Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan, a new book by Melody Ermachild Chavis

meena“A vivid celebration of a contemporary heroine.” – Kirkus Reviews

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Book Description
Meena founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 1977 as a twenty-year-old Kabul University student. She was assassinated in 1987 at age thirty, and lives on in the hearts of all progressive Muslim women. Her voice, speaking for freedom, has never been silenced. The compelling story of Meena’s struggle for democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan will inspire young women the world over.

Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan is a portrait of a courageous mother, poet and leader who symbolizes an entire movement of women that can influence the fate of nations. It is also a riveting account of a singular political career whose legacy has been inherited by RAWA, the women who hold the keys to a peaceful future for Afghanistan. RAWA has authorized this first-ever biography of their martyred founder.

A radical passion for justice
LA Times Book Review by Susan Griffin, March 2004

On the surface, “Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan” is a very simple book. Since this account of the life of the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, is told for girls as well as women, the style is conventional and direct. Yet the narrative will provide a profoundly moving experience for readers of any age. In fact, the story of the young woman who at the age of 20 started the first movement for women’s rights in Afghanistan, only to be assassinated 10 years later, is a page turner.

Meena’s story cannot have been easy to piece together. Readers will benefit from the experience of the author, Melody Ermachild Chavis, who in her career as a private detective has investigated numerous murder cases. In the course of her research for this book, she traveled to Afghanistan to interview many of the principals — men and women who, even after the Taliban was overthrown, were still in danger of attack by fundamentalist terrorists because of their support of women’s rights.

Those readers unfamiliar with the lot of women under the Taliban will be shocked by the conditions revealed in this book. Yet the logic of the oppression will not, unfortunately, be entirely unfamiliar to Westerners, who see various forms of repression imposed on women in Christian fundamentalism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Claiming that women are spiritually and intellectually inferior as well as sexually dangerous, the Taliban promoted male domination both in the family and in public life through various forms of repression, including the imprisonment of women in the home, the imposition of the veil and the burka, the denial of the vote and of education, the exclusion of women from the clergy and places of worship, and opposition to abortion, affirmative action and the employment of women outside the home.

In 1957 — the year Meena was born into a middle-class family in Kabul — Afghanistan was ruled by King Zahir Shah, a monarch who supported some measure of equality for women. Afghanistan’s modern history can almost be read as an exercise in violent ambivalence concerning democracy and women’s rights. Amanullah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 (the year the country won full independence from Britain) until he was deposed in 1929, began a program of modernization that included education for women. Nadir Shah, king from 1929 to 1933, abolished Amanullah’s reforms, but Nadir’s son Zahir, who succeeded him after Nadir was assassinated, advanced Amanullah’s liberalizing policies even further, establishing a constitution in 1964 that gave women the right to vote.

It was thanks to these innovations that Meena received an education — unlike her mother, who was illiterate. Lycee Malalai, the all-girls school she attended, was named for an Afghan heroine who in 1880, when the country was invaded by Britain, had retrieved under gunfire a fallen Afghan flag and held it high until she was shot down by British soldiers. Inspired by this story and by two of her teachers who believed in the equality of women, Meena eventually became a heroine herself to countless Afghans, legendary even before her martyrdom at age 30.

After graduation, Meena intended to study law so that she could fight for women’s rights in the courts. But by then the liberal atmosphere that had fostered her determination had dissipated. Three years earlier, Zahir was overthrown by his prime minister and cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who was aligned with a pro-Soviet party. Gradually Afghanistan lost its independence, and the government became unstable. Fundamentalist groups began interpreting every democratic reform as a sign of corrupting foreign influence, and emancipated women were their first targets. By 1976, when Meena entered the University of Kabul, its female students had to contend with a reign of terror as random attacks were carried out on them. The followers of the Islamic radical Burhanuddin Rabbani threw acid on the exposed legs and even the faces of women walking across the campus — the beginning of hostilities that continue to this day.

Meena did not let these attacks stop her from attending the university or from speaking out for women. The resolve and bravado for which she was soon to become famous showed itself in a family drama culminating that year with her marriage. Meena was 19 years old. Because according to Afghan tradition a girl is considered marriageable at 13, the pressure from members of her extended family for her to wed had reached a fever pitch.

