Women of Afghanistan: Abandoned
The Satya Interview with RAWA’s ‘Sohaila’
RAWA demonstration in
Islamabad on April 28, 2003.
RAWA rally on April 28, 2004 in Islamabad.
Photos courtesy of www.rawa.org
decades of conflict, Afghanistan is in the process of reconstruction.
Republic of Afghanistan is slightly smaller than Texas, with a population
just under 30 million. In 2005, after billions of dollars have been
poured into the U.S. invasion and “liberation” of Afghanistan,
the average lifespan is only 43. According to the Afghan Minister of
Public Health, 700 children under the age of five die every day from
preventable diseases, while one woman dies every 20 minutes from complications
during pregnancy or childbirth.
While Laura Bush crows that life is better for the women of Afghanistan today,
thousands of women and girls continue to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands,
fathers, brothers, armed individuals, parallel legal systems, and institutions
of the state, including the police and justice system. There are reported increases
in forced marriages and rape; some women in difficult situations have even killed
themselves to escape such a heinous situation, while others burn themselves to
death to draw attention to their plight.
Under the leadership of Meena—who, in 1987 was assassinated in Pakistan
by Afghan agents of the then-KGB in connivance with a band of Islamic fundamentalists—a
number of Afghan women intellectuals founded the Revolutionary Association of
the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA’s objective was to involve an increasing
number of Afghan women in social and political activities aimed at acquiring
human rights for women and contributing to the establishment of a government
based on democratic and secular values in Afghanistan. Despite the suffocating
political atmosphere, RAWA very soon became involved in widespread activities
in different socio-political arenas including education, health and income generation,
as well as political agitation. Among many other things, RAWA recently organized
for secular political candidates in the parliamentary elections of September
Advocating for women’s rights is extremely dangerous in Afghanistan and
members of RAWA live in constant fear and must take careful precautions. Kymberlie
Adams Matthews recently had the privilege to talk with one of RAWA’s leaders
and for safety’s sake, we’ll call her Sohaila.
What are the major issues facing women in Afghanistan today?
The problems of women in Afghanistan are not so simple as to be solved overnight
by the removal of the Taliban. The main cause for pain in our country is the
existence of Islamic fundamentalism as a military and political force. They are
misogynist to the marrow of their bones.
Though the Taliban government was removed by the U.S. invasion in October 2001,
by reinstalling the Northern Alliance warlords to power the U.S. government replaced
one fundamentalist regime with another. In fact, the Northern Alliance is a more
treacherous rapist and murderer than the Taliban, and now they are ruling most
of the country and are backed by the U.S.!
Our women still do not have very basic rights. When Malalai Joya [a candidate
in September’s parliamentary election] raised her voice, they suppressed
her. And because of her few words against warlords in the Grand Assembly, she
is now being protected by six bodyguards, due to threats from warlords who are
seeking any opportunity to eliminate her. The Chief Justice of Afghanistan is
a medieval-minded fundamentalist who opposes women. And he has opposed the appearance
of women on TV a number of times. Last year, he sacked a woman judge from her
job because she was filmed shaking hands with Mr. Bush during her visit to the
This is just the tip of the iceberg about the plight of our women today. You
can feel the blunder of the Western mainstream media who frequently trumpet, “Afghan
women are free now.” Afghan women are not free at all and we have a long
way to go to achieve our rights with a staunch struggle against fundamentalists.
And these are the leaders the U.S. appointed as part of your interim government?
Some of the most evil men have key positions in the government of [President]
Hamid Karzai and are not targets of anyone’s justice. They include men
who were leaders in repressing women by throwing acid in their faces and should
be tried in courts for their crimes against women. They are now the reactionary
forces who are trying to silence any voice of democracy and justice in Afghanistan. And
Mr. Karzai is collaborating with them. In a 133-page report published in July
by Human Rights Watch under the title Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in
Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity, most of these men were accused
of war crimes against the Afghan people, with facts and figures. Amnesty International
and some other human rights groups have published the same remarks, but no one
cares because these people have weapons, money and power.
