Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviews RAWA and AWM

Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! interviews Sahar Saba, Sonali Kolhatkar and Jim Ingalls in regards to the current situation in Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism, oil politics and the plight of women.

“Today, in Afghanistan… thousands of women, they’ve had to go to beggary or into prostitution… it’s not a normal country anymore… for people and also for women in particular it’s a real hell.” — Sahar Saba, RAWA

Full Transcript of the interview:

Amy: Now that we’ve talked about the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, I wanted to turn to the living people of Afghanistan. We’re joined now by Sahar Saba who is from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She speaks to us from Islamabad, Pakistan where she has taken refuge with her family after leaving Afghanistan. And I wanted to start out by asking you, there has been this international outcry around the statues, but I wanted to talk about the living people of Afghanistan, particularly the women and what they face today at the hands of the Taliban government?

Sahar: Yes I think this is the time that we wanted to mention to the world that women in Afghanistan and people in general are living in hell. But the world never pays serious attention to their tragedy to their suffering and to their terrible conditions and as you know, the tragedy with women in Afghanistan started with the fundamentalist invasion into Afghanistan in 1992, but with the coming to power of the Taliban, the situation got worse day by day, and today, believe me there is nothing for no one in Afghanistan especially for women. Thousands of women, they had to leave the country and not only inside the country but in refugee camps in Pakistan. I cannot describe, I cannot find words to describe their horrible and terrible situation in which conditions they are living, but unfortunately the world, they already have forgotten Afghanistan and it’s people. And the Taliban, of course, they are fundamentalists like their Jehadi brothers who were [there] before the Taliban were in power. They are completely anti-women, anti-democracy, Anti-civilization and we are sure that as long as they are in power we cannot hope for any change in Afghanistan, And the world must not be surprised with the Taliban’s decisions in order to destroy the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Now we want the world that at least now they should come to the point that what kind of creatures these fundamentalists are and how dangerous they are, not only for people, for women in our country, but for the countries in the regions and for the countries all over the world.

Amy: Sahar, can you tell us about the condition of women in Afghanistan right now?

Sahar: Today, in Afghanistan, almost all women, they are supposed to live only in their houses. They are not allowed to have any kind of job outside of their houses, and also thousands of women, they’ve had to go to beggary or into prostitution and there are hundreds of cases that these women which they were before teachers or they had at least a (decent) job, but now they have lost everything and they came to find that the only option for them is committing suicide. And also at some point they really had to even sell their children and all of their belongings and of course in Afghanistan in a sense it’s not a normal country anymore. And as I said before, for people and also for women in particular it’s a real hell. All women are forced to wear burkhas. All women are forced to wear the kind of clothes the taliban has imposed for people, for women inside the country.

Amy: And what is that, can you describe that specifically, the burkha?

Sahar: The burkha, is I think a kind of piece of cloth which has only a small mesh that women can see the outside. And If any part of their body is exposed from the burkha, the Taliban will beat them, the taliban will insult them on streets in the public, and also the kind of shoes that women, they have to wear, these shoes must not click when women are walking, they must not have any heels and also the color of the shoes must be not white or at least must be black or any other dark color and also women are not allowed to wear pants or skirts or these kind of clothing or shaking hands with men or talking to men on the streets or in shops and if women, for example, they talk to someone on the streets, the Taliban immediately will harass them and beat them and even put them into prison

Amy: And when you say the Taliban will do this, who are they on the street, when you say if they see a hand exposed or they see the wrong color shoes, who are the Taliban?

Sahar: There are mainly two kinds of Taliban. One is the ordinary Taliban which don’t have most power and the other group, which is in fact the most powerful among the group of Taliban which are called the special police, the religious police a group called Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. These police are moving around in their special cars and especially in most public areas where most of the people are living or in markets and if they see any kind of disobey from the people, especially from the women, they immediately and suddenly without giving them any time or any opportunity, they just started beating them and insulting them and flogging them on the streets. These special police have any kind of power to do what they want. And they have so far there are hundreds of such cases of how they have beaten women for only very, very simple reasons. For example, a woman said she was a widow and she didn’t have anyone to go to the market to buy something for her children, she herself went and when she went to the shop, the talib just came up to her and not only did he beat the woman, but also the shopkeeper because the taliban point of view they see this as a big mistake.

