First published by Z Magazine, January, 2002.
Editor’s note: On November 12, Sonali Kolhatkar, the vice president of the Afghan Women’s Mission, interviewed Tahmeena Faryal, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan during Tahmeena’s visit to the United States. Much has happened in the three months since the interview took place: the Taliban fell; the U.S. abandoned its highlighted concern for women; and RAWA was excluded from the conference in Bonn that created an interim government. The Northern Alliance and other fundamentalist groups were represented at the Bonn conference, while less than 10 percent of all participants were women. Violent warlords have seized power in the absence of an international peacekeeping force, and Afghan women find themselves still living in terror in the post-Taliban, war-devastated country, with no end in sight. In this interview, Tahmeena gives historical background and valuable insights into the political situation for women, unfortunately just as relevant now as ever. Thanks to the Los Angeles-Indymedia Center and the Community Voices Project, which organized and recorded the interview. Special thanks to Casey Callaway of the LA-IMC for doing the huge task of transcribing.
By Sonali Kolhatkar, Vice President of Afghan Women’s Mission
February 11, 2002
Sonali: Afghanistan has experienced brutal war for the past 20 years — from the Soviet invasion and occupation, followed by a puppet regime installed by the Soviets, which was then toppled by the U.S.-backed Mujahadeen. This was followed by brutal civil war, and the Taliban’s rule. Now we’re seeing a bombing campaign by the United States. What has been the worst era for Afghans and why?
Tahmeena: I think that, first of all, I should make it clear that these eras are related one to the other. It is like a chain. Had the Soviets not invaded Afghanistan, there would not have been the US-backed fundamentalists and the current Taliban. From our point of view, the real tragedy began with the Soviet invasion, but everything got worse, especially towards women, when the fundamentalists took power in 1992. There were eight parties from the very beginning who started fighting against each other and their main and easiest target was women.
Sonali: RAWA says the Northern Alliance is no better than the Taliban in terms of their human rights record, yet today the United States is supporting the Northern Alliance to advance its war in Afghanistan. Should Afghans be afraid of the Northern Alliance taking over the country as they did in the early `90s?
Tahmeena: The people of Afghanistan are really terrified of the Northern Alliance being part of any official government in Afghanistan. The period between 1992 and 1996, when they were in power, was really the blackest period in the history of Afghanistan. Coming back to your question of what was the worst time, that was really the worst time and what made it even worse and more tragic was that there was not any attention given to the situation. The Afghan people will not forget that time. People will not forget that the hospitals, schools, museums, and 70 – 80 percent of the capital city of Kabul were destroyed during that time. Many cases of rape, women’s abduction, forced marriages happened at that time. That would happen again, if they take the power.
Sonali: RAWA appealed to the international community in terms of solving Afghanistan’s problems of civil war, and the fundamentalism of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. What was your appeal to the international community, and how has it changed after September 11th?
Tahmeena: RAWA warned in the early `80s — when many different countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United States, and France started financially and militarily supporting the fundamentalists — that they were going to be a very dangerous phenomenon, not only for the people of Afghanistan and that region but for the whole world. RAWA had anticipated incidents such as September 11. With the nature those fundamentalists had and have, they would not even care about the countries that once aided and supported them, and there would be a slap on their faces, as we say in Persian. Unfortunately, that is what happened.
RAWA has been calling for years for the United Nations to intervene with its peacekeeping force in order to disarm the armed groups, as well as to sanction, militarily, the countries that supply arms and financial support to the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
Sonali: Such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates ?
Tahmeena: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India. We believe that if they really want to seek a solution, a real solution to solving the problems in Afghanistan, the first thing is to sanction, again militarily, the countries that support them.
Sonali: You mean stop the weapons sales?
Tahmeena: Yes, the weapons sales, and any financial or other support. And then disarm these groups inside Afghanistan. As long as they are armed, and as long as they are supported by other countries, they’re not going to stop fighting. That is in their nature. They love fighting.
Sonali: What is RAWA’s position on the bombing campaign by the United States, especially in light of the U.S. claim that the campaign’s specific aim is to get rid of the Taliban?
