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Thursday, October 14, 2010

This Time the Revolution Will Not Be Misogynist (2001)

by D.M. Yankowski


Photo by M. Zanganeh

The word “revolutionary” usually conjures up the image of a shadowy romantic figure smoking a pipe with bullets strapped across 'his' chest and a pistol in 'his' hand. So when Tahmeena Faryal, a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, came to the stage at UMBC’s ballroom last night, before 600 to 700 curious onlookers, the revolution looked different than what we are used to. She did not have a bandoleer or pistol; RAWA’s weapons are cameras, blackboards, books and medical supplies. But they wield those weapons with courage and skill in their quest to show the world the Afghan plight and in educating and aiding her people.

“I am here to raise the voice of oppressed women,” Faryal said. But RAWA is not only a women’s organization. Formed in 1977 by Meena, one-word, RAWA quickly moved from being a women’s organization to a political organization during the Afghan war of resistance against the Soviet Union in 1979. RAWA, with Meena at the helm, carried on the resistance after the humiliated Soviets left and the Jihadis took power. The KGB and a fundamentalist faction assassinated Meena in 1987, but her legacy carries on and RAWA continues to fight under the Taliban.

“We can’t shy away from being political...but we are very much alone,” said Faryal. Many NGOs and relief organizations in Afghanistan distance themselves from political aspirations. RAWA’s political demands are secular democracy, full participation in public life for women and girls and respect for all human rights.

Those demands speak to the Taliban’s egregious human right’s abuses, including draconian restrictions placed on both women and men. Women are not allowed to go to school or work, forced to wear burkas concealing their bodies and faces and not allowed to wear “noisy shoes” for fear that it would attract men’s attention. Faryal made it clear that men also suffer from Taliban restrictions: men are forced to grow fist-length beards, wear traditional clothes and pray at a mosque five times a day.

Faryal had planned to come to UMBC, by invitation of psychology professor Dr. Anne Brodsky, before the September 11 attacks and subsequent war, but since then her message has not drastically changed. She says that RAWA has warned countries from the beginning about fundamentalist terror.

Faryal expressed her deep sympathies for American people and said she “...recognizes the common bond we now share.” But she also said, “Fundamentalist [terror] is a slap in the face for those who created them...

“The United States and others had a hand in supporting, nurturing and creating the fundamentalists.”

She continued by warning that support for the Northern Alliance, now known as the United Front, would breed “millions of Osama bin Laden’s.” The Northern Alliance has a troubling history of human rights abuses while they were in power prior to the Taliban. “The tragedy is that this brutal regime was recognized by the international community, and still is,” Faryal added referring to the United Nations recognition of the National Alliance as the government of Afghanistan.

Governments may have contradictory policies toward Afghanistan, but they are not the only ones. The media has taken equally contradictory stances, according to Faryal. When Taliban leaders destroyed ancient Buddhist statues to comply with their version of fundamentalist Islam the media broadcast the dissent worldwide. But when the Taliban killed 300 people from an Afghan ethnic group, the Hazarahs, a few months earlier there was practically no media coverage. So RAWA creates media hoping others will listen.

Faryal brought selected videos to show the UMBC crowd. RAWA has shot video covertly and smuggled it out of Afghanistan. Perhaps the most famous image she showed is the one of a woman being executed before a crowded stadium. A RAWA member hid the camera beneath her burka to capture the footage. That footage has been featured in “Beneath the Veil,” a documentary film by Saira Shah.

Other video clips show RAWA’s outreach and aid programs. These include secret schools that RAWA runs within Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan. The schools serve young girls and “children of garbage,” young boys that scour refuge dumps for saleable items.

“These children told me that a piece of paper and pencil is a dream to them,” said Faryal.

RAWA’s lenses documented other humanitarian efforts they have made, including literacy classes for women—the majority of women are illiterate in Afghanistan—and distributing medicine and supplies to refugees. Afghanistan has some 2.5 million refugees with the number increasing daily due to the U.S. led war, stated Faryal.

Amnesty International has called Afghanistan “...the largest forgotten tragedy.” But since September 11, Afghanistan can no longer be forgotten or ignored.

RAWA’s position is that indiscriminate bombing will not help bring a secular government into power, and Afghan people have already suffered too much as the result of continuous internal strife from external meddling. Therefore, RAWA, with a few reservations, supports former king Zahir Shah Mohammed’s call to assemble the Loya Jirga, the inter-tribal council, and believes the Afghan people need to choose a new government for themselves. They also support placing UN peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan.

What they ask of international supporters is for them to provide financial and moral support and to pressure their respective governments not to support the United Front (Northern Alliance). But, most importantly, they want those who have a voice to insist women are included in deciding Afghan’s future.

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