ISLAMABAD – The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is a women’s organization that runs underground schools and other projects, educates Afghan girls, runs a periodic journal, and agitates politically for women’s rights, human rights, secularism, and social justice in Afghanistan. From the 1979 Soviet invasion through to the 2006 closings of the camps, millions of Afghan refugees lived in Pakistan and many still do. While RAWA’s operations were always based primarily in Afghanistan, they have also had a strong presence in the Pakistan refugee community. I spoke to Mariam from RAWA in Islamabad when I was there in July 2008.
JUSTIN PODUR (JP): To begin, perhaps you could introduce readers to RAWA and its work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MARIAM (RAWA): RAWA was begun in 1977 in Kabul as an organization of Afghan women for human rights and women’s equality. After the Soviet invasion, some RAWA members were imprisoned in Kabul, and as a huge number of refugees fled to Pakistan, RAWA also shifted its focus somewhat, and began to work with refugee women and children in Peshawar (the capital city of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, close to the Afghan border). We began providing humanitarian services and some social assistance, through which we also tried to educate Afghan women of their rights. We continued our political activities, but because of the security situation in Afghanistan it was not easy. We continued to work underground in some Afghan cities. When the Soviet occupation was followed by the fundamentalists’ bloody rule and later the Taliban regime, we continued to work both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We ran literacy programs, orphanages and schools in Afghanistan, but a lot of our public, political statements were made from Pakistan. We publish a political magazine called Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message). Today under the NATO occupation and after the closing of the refugee camps, we do the political part mostly from Afghanistan as well, but much of our work is still semi-underground due to grave security risks.
JP: Can you say something about how RAWA is organized, how you ‘recruit’, where RAWA’s leaders are drawn from?
RAWA: Through our literacy programs, orphanages, and schools, RAWA has had contact with many girls over the past 15-20 years. There is a deep difference between the life of women in Afghan society who have lived through war, the Taliban, and the fundamentalists, in normal domestic life, and those girls that have been basically raised by or worked with RAWA. The latter have different vision, ideas, and mentality; they are aware of their rights and know that they must fight to achieve it. Some of them continue to work for RAWA after they are grown up. Some are adult women when they get involved and their whole families get involved. Some young girls and boys get involved. Others are involved who don’t yet read and write but become attached to RAWA, especially in rural areas, where RAWA members live and work and are part of the community with the people.
JP: And what is the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan today?
RAWA: In general, Pakistan has been better to Afghan refugees compared to Iran or other neighboring countries. There have been some limits. The life in refugee camps was very hard and with very basic resources. The majority of the camps were under the control of fundamentalist parties who imposed their restrictions on the refugees. Work for democratic-minded groups such as RAWA was very hard and risky. Many Afghan freedom-loving individuals were assassinated by Jehadi groups with the help of Pakistani ISI. Meena, RAWA’s founder, was one of them. But despite all the problems, RAWA had its presence in some of the camps and we were running a refugee camp in suburbs of Peshawar for over two decades until it was finally forcibly evacuated by the Pakistan government some months ago.
In 2001-2002, after the US invasion and occupation, large numbers of Afghans went back. The Peshawar refugee communities were basically emptied, but due to bad conditions, returning to Afghanistan is still an unattractive option for many refugees.
When the government decided to close some refugee camps in 2006, it had a huge effect. Most of the refugees were forced to leave, even though they had lost everything in Afghanistan: they had no jobs, no shelter, nothing to go back to. And in fact no one knows what happened to them. Those families who have returned to Afghanistan are very disappointed with the lack of any job and facilities in Afghanistan, and many came back to seek refuge to Pakistan for the second time.
Today according to the UNHCR, refugees are coming back to Pakistan and they are trying to find places in the cities. When there is any tension between the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments, the Afghan refugees who suffer the most. Pakistan puts pressure on refugees to return to Afghanistan. But the people in the border areas are the same people – they share language, culture, clothing, tradition. After thirty years, too, many refugees saw Pakistan as their second country. Afghans know Pakistan supports the Taliban and the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, but the political crisis won’t weaken the relations of the people across the border.
JP: Perhaps we could complete the introduction with a bit of your analysis of the political and military situation in Afghanistan.