Tahmeena: It is so unfortunate that all the attention on Afghanistan came only after September 11. Before that, it was the largest forgotten tragedy in the world. We welcome the combat against terrorism. In fact, this combat should have started years ago in order to prevent incidents like September 11. The people of Afghanistan have been the victims of the same hands for years, yet we never received any attention. It was as if people in Afghanistan deserved all those atrocities and crimes.
But this combat against terrorism cannot be won by bombing this or that country. It should be a massive campaign to stop any country that sells arms or financially supports the fundamentalist movements or fundamentalist regimes. For example, right now in Pakistan, there are thousands of religious schools with hundreds of thousands of religious students, and each and every one of them are going to be future Osamas. If this bombing can get at Osama, or the Taliban, or some of the terrorists’ camps, this does not mean that they will prevent terrorist incidents in the future.
Sonali: In addition to the hundreds of people that have been directly killed by the bombs, many international aid agencies are warning about the mass starvation of Afghans. Seven million Afghans who were dependant on aid agencies supplying them with food are on the verge of starvation today. The bombing is preventing aid from getting to these people and UNICEF has estimated that 100,000 of the children will die this winter from starvation because we couldn’t reach them with aid. How should the international community respond to this impending disaster which could eventually lead to millions of innocent Afghan deaths?
Tahmeena: Immediate humanitarian aid is the first thing that should be done. It is very easy to do that in Pakistan. Humanitarian organizations have trouble getting into Afghanistan because of the bombing. But thousands of refugees have fled to Pakistan, Iran, and other neighboring countries after September 11, and especially after the U.S. bombing. It should not be very difficult for these humanitarian organizations to provide for those refugees. After the 11 September, more than 100,000 refugees came into Pakistan alone. Last year, from the drought and cold and war, more than 100,000 refugees come into Pakistan. This figure of seven million is from months ago. Even at the time that Afghanistan was not bombed the humanitarian organizations could do something significant to help these people not to die. Obviously we know that they are concerned, but they should act urgently. I mean, there are problems in Afghanistan, but at least the refugees in Pakistan or Tajikastan or Iran could be given humanitarian aid.
Sonali: When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, one of the pretexts they used was that they were coming in to liberate Afghan women from fundamentalism. Today the United States government and supporters of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan seem to be using RAWA’s documentation of fundamentalist oppression of women to justify the bombing campaign. Can you comment on this manipulation of women’s issues by foreign occupiers and foreign interventionists in Afghanistan.
Tahmeena: First of all, I should say that during the Soviet invasion and its puppet regime, there were claims that women’s situation in Afghanistan improved, but that is not true. The situation of women in Afghanistan was really beginning to improve in the early 20th century. Even before the former king, women had the very basic right of getting an education. We had women in government, and we had the right to work. What the Soviets were trying to do was give women some of the rights that are obviously okay in Western societies, but are not acceptable in our societies. For example, they wanted to give the so-called liberties of having a boyfriend, or dancing in a nightclub, which are not acceptable in our society. You really cannot bring all those changes overnight. We really need to start from the very basic things, like giving them education, which is what RAWA has been doing — trying to give women an awareness of their real potential.
Sonali: RAWA doesn’t receive any support from governments. Why is that? Would RAWA accept governmental aid if it were offered?
Taheema: The reason that RAWA does not enjoy regular governmental support is, I guess, because of our firm political standpoints and perhaps because of the word “revolutionary” in our name. We’ve always made it very clear that in a country like Afghanistan, which is very much male-dominated, the existence of an independent women’s organization is, in itself, revolutionary. RAWA is not in favor of armed struggle or violence. Once we approached the British Embassy in Pakistan. They said, “If you change this word in your name, we might be able to give you some support.” Other times, we have been openly told that if we change this or that policy we might be able to get some financial support. RAWA would not mind getting support from governments, as long as we don’t have to compromise our policies. That has not been possible so far.
Sonali: What is the ethnic makeup of RAWA’s members? Do they represent the myriad ethnic groups in Afghanistan?
Tahmeena: Members of RAWA — and we have around 2,000 core members — come from very diverse backgrounds and ethnic groups. We have Hazaras among us, we have Pashtuns, we have Tajiks, we have Uzbeks, we have Pashai, Nooristani, and people coming from the very remote areas of Afghanistan.