Meena’s standards seemed impossible to fill. She did not believe in, nor would she consent to, a bride price, let alone an arranged marriage. She would not wear the veil; though polygamy was still the custom in many households, she insisted that her husband should take no other wives; she demanded that she be allowed to continue her studies; and she made it clear that she planned not only to practice law but to hold her own political views as well. Eventually an enterprising aunt found Meena an acceptable husband in Faiz Ahmed, a distant cousin who was a doctor with radical views, including a belief in women’s rights. Because he agreed to all her conditions and she liked him, Meena agreed to the union, though in the beginning she was not in love with him.

If over time she would come to love Faiz, she never agreed with his Maoist politics. She seems to have rejected ideology altogether, favoring instead the complexities that inform the lives of real women. Still, she watched and learned from her husband’s political activism. Increasingly, it seemed to her that the courts were not the only way to better women’s lives. She decided to start a political organization for women. Influenced by her husband’s organization, which under a pro-Soviet regime had to be clandestine, she found a way to build RAWA while keeping its membership secret. Interestingly, her method was similar to one used by American feminists of the late ’60s and ’70s: a constellation of small groups. Though Meena met with all the groups, they did not meet with one another, making it easier for women to keep their membership secret and thus evade the disapproval and draconian retaliation of their families. This approach also afforded great intimacy, which helped give its members an uncommon strength and courage.

In the beginning, some of Meena’s tactics, such as wearing a burka when visiting members’ houses, seemed unnecessary, but soon the wisdom of this approach became all too clear. When Daoud was assassinated in 1978, thousands of Afghan intellectuals were imprisoned or executed. The following year, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, all other political points of view were brutally repressed. That officially the Soviet regime supported women’s rights made RAWA’s task no easier. Indeed, educating women about their rights became more difficult under a hated government that was forcing its ideological program on an occupied people.

Soon Meena’s life became more difficult in still other ways when, because he was a Maoist, Faiz and Meena were forced to separate. Meena continued to organize women, even during the last month of her pregnancy. On the day her labor began, Faiz was arrested. Fearing that she too would be imprisoned, Meena went to the hospital at the last minute before giving birth, leaving in disguise only hours afterward. In one of the more wrenching episodes of her story, she decided to leave her newborn child with a friend before going into hiding herself. Faiz was finally released from jail, but he was able to visit his wife and daughter only briefly before he fled to Pakistan.

Though matters would soon become significantly worse under the warlords and fundamentalist mujahedin who finally overthrew Soviet rule, under Meena’s leadership RAWA continued to publish and distribute leaflets, hold literacy classes and build its organization through the continual spawning of small groups of women. Eventually Meena herself was forced to go to Pakistan. But she continued to work for RAWA there, establishing literacy classes and a home for refugee Afghan women and children. She was close to finishing work on a hospital intended to serve refugees and those injured by land mines when she was murdered by an Afghani who had been acting as a RAWA supporter.

The author’s description of Meena’s considerable physical beauty, burnished by a passion for justice that gave her a luminous quality, is verified by the photographs accompanying the book. As one learns about how she would go out dressed as a man, or show up at the home of a member who was ill or suffering a loss, bringing food or offering to cook, even while she was pregnant and exhausted, one comes to love this woman.

There is no comfort in the supposition that since Meena was a political activist, her suffering must have been exceptional. A piece about Afghan women written by Jane Kramer for the New Yorker makes it clear that over the last two and a half decades most of the women of Afghanistan have suffered terribly, often in almost unspeakable ways. Kramer quotes Zahir Tannin, once editor of a prominent daily paper in Kabul and now head of the Afghan desk at the BBC: “No one wants to talk about it but the one thing [Afghans] do agree on is that the biggest victims of our twenty years’ war are women.” If Meena was exceptional it was because she fought back and took joy in the fight – – a joy shared by the women of RAWA, who, as they continued Meena’s work under the Taliban, chose as an act of defiance to wear bright toenail polish under the burka.

In her moving foreword to the book, Alice Walker writes, “One day one hopes the whole of Afghanistan, healed after so many centuries of war, will look upon the smiling radiant face of Meena and recognize itself.” If, as Walker writes, the male leaders of Afghanistan live “under the illusion that she is separate from them,” so too does the current world leadership. The 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees still defines “refugee” as someone running in fear from persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, even membership in a particular social group or because of holding a political opinion, but not persecution due to gender.