Amy: And you see this as based on religious law?

Sahar: I don’t think, and people in general, not only we, but the people in Afghanistan know it’s not a religious law. It is the Islam of the Taliban the Taliban’s version of Islam or the Taliban’s version of religious law, which is I think it’s a very good and best and easy tool in the hands of the Taliban and other fundamentalists.

Amy: Sahar Saba from the RAWA speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan where she and her family have taken refuge. We’ll come back to her story and then we will also talk about how the Taliban rose to power and the role of the United States in that rise. You’re listening to Pacifica radio Amy Goodman be back in a minute.

You’re listening to Democracy now, the exception to the rule, I’m Amy Goodman continuing my conversation with Sahar Saba of RAWA she is speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan, Although she was born in Afghanistan, and her family has taken refuge there. You were just talking about whether the Taliban are abiding by Islamic law and you were saying you don’t see it in that way…

Sahar: Because they have used Islam and the religious beliefs of the people for their own interests and they are using it and there is a big difference which the outside world especially the people in Western countries for example in the United States must realize how different our religion, Islam, is from the way the Taliban use it. And other Fundamentalist parties have used it before because they know that religion is the only real leverage they have to use against the people for their own aims and objectives

Amy: Are you religious?

Sahar: In a way, I can say yes, because I belong to a Muslim Country and my parents my family is a religious family but you know the people in Afghanistan today, they have even started to, we cannot say, to hate Islam, but lots of crimes have been committed in the name of Islam. And even very religious Muslims, they say that what the Taliban are doing or what the other fundamentalists have done is not the religion and this is not Islam and they are not Muslim.

Amy: And what about girls in school?

Sahar: In fact there is no school in Afghanistan especially for girls so the Taliban claim that they have opened schools for girls at least to the age of ten, but the reality is much more different than what the Taliban claim. There are some kinds of Madrassas, religious schools, mostly for girls in mosques not even proper buildings for schools and all the girls to the age of 10 or 8 and 9, they have to read religious subjects only in the mosques with their religious teachers and you cannot find a school in the country with a proper education system at least like in Pakistan or in other Muslim countries. And again, I think the world must not be deceived by the Taliban’s claims that they are going to open the schools or that they are going to change their policies because people who are completely and naturally, in their nature, are against education, especially for women, how they can open schools for girls and women who cannot consider women and girls as human beings. How is it possible for them to open schools or to make schools for the girls? So this is only, again, an excuse and something that the Taliban want to attract the attention of the world.

Amy: Sahar Saba, can you tell us about your organization, RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, as well as the founder of RAWA, Meena?

Sahar: RAWA, which stands for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan is the only independent and oldest organization of women and it was founded in 1977 under the leadership of Meena and with a few other intellectual women to achieve democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan, but soon after the establishment of RAWA, our country was occupied by the Russian invaders and RAWA though at that time was not a very big organization, but they took an active part in the movement and since the situation was really bad for working politically inside the country, Meena decided to transfer most of RAWA’s activities to Pakistan. In Pakistan, she started working among the refugees. She established high schools for girls and boys and a hospital under the name of Malalai in Quetta and also literacy courses for women, math training courses and other health care mobile teams to refugee camps or even inside Afghanistan. But in 1987, Meena, the founding leader of RAWA, was assassinated by KGB agents with the cooperation of one of the most brutal Islamic fundamentalist parties in Pakistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party and because the enemy was really afraid of her existence and her fight and her life and they were finding a day to assassinate her and finally on the Fourth of February, 1987, they succeeded to kill her. But RAWA not only continued it’s activities, but it continued widely and more actively, struggling against not only the Russian fascist regime but also the fundamentalists at the same time. RAWA was the first and only organization in Pakistan to organize a demonstration against the Russian invasion and also their fascist regime. But in 1992, when the fundamentalist parties were created and supported by different countries in Pakistan, and in fact, were imposed on our nation, RAWA decided to focus more on struggling against the fundamentalists since they were the root cause of all the disasters and all the miseries in Afghanistan. Now RAWA is an active political and social organization, a feminist organization of women. It’s struggling, it’s active in Pakistan, mainly in refugee camps with all its social and political projects and also inside the country.