Sonali: Does RAWA discuss economic models of development in any future stable and peaceful Afghanistan and, if so, what economic models are those?
Tahmeena: RAWA has not discussed economic infrastructure. Maybe we should discuss it at this point. Obviously if RAWA is part of any future government, it should have its own agenda for economic and other structures in Afghanistan. So far, we’ve just talked about democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights. I think RAWA would want an economic structure that would guarantee that people in Afghanistan would be able to live equally. That all the starvation, the lack of education, and the lack of basic health services that we have witnessed in Afghanistan — not only during the war, but also before that — shouldn’t happen again. Especially lack of education. I think that should be the most important issue.
Sonali: I recently read that the World Bank is promising to aid reconstruction in Afghanistan. How do you think Afghans would react to the presence of foreign corporations?
Tahmeena: We definitely need international cooperation and support. Without the international community, I don’t think that the people or any future government in Afghanistan would be able to rebuild the country. But a puppet regime, or domination by another country, would not be accepted by the people of Afghanistan.
Sonali: What kind of security issues would RAWA face if RAWA is included in some sort of future government of Afghanistan?
Tahmeena: A democratic government, or relatively democratic government, is the only type of government we would be willing to take part in. We cannot take part in a government that is led by the fundamentalists. In these two scenarios, the security issue for RAWA is different. If we achieve the idea that women can be part of society, then we won’t have these threats from the fundamentalists, and we won’t have to work in secret.
Sonali: Does RAWA have relationships with other women’s movements in the world in different international conflicts?
Tahmeena: Since 1997, when we first started our website and established contact with people around the world, we have been in contact with hundreds of women’s organizations. Most of these contacts are through email or our website. We would like to have more contact with some of the countries who were at war or in conflict, or still are, but many of them do not have access to internet or email. We enjoy the support of groups in this country in many different ways. We have seen the impact in saving maybe thousands of lives and educating thousands of children in Afghanistan thanks to financial and other support from these groups.
Sonali: You’ve been a member of RAWA for most of your adult life — and it’s a very difficult life to be part of an underground revolutionary organization that faces so much opposition from these incredibly powerful and armed fundamentalist groups. What keeps you and the other members of RAWA going?
Tahmeena: When you live in a country where you see the people lose everything, and you see the women in your country going through the most horrible experiences one can imagine, you cannot keep quiet, if you have a little bit of consciousness. You need to do something. I think the main reason so many women, educated women, committed suicide in Afghanistan, was because they did not have contact with an organization like RAWA. They found themselves totally helpless and hopeless and felt that had no options, so they committed suicide. I might have been one of them had I not had contact with RAWA, had I not worked with RAWA. But when you do something that you know is effective and that saves lives, you get energy from that, and continue with it.
Also, I think our members inspire each other. Obviously we are all inspired by the founding leader of RAWA, Meena. In fact, Meena was always telling other RAWA members that, even if she was not among us one day, others should continue what she started. It is also very strengthening and heartening that we have the support of the international community. When we feel the support from people, especially women, all over the world — like women who walk in order to raise awareness and money, or people who go on hunger strikes to raise money for RAWA, or the committed supporters we have in this country, like Afghan Women’s Mission — that is really such a source of hope and energy. It’s really important to know that you’re not alone, that there are other people who care.
Sonali: What can ordinary people who believe in RAWA’s vision of democracy, freedom, and women’s rights in Afghanistan do to help RAWA?
Tahmeena: Financial support is the most meaningful and practical way to help, especially given the humanitarian and refugee crisis we have. People can support RAWA’s educational projects, humanitarian projects, or healthcare services. Also, especially at this time, political involvement is also very important. By writing letters to the representatives of their government and the United Nations, people can put a pressure on them that would be difficult to ignore. The main issue should be the bombing — that this cannot do the job of stopping terrorism. The real combat against terrorism should be done by stopping any financial and military support to the countries that harbor terrorists or fundamentalists; by disarming the groups in Afghanistan; and by not including the Northern Alliance in a future government. Women should be a part of any future government of Afghanistan. These are the most important issues that people can write to their representatives about.
U.S. supporters of RAWA can send financial support through the Afghan Women’s Mission at www.Afghanwomensmission.org
Copyright 2001 Saidit.org