“Afghanistan Found Me”

Published in New Standard News

An interview with journalist and activist Sonali Kolhatkar by Julie Sabatier

TNS Interview: Sonali Kolhatkar is a journalist and also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a group that helps raise funds for schools, orphanages and other program led by Afghan women.

Sonali Kolhatkar is co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a group that helps raise funds for schools, orphanages and other program led by Afghan women. She also hosts the popular radio show Uprising on Pacifica Radio’s KPFK in Los Angeles. Kolhatkar was trained as an astronomer, but made a career shift six years ago to writing, radio and activism. Reporter Julie Sabatier interviewed Kolhatkar for The NewStandard last week.

TNS: You’ve done work in so many different activist campaigns, from Free Mumia to the anti-WTO movement. How did you decide to focus so much time and energy on the women of Afghanistan?

SK: In a way, Afghanistan found me. I got a chain e-mail in 2000 about the Taliban’s mistreatment of Afghan women. I started doing research and found the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). I was so inspired by these women, and I went down the street to a coffee shop and just cried and wondered if I was wasting my time working for [California Institute of Technology] and NASA. I contacted RAWA and asked them, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ They said they needed a legal way for people to make donations from the US.

TNS: You’ve criticized the US media for neglecting Afghanistan, and have noted many problems mainstream media outlets have ignored, including dismally low employment rates for women, lack of healthcare in rural areas and the threats independent Afghan journalists face. Why do you think these issues have been underreported? How does the coverage compare to that of Iraq?

SK: Mainstream journalists ñ and to some extent alternative journalists ñ have not known how to wrap their mind around Afghanistan. Although there was a lot of coverage after 9/11, it didn’t help to explain the oppression of Afghan women. After the war with Iraq began, it was like Game Over. Now, people are seeing the violence increase in Afghanistan and they don’t understand it. The media didn’t explain that it was not a success story over there. For the first time in Afghan history, you see suicide bombers in the country.

People don’t understand the fury and the violence there. When Kabul exploded in anti-US riots, people didn’t know why. The media has really failed because there is no explanation in their coverage about why Afghanistan is erupting in flames once more.

No one is catching the fact that the US worked with drug lords; it’s such an obvious story that people are missing.

The focus is on Iraq because US troops are in Iraq and in order to really portray the truth that Afghanistan was not this success story, the media would have to admit their own failures to make connections early on. I think the alternative media is guilty of it, too.

TNS: How did you start writing about these issues? What is the best way to counter tepid reporting in other countries, and in the US as well?

SK: I don’t know if there’s necessarily one way. Because of the Internet and the advancements in technology, I think alternative media is a very good tool to counter mainstream media. You can really get a huge audience.

And there’s definitely something to be said for trying to subvert the mainstream from the inside. It’s amazing how far you can get by covering investigative stories and doing it the right way with fact-checking and research and going places that other journalists aren’t. I have a lot of respect for those mainstream journalists who are pushing those limits and being subversive by being good journalists. People should just keep speaking out as much as they can. The more we speak out, the safer all of us are.

TNS: In your criticisms of media coverage, you specifically note the inaccurate portrayals of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries you have traveled to. What do you think the media has missed about the lives of these women? What are their greatest challenges?

SK: I think the main thing that they’ve missed is that most Afghan women live in grinding poverty. What good is a right not to wear a burqa if you can’t put food on your table? Many people still wear the burqa for a lot of reasons, but a lot of women wear it out of shame to cover their rags that expose how poor they are. They have no jobs, no literacy. Between 4 and 10 percent of Afghan women can read and write.

There are some really, really extreme issues like honor killings, women being jailed because of adultery, women burning themselves to death. There was a woman last year, Amina, who was stoned to death. Boy, did the media miss that one. There was no uproar.

The poverty issue is not a sexy issue. It’s not dramatic; it’s more abstract, more elusive and there’s no easy fix to it. Afghanistan was one of the world’s poorest countries before 9/11 and it is still one of the poorest countries.

TNS: Other than RAWA, the women-led organization that the Afghan Women’s Mission Project helps raise funds for, are there others forms of empowerment and independence that are growing on a grassroots level?

SK: I think there are many, many pockets of that. There are so many efforts that we don’t know about until we go there because they don’t have websites. On the smallest levels, women are empowering themselves through cooperatives all over the country. I read a story about some women who started a mine-clearance project ñ three women who saw some children get killed by a cluster bomb. I feel from what I’ve seen, from what I’ve read, that those small acts of resistance and courage are happening all over the place. That’s RAWA’s approach ñ that no one is going to liberate them, they have to liberate themselves ñ and what we need to do is get our government off their backs.

TNS: Do you see the election of women like Malalai Joya to parliament in Afghanistan as a sign of progress in the region?

SK: Well, yes and no. When I was there last February, it was amazing to see how excited people were about the idea of democracy. I wanted to dismiss it as a sham, but I could not deny the pride and joy I saw in people’s faces. It was such an exciting exercise because most Afghan people have not had the chance [to vote] outside of the cities in a very long time.

When the presidential elections happened, people were thrilled. That was just really amazing to see. They chose Hamid Karzai, and I wanted to understand that. They know he’s a US puppet, but he’s not a warlord. In Afghanistan, people wanted anyone but the warlords. After the election, he completely turned around and started appointing all these warlords to high positions and the people got very, very cynical and the parliamentary elections had a much lower turnout.

Malalai was elected because she was so well-loved. Her victory on the one hand is a sign that there is a possibility for democracy and people are hungry for it. Democracy doesn’t just mean elections. Until there is justice, that seed of democracy that was planted will not be allowed to grow in Afghanistan.

TNS: How did you form the Afghan Women’s Mission Project and how has it grown since then?

SK: We officially started in [the] summer of 2000. My colleagues and I started writing and researching more about Afghanistan and the US involvement with the Taliban. We did some teach-ins and slowly, slowly, the attention and donations were increasing. Our goal was to re-open a hospital that RAWA had been running until they ran out of money.

Then 9/11 happened and donations started pouring in like rain. Within a month, we had enough to reopen the hospital. I think in that one year, we raised over a million dollars. Our main focus for the past two years has been to write a book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, which will be published by Seven Stories Press in the fall.

TNS: How does the Afghan Women’s Mission project collaborate with RAWA? What role does RAWA play in the lives of women in the country? How far is their reach?

SK: RAWA has about 2,000 active members and they are the oldest women’s organization in Afghanistan. Because they are so outspoken, they are also very much underground. RAWA has to operate stealthily. If they are in a province where they have support, they are so beloved in the community. At the same time, their uncompromising stand on women’s issues and secular government means that some people see them as sometimes too radical.

Our relationship to RAWA is very important. We don’t tell them how to run their organization and we see funding them as a form of activism. We take their lead and they inform us on their needs. The money we raise is their money. We think that is a very important approach. We want to empower these women. We want them to lead. We don’t want to interfere with them. It turns the tables on the power dynamic between privileged countries and third world countries. Our government has taken so much away from the country and what we are doing is trying to compensate for that in whatever small way we can. We are grateful to them for allowing us to try and salvage our conscience and make up for these wrongs.

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Sonali Kolhatkar is a journalist and also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission.

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