Amy: Sahar Saba, what is your personal story. How did you end up in Pakistan?

Sahar: I left Afghanistan when I was seven years old, during the Russian time with my family. Like thousands of other Afghan families, it was very difficult for us to live in our own village, and when I came to Pakistan, I lived in refugee camps for two years. And as you know the situation of refugees was not better from the people inside the country because there was no access, at least, to education, especially for girls and women. And my parents wanted me to go to school and to get an education. Fortunately, my parents knew someone from RAWA. They talked to RAWA and after that, they decided to send me and some other girls from my family to a RAWA school, which at that time was in Quetta. Since then, for the last ten years, I am working with RAWA in different fields of RAWA, sometimes I am a teacher in the school or in the refugee camps, sometimes I work in publication in the cultural community and right now I am a member of the Foreign Affair Committee of RAWA and also cultural community.

Amy: How, in Afghanistan, do women express opposition?

Sahar: Working inside the country means you have to take a great risk. And for RAWA as a women’s organization, it is really difficult, for example, establishing or making a literacy course or a home-based class will take even months for us to organize, or working among the women, giving them awareness going to their houses or documenting human rights [issues], which is our main work inside the country. Several times, for example, our main supporter or our members have faced very serious problems, but fortunately, somehow they managed to escape from the Taliban and from their other agents. And women, in different ways, they are trying to organize themselves, especially those women who are educated. People who were teachers, who had some kind of job, even themselves with their own initiative, have made some home-based classes, literacy courses or other income projects. And through different ways, they are in contact with each other and trying that the Taliban and other fundamentalists must not know about them. There is some kind of solidarity and collaboration among the people in general and especially among the women.

Amy: Sahar, do you face threats in Pakistan in Islamabad, where you are? After all, the founding member of your organization of RAWA, she was assassinated in Pakistan.

Sahar: I think in Pakistan, yes, it’s not easy for us to work and we have to face a lot of security problems, very serious problems and it’s not only from the Taliban and other fundamentalists, who even now have very great influence in Pakistan and have power, what they want, they can do. But, also, unfortunately, from the government of Pakistan, from certain agencies, especially from the government of Pakistan. We are followed by them and even our phones, our emails and everything under their control and we are not allowed to work as we want and even though all of our activities in Pakistan are according to the constitutional laws of this country. Of course we have condemned the government of Pakistan since the beginning of the war for supporting the fundamentalist parties and for their recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate government. As you know, our demonstration was attacked recently, on December 10th and ten of our members, they got serious injuries by the police of Pakistan and also by the fundamentalists.

Amy: What risk are you taking just by having this conversation?

Sahar: There may be lots of possibilities because as I told you that any of our phone conversations and our contacts are under control so there is no doubt this is also, maybe not tomorrow or at this moment, but, in the long term, we will face the problem, it can create a problem. But of course, it’s not important for us anymore because what is important is that the world can at least hear our voice on behalf of the women of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan. We expect anything at any moment and this is what, again, can make a big difference in the gap between us and others. Doing all of this work and activities means giving sacrifices, giving your life. It’s not only our work because we have learned from our leader, she showed in giving her life. She was only 30 years old. If she were alive, she could play a very, very important role in the movement of the women in Afghanistan.

Amy: What role has the United States played in the strength of the Taliban?

