The Revolutionary 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.
Said It: I want to ask about your trip so far in the U.S. 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 start.
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. Time magazine last month published a cover story 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 better?
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 Pakistan.
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 the media.
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 did.
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 something.
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 from power?
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 happening today.
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 Afghanistan.
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 school teachers.
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 success?
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 the Taliban.
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 Taliban?
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 international pressure.
Sajeda: Exactly, exactly.
Donations are the most meaningful way to support women in Afghanistan. According to RAWA, even $1 can make a difference. Donations can be sent to Support Afghan Women, PMB 226, 915 W. Arrow Hwy, San Dimas, CA 91773, USA. If donating from outside the U.S., it is best to send the money in U.S. dollars. Make checks payable to “Support Afghan Women”. 100% of the money goes to RAWA.
To pressure Pakistan into permitting RAWA’s activities and fully protecting the safety of RAWA members, write letters (with a respectful tone) to:
General Pervez Musharraf
Chief Executive of Pakistan
Old State Bank Bldg.
fax: (51) 920-3414
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.