RAWA: It is a complicated situation. We have NATO’s occupation and the interference of neighbors, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Russia etc. all of whom have supported different fundamentalist groups in recent years. The Taliban control some areas and in recent months even reached the borders of Kabul. They are being supported by some circles in Pakistan. Even the Iranian regime sends arms and ammunition to the Taliban. Afghan civilians are the prime victims of Taliban brutalities, again, including their suicide bombings. The brothers-in-creed of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, are in power today and generously supported by the US government. Much of the northern part of Afghanistan is ruled by the local warlords of the northern alliance. The government of Hamid Karzai has no tangible control there. The Taliban and other Islamic movements are the enemy of the Afghan people. And their strength is supported by the US and the West. The support the fundamentalists get from outside makes it difficult for the Afghan people to resist them. On the other hand the US/NATO play a Tom and Jerry game with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, while ordinary Afghans severely suffer from the impact of their blind bombardments and we witness awful tragedies of civilian casualties on a daily basis.
JP: You have described all of these Islamic political movements as enemies of the people, whether they are supported by the West or fighting NATO. I have heard the argument here that Pakistan and Afghanistan are deeply religious countries, and any political movement has to contend with that fact. As a consequence, I have heard that groups like RAWA isolate themselves because of their uncompromising stand on secularism and religion. Do you find that your secularism makes you unpopular?
RAWA: That is the impression the Western media give of Afghan society. Maybe it is true from their eye. We Afghans have lived through it. How it expresses itself depends on many factors, including social, cultural, and economic factors. We have worked in some of what would be called the most ‘backward’ areas, very religious, without much recognition of women’s rights. But after some time, and sometimes it is quite quickly, over weeks or months, they come to like what we are doing and even get involved, even whole families. We have seen this in some areas. So I do not agree that the country as a whole couldn’t accept democratic rights or secular values. It needs time and work to build social and political awareness, and in recent years people have not had that opportunity.
The brand of Islam the fundamentalists present is different from that of common Afghan people. Their Islam is a political Islam and each party has their own brand, which contradict each other. The Islam of Mullah Omar is different from the Islam of Burhanuddin Rabbani or Rasul Sayyaf, and these groups have been at war for years although they all pretend to be true Muslims. The fundamentalist groups have committed unprecedented crimes under the name of Islam over the past two decades. Today Afghans are so fed up with them that majority of Afghans support any voice raised against the fundamentalists. When Malalai Joya spoke against them for only 2 minutes in the Loya Jirga, her voice was soon echoed and supported by millions of Afghan across the country and she was called a heroine and voice of the voiceless. The fundamentalists impose their domination with the help of their weapons, foreign masters and money. Without these, they have no footing in Afghan society.
JP: Is the NATO’ occupation helping or harming Afghanistan? Can it be used somehow to strengthen progressive forces? Is it holding back a Taliban victory which would be worse than the current situation?
RAWA: Seven years ago when the US invaded, the situation was different. Many Afghans appreciated their presence and were happy to get rid of the Taliban’s oppressive rule. They thought – the Taliban had been eliminated, the international community worked, they were promised a better life, democracy and freedom and an end to the fundamentalist groups. Within months, it was clear that the US government still continues its wrong policy of supporting the fundamentalists in Afghanistan. We saw that the US rely on the fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance to fight another fundamentalist band – the Taliban. It doesn’t matter if they fight the Taliban or “terrorism”, they are supporting the Northern Alliance, and for Afghans both are the same – both are terrorists and fundamentalists, supported by foreign governments, whether by the West, or Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or any other country. They violate human rights, they abuse women, they commit corruption and fraud and smuggling, as we have documented.
From the beginning, RAWA announced that the US and the West have their own reasons for being here and it is not for the freedom of the Afghan people. We said that what the US/NATO is doing under the name of democracy is in fact a mockery of democracy. It is clear for us. Today NATO bombings are increasing, more civilians are being killed, and other violations are being done by the US and NATO. And now even they are trying to share power with the Taliban and terrorist party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. If this plot is realized, it will mean another tragedy for Afghanistan and its people, the unification of all enemies of Afghan people under one umbrella so they could jointly smash the Afghan people and freedom-loving individuals and forces.
