Sehar: Yes. And because of the media again. They
got financial, political, and military support from the
U.S., from Pakistan, and from other countries. At the
same time, the media made them heroes in the war against
Russia, when the people were the real freedom fighters.
If America really wanted to help, to support the fighting
against Russia, there were several other parties they
could have supported, groups which didn't have any
purpose other than to get the country independence.
Said It: Why did the U.S. and other
countries choose the fundamentalists to support over the
ones supporting democracy?
Sehar: Because they know that the pro-democracy
parties won't be the puppet of these other countries.
These other countries wouldn't be able to maintain their
economic and political interests in Afghanistan. But
those fundamentalist parties, they don't have any kind of
independence. These fundamentalist parties were trained,
became leaders, became very important and famous in the
world, and are like dolls in their masters' hands. What
their supporters asked them to do, told them to do, they
Said It: But now that the Taliban is in
power, the Afghan economy is in shambles, the biggest
export product is heroin, the people are suffering. Can
you talk about what the motives of these countries are
for wanting a puppet government ruling Afghanistan?
Sajeda: We think that these interfering countries,
like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, France, and the
United States, they just think about their own interests.
The U.S. interest is to build a pipeline through
Afghanistan to get the oil from Central Asia. It's the
easiest way for the U.S. and other countries to get the
oil. Pakistan has its own interests in Afghanistan.
France also has its economic interests.
When we condemn the interference of these countries, it's
because they just think about their own interests, they
don't think about what is happening to the nation. The
country is getting destroyed day by day, and the people
are getting poorer and poorer every day. Today
Afghanistan is a country without any infrastructure. More
than 80% of the people are unemployed. Most of the
offices, the embassies, the schools, the university that
were functioning before, they don't function anymore.
It's the people of Afghanistan who are suffering, not
these fundamentalists that get support from other
counties. And that's why we condemn the role of the
international community. They claim that they are
pro-democracy, that they are pro-human rights, and they
want to see the end of human rights violations in
Afghanistan. But that's not enough. Those are just words.
There should be some action. If they wanted to take some
practical action, it would be easy for them to do
Said It: What practical action could
they take if they don't want to send troops and get
involved in war?
Sajeda: First of all, there should be a stoppage
of financial and military aid to the warring factions in
Afghanistan. There is no evidence that the U.S. is
directly supporting the fundamentalist factions at this
point. But the U.S. government is not taking action
against those who are.
The United States and the United Nations--and we think
that their role is almost the same--they just want these
warring factions to get together. They ask them to get
united, which is not the solution for Afghanistan.
Instead, they need to put pressure on the countries that
are supporting these fundamentalists. Pakistan, Saudi
Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates directly support the
Taliban. Even Pakistani men and Arab men are fighters
among the Taliban. Many of the Taliban's political and
military advisors are Pakistani and Arab. And France,
Iran, India, and Russia, they support the Northern
Alliance, the opposition to the Taliban.
If the military and financial support for these
fundamentalists was stopped, they would not be able to
keep the power for even one day. They don't have the
support of our people.
Sehar: The U.N. imposed economic sanctions on the
Taliban. Sanctions should also be imposed on those
countries that are supporting the Taliban and the other
fundamentalists in Afghanistan. And the U.S., as a
superpower, and the U.N., as an organization responsible
for all countries, can send a peacekeeping force to
Afghanistan. The U.N. says the government didn't invite
them to send a peacekeeping force, but we think that's
just an excuse. In other areas, and other countries,
nobody, no government invited the U.N. or the U.S., but
they went there and took action. They should listen to
the people, what the people want in Afghanistan.
Said It: Would a U.N. peacekeeping force
in Afghanistan entail a forceful removal of the Taliban
Sehar: In this situation, people in Afghanistan
are really weary from 20 years of war, and we can't hope
for resistance from inside Afghanistan. But we hope that
in the future the people will do something. So in this
situation, the only alternative is the U.N., and it's
peacekeeping force. The first thing they should do is
disarm the warring factions in Afghanistan, including the
Taliban. And pave the way for a government which allows
the people to at least live in peace and security.
Said It: You said you favor imposing
sanctions on the countries that support the Taliban and
fundamentalist factions. But I thought you opposed
economic sanctions against the Taliban, because they hurt
the people rather than the Taliban.
Sajeda: When we say imposing sanctions on
countries that support fundamentalists, we mean
diplomatic sanctions, not economic sanctions. We mean,
put a stop to diplomatic relations with these countries,
maybe even close their embassies, to put pressure on
these countries. They should be forced to stop giving
support to the Taliban.
Said It: If the fundamentalists were
disarmed by the U.S. and the U.N., these groups would
have to be replaced with some governing structure. But
the infrastructure of the country has already been
destroyed. The social fabric has been largely destroyed.
If the fundamentalists are disarmed and a vacuum is
created, what would take its place?
Sajeda: We are in favor of the former king of
Afghanistan (Zahir Shah). He now lives in Rome, Italy. He
was the king of Afghanistan for 40 years. From our point
of view, he is not a desirable person for a future
government. But people compare today's situation in
Afghanistan with the time when he was the king, and the
people of Afghanistan at least had their basic rights.
That time was really a paradise compared to what's
We think that returning the King to power could be just
the first step, a transition, while rebuilding the
country, and the infrastructure. After that, democratic
organization could begin to play a more prominent role.