Sahar: Unfortunately, the United States was one of the countries that brought, not only the Taliban, but also the fundamentalists. The point, even at the beginning of the war 20 years ago, we warned the United States and other countries how dangerous it would be giving support to the fundamentalists such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, Sayyaf, Khalili and others. And today, after 20 years, the United States and other countries and also people see how correct and how right we were. But the United States, I think, is one of the countries which is responsible for today’s Afghanistan. I think it’s time for the government of the United States to apologize to the people of Afghanistan for what she did during the resistance war. And for their own, not only for America, but all of the countries which are involved in Afghanistan’s affairs. I think they really committed a big mistake. In a way, we can say, they have supported the most brutal and misogynist criminals in our country. And the reason that today Afghanistan has turned into a big center of terrorists is only because of the financial, military support, the political support of these countries. In these countries, they didn’t take care of a nation, what’s happening to a nation, but concentrated on their own economic and political interests. They supplied arms, they supplied everything to these fundamentalists in order to turn Afghanistan into a destroyed country.

Amy: And what are they doing today? What is the United States government doing today?

Sahar: Today, I don’t think we see any important change in the policy of the United States. I think if the United States really wanted or wants to do something for the betterment of the situation in Afghanistan, it can play a very important role. And unfortunately, the only disagreement of the United States with The Taliban was the issue of Osama Bin Laden, the infamous terrorist, which himself was created and supported by the United States. And also to the United Nations, putting pressure on other countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and other countries, The United States can do a lot, but unfortunately, again, for it’s own political and economic interests, it cannot take at least a practical step. We have heard several times from Madam Hillary Clinton or even Mr. Clinton himself that they have condemned the Taliban’s policies but it’s not enough. Its time to take practical steps which, unfortunately, the government of the United States has not taken so far.

Amy: We see a lot of petitions on line, supporting women of Afghanistan, condemning the Taliban’s treatment of women and I assume you are getting thousands of signatures, but what does it mean, what good does it do?

Sahar: I think that first of all I must point out that for us, for RAWA, and even for the people in Afghanistan, there is a big difference between the governments of the country which are involved in Afghanistan and the people of those countries, especially of the United States. And we have gotten their warm sympathy and their support during the Russian invasion and now. And the United States is one of the countries that we have a lot of great supporters there. But, I think only sending their sympathy or sending their solidarity through signing petitions or just by words are not enough. The people as individuals or the people as a nation, they can put pressure on their government to stop this human rights tragedy in our country.

Amy: Sahar Saba from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, RAWA, speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan. And if you would like to go to their website you can go to When we come back we’ll be joined by two people to further talk about the U.S. role in the rise of the Taliban and the Mujaheddin and we’ll also talk about Osama Bin Laden and the sanctions against Afghanistan. You’re listening to Democracy Now. Back in a minute.

You’re listening to Democracy Now. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue to look at what’s happening in Afghanistan today, when the Taliban seized control of the Afghan capitol, Kabul, in 1996, very few people knew anything about the movement. It is perhaps one of the most secretive movements in the world today with the exception of the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. A ban on photography and television means no one knows what its leaders look like, yet the Taliban and it’s interpretation of the Sharia law, which leads it to prevent girls from attending school and women from working, has grabbed headlines from around the world. Some of the responsibility of the religious and political upheaval in Afghanistan today can be traced to U.S. intervention in that country after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and took control, it became a battleground for East/West global disputes. The CIA mounted the largest ever operation in Afghanistan including training and arming militant Anti-Soviet groups with sophisticated weapons. But in addition to being Anti-Soviet, The Mujaheddin were Anti-West, in general, and Anti-American in particular. With the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, many of the Mujaheddin turned their antagonism Westward. Osama Bin Laden was only one of those who received CIA training and later turned that expertise against Washington. We’re joined right now by Sonali Kolhatkar on the board of directors for the Afghan women’s Mission, speaking to us from California and Jim Ingalls who is the author of a recent article in Z magazine called “Smart” ‘Sanctions on Afghanistan’, also speaking to us from Pasadena. We welcome you both to Democracy Now. Sonali Kolhatkar, can you start off by telling us, specifically, taking off from what Sahar Saba was saying about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and how it supported the Taliban and the Mujaheddin.