Under the mafia system and the shadow of gun and warlordism, unfortunately there is no chance for progressive forces to come to the scene and work openly. Any serious and stanch anti-fundamentalist and anti-occupation force still needs to fight underground and they are not supported and encouraged. In fact the US is afraid to see emergence of a powerful progressive movement in Afghanistan. Those who openly criticize the government and warlords face threats, imprisonment and restrictions. We are facing the same problems and risks today which we were faced under the Taliban.
The privatization and the free market system imposed on Afghanistan since 2001 is opening the way for neoliberalism in Afghanistan, which is another nightmare for our people. We are feelings its disastrous impact on poor people of Afghanistan. The degree of destitution and poverty in Afghanistan is beyond imagination. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider day by day. Over 70% of Afghan people are living under the poverty line. According to official statistics, 42% are living with only US$10/month. Skyrocketing prices in recent months have made life a torture for the majority of Afghan people.
JP: What about the argument that if NATO left, Afghanistan would quickly fall to the Taliban, which would be worse?
RAWA: It is true that it might be worse under a Taliban regime. But at least we will not be occupied by a foreign power. Today we have two problems: our own local fundamentalists and a foreign occupier. If NATO left we would have one problem rather than two.
RAWA has announced a number of times that neither the US nor any other power wants to release Afghan people from the fetters of the fundamentalists. Afghanistan’s freedom can be achieved by Afghan people themselves. Relying on one enemy to defeat another is a wrong policy which has just tightened the grip of the Northern Alliance and their masters on the neck of our nation.
JP: If NATO left the Taliban would also have a more difficult time portraying themselves as a national liberation movement, an argument they can make and a source of prestige for them so long as the occupation continues.
RAWA: Actually both parties depend on each other. If the US were to eliminate the Taliban somehow, they would find themselves with no pretext for being here. But the Taliban and terrorism are only a pretext. They are not honest. They are here for the strategic ends: the central location from which to control Iran, Russia and China, affect Pakistan’s government and society, strengthen its grip on the Central Asian Republics and so on. That is why they keep increasing their military presence and building up bases. NATO will probably leave, but the US won’t – they wanted a pretext for being here, and the US will not set aside the golden opportunity.
JP: NATO’s “development effort” has involved a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have been involved in providing social services. Is RAWA seen as one of these?
RAWA: RAWA never introduces itself as an NGO. It is a political organization for women’s rights and human rights. But it does try to meet direct needs and we do run social programs. Actually it is our political stance and activities that hurt our relations with the NGOs and agencies and why we don’t get funds from foreign governments. Embassies do not want to give RAWA funds because we are political. This is in contrast to the thousands of recently established NGOs in Afghanistan over the past 6-7 years. It is a good business. You will have some families, with some English and a computer, and they become an NGO with funds, documents, and proposals being produced in their homes. Most NGOs that are larger, or bigger aid agencies, are funded by governments and influenced by those governments. The smaller ones often get involved in fraud and corruption – they work not for the Afghan people but for their own purposes. Millions of dollars of funds go to NGOs and are wasted in overhead, salaries, office expenses, and so on. They collect huge salaries, they have no long-term projects, they spend huge amounts for security expenses and vehicles.
NGO-ism is a policy exercised by the West in Afghanistan; it is not the wish of the Afghan people. The NGO is a good tool to divert people and especially intellectuals from struggle against occupation. NGOs defuse political anger and turn people into dependent beggars. In Afghanistan people say, the US pushed us from Talibanism to NGO-ism!
JP: Your political stance means governments don’t want to give you money. Do you have any criteria for where you will accept donations?
RAWA: The question has not come up since we have not been offered funds from a government. But we will accept unconditional support from any source. We rely on individuals and sometimes, groups of feminists in other countries who support RAWA. We sell our own materials through income-generating projects, carpets, handicrafts, CDs, posters; we do fundraising whenever we go on speaking tours to other countries. That is how we continue. After 9/11 there was some interest in RAWA and we had good funding for 1-2 years. Today Afghanistan has the same problems but we have had to scale back our operations, reduce the numbers of children in our orphanages, and cancel some projects for lack of funding. RAWA is facing a grave financial problems today which affects the scales of our activities.