There already are democratic organizations, and
RAWA is one of them. But in the current situation, we
have to be very underground. And that's why people don't
know much about these organizations. But once the
situation is improved, and these democratic elements
could at least breathe in Afghanistan, and operate
openly, we are sure they would be the future of
Said It: Let me ask you about the
history of RAWA. It started in resistance to the Soviet
occupation, is that right?
Sajeda: Before that. RAWA was established a year
before the coup d'etat, which took place in 1978. RAWA
was an independent organization of women struggling for
women's rights. Afghanistan was one of the most backward
countries and a very patriarchal society. Women never had
their equal rights. They were treated as animals. They
were often described as half of a human being.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and our
country was occupied, RAWA resisted the occupation as
well. We believe that if our country doesn't have any
kind of freedom, it's really meaningless to talk only
about women's rights, and freedom for women.
Said It: Some people think that the
Soviet Union, despite its faults, did a lot to bring
about equality for women. Was that true during its
occupation of Afghanistan? For instance, before the
takeover of the Taliban, 40% of doctors in Kabul were
women, 50% of civilian government workers, and 70% of
Sehar: Women in Afghanistan had rights before the
Russians, when the former King was in power. Before the
Russians, women could go to school, and they were even in
the government. What Russia and the puppet government did
in the name of women's rights and socialism, it was a
crime! During the occupation, thousands of intellectuals
were killed or put into prison. They were tortured very
badly. And 1.5 million were killed. Six million were
forced to leave the country.
They tried to force change on us. They told men they
should shave their beards, and that women shouldn't wear
scarves, when for centuries they have followed those
customs. They forced women and men not to pray.
They made our work for women's rights very hard. When
we'd talk about women's rights, people would think of the
Russians and the puppet regime.
Said It: So the Soviet Union didn't
bring equality. It just tried to take away Afghan culture
and impose Western culture.
Sehar: Exactly. Also, the puppet regime, they
weren't independent, they didn't have their own rights.
What Russia ordered, they did. So how could the puppet
government give people their rights? It was impossible.
Said It: Now RAWA is based in Pakistan.
But is Pakistan a whole lot better for you? How safe is
it? And how are you able to work there successfully?
Sajeda: For our work, Pakistan is also not a safe
country. Most of our activities are conducted
underground. We have to change houses often because of
security issues. And it's because of the domination of
the fundamentalists in Pakistan, and because of the
government's support for these fundamentalists.
The only open activities we have in Pakistan are our
rallies once or twice a year, some of the functions we
have, and we sell our magazine, Payam-e-Zan
("Women's Message"). But these activities are
carried out at great risk. Two times our rallies were
attacked by fundamentalists. Some of the Pakistani police
also beat our members.
Said It: So not only do the police not
protect you, they actually attack you.
Sajeda: Yes, exactly. Several of our members and
male supporters were arrested at the rally and sent to
prison for several days. When we sell our magazine at the
market, usually the police want to disturb us. They don't
want us to sell our publication there. It's happened
twice that our members have gone to prison for a few
hours when selling the magazine. So it's really difficult
even in Pakistan to conduct all of our activities.
Said It: These past few months, you've
gotten extensive media coverage and you're generating a
lot of support in the U.S. for your cause. Are things
going to be even more difficult for you because of this
Sajeda: We think so. We have to be careful about
our security when we go back to Pakistan. Because now the
government of Pakistan obviously know about us, that we
were here, and we condemned their policies in supporting
Sehar: It is not only two of us who would have
problems. Our other members, also. Because for the
Taliban, individuals are not important. What we are
struggling for, that is what they are trying to kill.
They are trying in different ways to find our houses, to
find our members, and create problems for us.
Said It: Is there anything people here
can do to help protect you while you're over there?
Sehar: I think if people sent letters to Pakistani
authorities, that would really help. Amnesty
International did that before our rallies, telling them
that the government would be responsible for any kind of
problems RAWA faced, and that RAWA should be protected.
It really had an impact. If people from all around the
world sent letters and put pressure on the Pakistani
government, saying that they are responsible for our
security, that would be really good.
Sajeda: One of the reasons we were able to have
rallies, especially last year, is because of letters like
these. When we first went to get permission for our
rallies from Pakistani authorities, they said no. But
then Amnesty International and other human rights
organizations wrote letters, and asked them to allow the
rallies and protect us. So they changed their minds.
Said It: What about the women who are
living in Afghanistan? Are they able to resist the
Sajeda: First of all, the people of
Afghanistan--not only women but also men--are so tired of
the more than two decades of war. Really, they are very
hopeless and helpless, they can't even think about their
future. I think this is the first time in the history of
Afghanistan that our people are so, so hopeless, and
tired. This nation, our poor people with their empty
hands, they resisted Alexander the Great, the British
Empire, Russia, all empires or superpowers. But this
nation now, they really can't do anything against the
fundamentalists because of being very tired, and losing
everything in their lives, including hope. Sometimes
people ask why there's no resistance against the Taliban,
no visible resistance, and this is the reason.
At the same time, there are still some forms of
resistance. The reason why the Taliban now allows some
female doctors to work in the hospitals is because of the
resistance of our own people, especially the women. And
when the Taliban loosens some of their other
restrictions, it's only, only because of the
resistance of our people.
We do think that one day there will be an uprising
against the Taliban by our people.
Said It: But you also need the
Sajeda: Exactly, exactly.
are the most meaningful way to support women in
Afghanistan. Donations can be sent to .
To find contact info for your Senators and
Representatives, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ or visit
the Feminist Majority Foundation website at http://www.feminist.org, which has
action alerts on this issue.
RAWA's website is at http://www.rawa.org.
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