Though the Taliban were defeated as a military force, their ideology is in place
and they are still supported by some foreign groups. Even the U.S.-supported
Afghan government has started negotiations with some very infamous Taliban leaders
to bring them to power. For example, the Taliban Foreign Minister, Abdul Wakil
Muttawakil has been allowed to run in the election, and some other Taliban leaders
are freely roaming and have their office in Kabul! While [RAWA] still can’t
open our office and are forced to work underground because of grave security
The U.S. doesn’t care about what happens to the Afghan women, the children,
the people. They want to control the oil pipeline, which is only possible by
giving support to the fundamentalists. The U.S. government still distributes
money among warlords to keep them under their control and turn their backs on
their involvement in drug trafficking.
Drugs and warlords have not been eliminated. There is no peace, nor has there
been any relief for women. How do RAWA and Afghan women view the U.S. today?
Well, in the beginning there was a different reaction. People were deceived because
they were really tired of the Taliban and all the miseries, the restrictions,
the terrible life they had. So people thought maybe there will be change with
the U.S. intervention. But now after these years, they see that the U.S. has
failed in all its promises and nothing has really changed. We [RAWA] believe
that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people
of a country to fight and achieve these values. The U.S.-supported government
have gripped their claws over our country in attempt to bring their religious
fascism on our people.
While we criticize the U.S. government for its support of the most dirty and
criminal elements and groups in our country, we are of course thankful to the
generous help and support of the U.S. people. There is a huge difference between
the U.S. people and its government.
Have things improved at all for Afghan women since the U.S. invasion?
There is an improvement for women in certain limited parts of big cities—girls
go to school and some women are allowed to work outside the home in the capital,
Kabul. But the situation for women is worsening in the rest of the country. In
most areas, rape and forced marriage are on the rise, women continue to wear
the burqa out of fear, and are being traded in the settlement of debts. Women
face discrimination from all society. Violence against women is accepted by the
community and not addressed by the government.
The U.S has not removed religious fundamentalism, which is the main cause of
all our fear and suffering. A lot of women hoped things would change for the
better after the overthrow of the Taliban, so there is a great sense of disappointment.
It was on April 23, 2005 that Amina, a 29 year-old woman was publicly stoned
to death on the basis of a district court’s decision in the northern province
of Badakhshan for committing adultery. It is horrible. Also, three Afghan women
were raped, strangled and their bodies dumped as a warning for women not to become
aid workers in Afghanistan. And in some areas they are arresting women who do
not have anyone to feed or take care of them—women who have lost their
husbands and are forced into participation in smuggling, begging and prostitution.
These women have no food!
What about the children, your families and friends? This must have an effect
Yes, it does. In April, health minister Dr. Sayed Amin Fatimi said Afghanistan
is facing a disaster worse than the tsunami. According to him, around 700 children
under the age of five die every day in Afghanistan due to preventable diseases
and one woman dies every 20 minutes due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth.
The facts speak by themselves. In Kabul, an estimated 500,000 people are homeless
or living in makeshift accommodations. Only 40 percent of Afghan children are
vaccinated against major diseases, and just 25 percent of the population has
access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. There is just one doctor
per 6,000 people, and one nurse per 2,500 people. Some 72,000 new cases of tuberculosis
are reported every year. Women account for most TB deaths. Up to 100 people are
killed or wounded by mines and unexploded ordnance every month. Every year an
estimated 400,000 Afghans are affected by natural disasters. In Kabul alone there
are over 60,000 child workers.
How is this impacting women’s participation in the elections?
Women who have been outspoken on women’s rights issues, such as human trafficking
or violence against women, have continually received death threats, visits to
their homes by gunmen, and dismissals from their jobs. This causes fear and insecurity,
and endangers women’s participation in the presidential elections and parliamentary
and local elections.