Sonali: Yes, hi Amy. I would like to mention very strongly that what was happening inside of Afghanistan was really fueled by outside pressures and countries such as the United States. One of the most indicative factors was the CIA knowledge of the type of men that they were funding. These Mujaheddin warriors, or soldiers of God, were groups of men, seven different factions of men, that were funded by the CIA and one of them, specifically that Sahar Saba mentioned Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was well known for throwing acid in the faces of women who didn’t cover themselves. And this was a fact known by the CIA. They were very Anti-women leaders. In the CIA own words, these men were “dictatorship material”. These men were “fascists”. And that didn’t prevent the CIA from helping these men, arming them to the hilt, pouring about $3 billion dollars of aid, and setting up training camps inside Pakistan to stave off the Soviet invasion. And really setting the stage for a future fundamentalist state inside of Afghanistan. And of course, after the Soviet invasion, the Mujaheddin groups began turning on themselves and fighting each other, vying for power because there was sort of a vacuum left behind, even though there was a government set up in Afghanistan, the ones with the real power and the arms were the Mujaheddin who had been supplied arms by the United States. During this period, which is known as the civil war, after the Soviet Union pulled out, some of the worst atrocities took place upon the civilian population of Afghanistan. They literally rocket-shelled Kabul and destroyed buildings and killed several thousands of people. The situation for women was also incredibly horrible at this time. Even though there weren’t any specific laws requiring that women stay at home, women effectively stayed home for their own safety. And there have been documented numerous crimes against women, such as rape and torture. So the stage was really set in 1996 in terms of the country being really devastated and really not having any infrastructure. And the people themselves, not having much strength left to resist when that Taliban appeared on the scene and took over Kabul. And, in fact, at first, the population of Afghanistan was relieved, thinking that finally, there might be a force that might stabilize the country and provide it with a much needed structure and stability. Of course, they were to soon find out that the Taliban would impose an even worse brand of Islam than the Mujaheddin claimed. Which was to put into law what Sahar was saying, in terms of confining women to their homes and not allowing them access to health and education and effectively really reducing their ability to have a decent life.

Amy: Jim Ingalls, you wrote the piece in Z magazine “Smart” ‘Sanctions on Afghanistan’, can you talk about the sanctions that have been imposed by the UN Security Counsel and also where Osama Bin Laden fits into this?

Jim: Yes. Hi Amy. Well, the sanctions were imposed at the end of last year, in December by the UN Security Council. They were backed mainly by the United States, Russia, India, and Kyrgyzstan. These countries are all supporting the United Front, which is the former Mujaheddin faction, which are still holding on to a piece of territory in the North of Afghanistan. The sanctions were imposed on the Taliban regime, ostensibly to limit their access to military equipment, and essentially to bolster the United Front in their fight against the Taliban, which we have just heard, these groups of people are also fundamentalists, who would probably be no different in power. The sanctions were stated to be a single purpose resolution aimed at terrorism by the U.S. ambassador to the UN. And as such, they don’t deal with the horrible humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the refugee crisis, the drought, the hunger…Afghanistan is one of the top three most hungry countries in the world. Therefore, the sanctions are essentially, just targeting terrorism, supposedly. In fact, they are just targeting terrorism in name, not in actuality. On Osama Bin laden status, he is the reason why the sanctions have been imposed. Supposedly, to pressure the Taliban to give up Osama Bin Laden whom they are harboring. As Sonali mentioned, Bin Laden was a Saudi businessman who helped the U.S. fund the Mujaheddin during the 1980s. Since then, he has shown his true nature and has criticized the U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia, he’s criticized the presence of U.S. military bases inside Saudi Arabia, which started during the gulf war, and he’s trying to get the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia. And there is a growing movement there to do that.

Amy: Didn’t former President Bush, the Bush family have a business relationship with the Bin Laden family?