We see a total difference between the Western governments and their people. Most of these people are not in favor of the policies of their government towards Afghanistan. I have heard there is a free media in the US, but also that people do not know much about the outside world or the policies of their governments. RAWA is proud to receive donations from individuals, organizations, and groups not linked to governments, but not from government sources that would put pressure on RAWA. We would rather forego such money and attempts to control us. Even if we face problems, one hundred dollars from individuals gives us courage and lets us know we have support, in a way that thousands of dollars from a government agency would not.
JP: These projects RAWA runs, they must be underground as well?
RAWA: They are semi-underground but not the way we were under the Taliban. We are able to run education projects, and have meetings and gatherings in Afghanistan. But we are not registered with the government. Even if we were, we know they would try to stop us. We never use the title RAWA for our projects. People mostly know, but officially, we are not registered as RAWA – all run as private activities, initiatives, run by locals.
JP: The primary media source in Afghanistan is the radio. Is it possible for RAWA to get on the radio? What is RAWA’s media strategy?
RAWA: It is not possible at the moment, partly because of the financial (although some supporters from Italy have suggested they could raise funds for it, in fact), but mainly because of the security problem. But we can use some other techniques to run a radio station if we were provided with the needed funds and equipment. We can run it without any sign of RAWA in it, but still in the current situation, we can’t reflect our points of view as clearly and openly as we do through our web site and magazine, because if we do so, the next day the radio staff will be gunned down by the warlords.
JP: I read recently that Afghanistan and Pakistan has a growing number of opium addicts, including women, as a consequence of the war and displacement. Has RAWA come across this in its social service work?
RAWA: Out of the estimated 26 million population, over one million are addicted, which include even children and women, and the number are increasing.
Many people who are involved in poppy fields gradually become addicted: a mother working in the fields all day with health problems of her own, can’t get her child to sleep or stop crying, she might give some to her child. There are many women in prisons today, and large numbers get addicted in prisons.
JP: What is RAWA’s perspective on drugs?
RAWA: We think poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is part of the US regional strategy to control this third biggest global commodity (in cash terms). And it is not a new phenomenon, but has been a project of the CIA’s covert operations in the region since the start of the Soviet-Afghan war in 80’s. Today even the US/NATO encourage farmers to cultivate poppies. There are some reports that even the US troops have hand in the drug trafficking and the US government makes billions from the Afghan drug business. The UK military are negotiating deals with the Taliban on drugs, in Helmand.
Since 2001 the opium cultivation increased over 4,400%. Under the US/NATO, Afghanistan became world largest opium producer, which produces 93% of world opium. Those engage in the dirty business reach to the Afghan cabinet and even recently Mr. Karzai was accused by US officials of supporting the drug-dealers. His brother Wali Karzai leads the largest network of drugs in Kandahar. Gen. Daud, head of the counter-narcotics department of the interior ministry, himself is a famous drug-trafficker! Warlords in the Northern Afghanistan each control the route of drug-smuggling to the Central Asian Republics.
No one talks about this horrible aspect of the US occupation of Afghanistan. We are now living under a narco-state and drugs has already impacted Afghan people with horrible consequences.
JP: As a political organization, what is RAWA’s relationship with political parties in Afghanistan?
RAWA: We have good relations with some. But unfortunately most political groups, democratic groups, human rights, women’s rights, and intellectuals are not active. Thirty years ago there were lots of activities of such groups, and RAWA was just one. After the Soviet invasion and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban and Pakistan, many activists were arrested, assassinated, or made to flee the country. Our founder, Meena, and many others, were killed here in Pakistan, in the killing grounds of the Russian puppets and elsewhere. The past 30 years, the progressive forces of Afghanistan faced many losses and were always under pressure. And today still they are being marginalized or neutralized by the NGO-ism policy.
So the most powerful forces on the political scene are fundamentalists or linked to them, representing them, and using their political positions to protect them. Movements of left groups and intellectuals have been greatly weakened. But there are many progressive and freedom-loving individuals around and we have a long way to go and unite them under a unified force. There are some small groups too and we are in touch with them. We have to support each other.
There has been some rather small resistance against the US/NATO and warlords in some parts of the country. If the US/NATO occupation and atrocities continue for long, there will be stronger resistance from Afghan people.
To donate to RAWA, see the Afghan Women’s Mission: www.afghanwomensmission.org.
RAWA’s website is www.rawa.org.
Justin Podur is a writer and activist based in Toronto. He was in Pakistan in July 2008. His blog is www.killingtrain.com