Many democratic-minded women candidates are being threatened. We just heard that
the warlords have published and distributed anti-Malalai Joya posters in Farah
province to stop people from voting for her.
No wonder cases of suicide and depression are rising among Afghan women…
Yes, girls are burning themselves to death because they have no other option
in life to escape violence. There are many cases of women burning themselves
in the villages, in the city, in some of the provinces. But we can’t give
any estimates on how many, partly because they never reach the hospital or because
they die in their villages or city. These are the cases that never come to the
attention of any public authorities.
The Afghan judicial system is extremely corrupt and under the control of the
fundamentalists, so women are not supported by laws although our Constitution
clearly says that men and women are equal. When women do not find any source
of help in the male-chauvinistic society, they easily decide to kill themselves.
According to surveys, over 90 percent of Afghan women suffer from some sort of
What has the role of the United Nations been in all of this?
Unfortunately the UN is not effective in its programs in Afghanistan and most
of its offices in the country are suffering from deep corruption. They have huge
administration costs, but the outcome of their work for Afghanistan is limited.
The UN has not been able to address the problems properly. If the UN can send
a large number of peace-keeping forces to places like Cambodia and Bosnia, why
should it not be adopting a similar policy in Afghanistan? It is all the more
important to have large peace-keeping forces in Afghanistan, not only in Kabul
but in other provinces too, to control the warlords.
We advocate that the UN view Afghanistan as the homeland of the Afghan people,
and not as the property of a few armed militias. The UN should take into account
the will of the people and must not proceed according to the whims of the fundamentalists.
Many Afghans are suspicious about the activities of the UN and other humanitarian
organizations in Afghanistan. They think that these organizations receive huge
funds but do little for people. In the past four years, there have been very
few reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The only widespread reconstruction
projects you can see are those of the warlords who build luxury buildings and
palaces for themselves.
Can you talk a bit about RAWA’s programs?
As a social/political organization, RAWA’s work has two sides. We run schools,
orphanages, hospitals, handicraft centers for widows and other such projects
to help women and girls. We also have mobile health teams in eight provinces,
mainly treating women who cannot go to doctors because of their financial problems.
Our teams are also running first aid courses for young girls and women.
We also contact women who have been victimized by the fundamentalists. We publish
their stories in our magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message), alerting groups
such as Amnesty International. We also provide psycho-social support. We transfer
victims to Pakistan for medical treatment or children of traumatized families
to Pakistan for rehabilitation and a better chance of education. We trace missing
females and/or their family members. We assist families in evacuating from battlefields
and areas affected by natural calamities and resettle them in safer places, supplying
such families with basic living needs and—in extreme cases—identifying
sponsors for ‘family adoptions’ of uprooted families or individuals
and facilitating their integration. We also distribute food among needy families
in drought/war/earthquake-stricken villages.
We organize functions, events, demonstrations, and other propaganda programs
to raise awareness among Afghan women and give them political consciousness.
We are of the opinion that by mobilizing and organizing Afghan women, we can
fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. For this purpose, education is
the key and power by which women can fight for their rights.
In the past few months our members inside Afghanistan have been actively working
for the parliamentary election. We have candidates in some provinces and support
a large number of democratic-minded and anti-fundamentalist women and men. Our
aim is to form a secularist and anti-fundamentalist progressive group within
the Parliament to be a force to oppose colonialist and anti-democratic legislation
and disclose wrong policies of the government.
What are your hopes for the future?
We in RAWA dream of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan based on secularist
values where men and women have equal rights and jointly participate in the reconstruction
and development of the country.
For establishment of such a society, we must make many sacrifices and fight some
strong dark-minded elements and groups. It is indeed a long process but we are
quite sure that the future of Afghanistan will be in the hands of its people.
To learn more or to support the work of the Revolutionary Association of the
Women of Afghanistan, visit www.rawa.org. To learn more about the candidate Malalai
Joya, see www.malalaijoya.com.