Jim: I believe so. The Bin Laden family, Bin Laden was mainly a construction tycoon. They’ve had incredibly deep dealings with the Saudi government. A lot of Saudi government buildings have been funded and the construction has been done by the Bin Laden family.

Amy: Where does oil fit into this?

Jim: Well, basically, Afghanistan is at the South of the Caspian Sea, which is the latest and the last great oil reserve, considered a great prize by many countries including the United States. Russia who used to basically own that land as the Soviet Union, or first as the Russian Empire and then as the Soviet Union, all the countries of the Caspian Region, most of them, were part of the Soviet Union. And this prize is yet to be exploited to its fullest by the countries of the region. The Soviet Union had essentially underexploited it because they wanted their own oil reserves in Siberia, Russian reserves, to be the main source of oil. Now it’s coming out. Now all countries of the region as well as the U.S. are trying to get that oil and trying to get control of it because control will essentially enable whoever has it to control a lot of the world’s oil market in the future.

Amy: Do you think that’s why the sanctions have been imposed?

Jim: I’m not sure, exactly, if that is the only reason. I’m sure that’s part of the reason. Afghanistan lies in kind of a crucial location, between Iran and Pakistan. One of the possible routes for oil and gas from Caspian countries is through Afghanistan. The U.S. wants a diverse, quote un-quote, diverse means of getting the oil out as opposed to just getting it out through the traditional routes through Russia, which means Russia would control, they want to have some control, at least, some control. And at least they don’t want only one country to have that control.

Amy: Sonali Kolhatkar, what about the refugees, a massive refugee problem?

Sonali: Yes, this is a problem that is really underreported in the U.S. mainstream news today. Afghanistan really has the world’s largest refugee population, a fact that’s not really that well known and they’re the largest if you don’t count Palestinians as refugees. About 2.6 million of 3 million refugees live in Pakistan today, and in the last four months alone, of course these 2.6 million have been coming over in the last decade, but the last four months alone, the official figure according to the UN has been over 150 thousand refugees have left Afghanistan to flee into Pakistan. The real numbers, quite well, larger than that, maybe double. And it’s really an incredibly terrible situation because they’re escaping not only the worst drought in 30 years, not only a terrible land mine infestation, and a bitter winter, but they’re escaping the fighting between the Taliban and The United Front inside of Afghanistan, which has a lot collateral damage and which has caught a lot of civilians in the cross-fire. And there are a couple of camps, two or three camps inside the border of Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of these refugees who have absolutely no food, water, no access to any kind of sanitation, no warm clothing in the bitter winter. Many tons of them have died from the cold, mostly children. And the tragedy of it all, is that the Pakistani government right now is restricting access to these refugee camps, restricting access of relief agencies to the refugee camps because the Pakistani government doesn’t want to recognize them as official refugees because they feel that if these refugees were to get access to food and water, that it would just encourage more to come across the border. So it’s a terrible tragedy and it’s a really real emergency situation right now.

Amy: What do you think is the most important thing the United States could do right now, given its role in the past with bringing those to power who are in power right now in Afghanistan?

Sonali: Well, I think that if the United States is really serious about undoing some of the damage it has done, the first thing it would do is either drop the sanctions or at least extend the sanctions to include the United Front, because the one-sidedness of the sanction is really what keeps the fighting going or will keep the fighting going. Because right now, their only aimed at the Taliban, not at The United Front. So that kind of ensures that one side has an advantage, however, the sanctions themselves are pretty difficult to enforce. But the other thing would be to, I would say, reparation to the civilian population of Afghanistan for the damage that was wreaked by U.S. money. And to encourage its allies, who it has influence over, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to immediately withdraw recognition of the Taliban, and to hold the Taliban accountable. Pakistan has the deepest ties with the Taliban and many believe are responsible for the Taliban.

Amy: Well, on that note, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Sonali Kolhatkar, on the Board of Directors for the Afghan’s Women’s Mission, that website, and Jim Ingalls, author of the recent article in Z magazine, “Smart” ‘Sanctions on Afghanistan.’
Special thanks to Alissa Nunn for transcribing this interview.