The world would do well to take this widespread persecution seriously. Its victims are also often startlingly prescient. What would have happened had world leaders listened to Meena in 1981, when, after attending an international conference of socialists in Paris to protest the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, she warned in a televised interview of the dangers of violent Islamic fundamentalist movements? When Afghanistan’s public educational system collapsed, Meena and others in RAWA saw the danger, but the American government took no heed. Despite pleas for help, no money or support was given to RAWA for its schools and hospitals. Yet the Islamic fundamentalist schools, established during the Soviet occupation by, among others, Osama bin Laden — and that trained many future terrorists — were well funded by several nations, including our own.

This is a book not only to read but to urge others to read. It provides, in its devastating way, a measure of hope. Another way of preventing violence exists: not through repression but through the expansion of civil liberties.

Susan Griffin is the author of several books, including “A Chorus of Stones” and, most recently, “The Book of the Courtesans.”


What Lies in Afghanistan’s Future? Prospects for the Loya Jirga

Published on Monday, June 10, 2002 by
by James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar | June 10, 2002

Click here for the original article.

A New Afghan Democracy?

As Afghanistan continues to receive the brunt of US military attention in the post-September 11th world, the first Afghan Loya Jirga in decades will meet for six days in June 2002. Hailed as a step towards a new Afghan democracy, this “grand council” of 1500 delegates, based on a traditional (read patriarchal) Pashtun grand assembly, will be held on June 10-16 this year. During the meeting, delegates are expected to vote for the first internationally recognized government of Afghanistan since the Peshawar (Pakistan) Accords of 1992.

At the 1992 meeting, Burhannudin Rabbani, a top figure in the Taliban opposition called the Northern Alliance, was declared transitional President for six months. He later had his term extended for two years by a “Council of Wise Men,” but it was reduced to 18 months under the 1993 Islamabad Accord. Under the same decree, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the recipient of the bulk of US/CIA aid during the 1980s, became Prime Minister. Rabbani and Hekmatyar are enemies who have spent more time fighting one another and killing tens of thousands of Afghans, than governing the country. There is little evidence to suggest that the upcoming Loya Jirga, which both Rabbani and Hekmatyar have threatened to disrupt, will bring serious progress.

Abdul Rashid Waziri, a former minister in the 1980’s Soviet-backed regime, doesn’t have much faith in the process which is for many Afghans the only hope for expectations of peace and democracy. The Loya Jirga could, in theory, be a major turning point away from decades of brutal and traumatic war. According to Waziri, many powerful fundamentalist groups, “particularly [former president] Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami, were trying to hijack the process by bribing tribal leaders, the clergy and other prominent people around the country.” Former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also reportedly planning to sabotage the proceedings. An unconfirmed plot to topple the interim government of chairman Hamid Karzai was supposedly led by Hekmatyar. While it is certainly true that Hekmatyar is behind plans to destabilize the regime, the government is eager to use the Hekmatyar threat to stifle any potential challenge. Afghan security officials arrested over 700 people in connection with the alleged bomb plot. “With details of the plot so sketchy, the fact that the roundup focused on well-known opponents of Mr. Karzai’s government seems certain to prompt suspicions that the government fabricated the threat to crush its opponents.” This sends a message about the willingness of Karzai’s government to tolerate dissent.

The interim government is “politically weak, surrounded by potential saboteurs, and dependent on international charity and protection,” so Karzai is taking no chances. “Only happy questions, please,” is his standard refrain at news conferences.”International charity and protection” means money from rich countries and military backing by mostly the United States. For example, the US has invented charges of conspiring with the Taliban and al Qaeda to justify the recent CIA assassination attempt on Hekmatyar. “There has been some evidence that Hekmatyar has certainly provided some support to Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” said General McNeill, the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps. The probable truth of the charges is irrelevant. There is more than “some” evidence that members of the Saudi royal family and the Pakistani government have supported those same groups but the CIA has not sent unmanned Predator drones after them

“We are a very poor and deeply fragmented society, I am afraid that people with money and weapons will dominate the Loya Jirga,” says Abdul Rashid Waziri. In a world where money and weapons, mostly of US origin, dominate politics, this is an uncontroversial statement. In fact, it was easily explained by Zbignew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter when the CIA began its covert program in Afghanistan, a program that would ultimately provide billions of dollars of weaponry and training to fundamentalist warlords in Afghanistan. Brzezinski says: “America’s economic dynamism provides the necessary precondition for the exercise of global primacy…[Its] assertive military capability…enables it to project its power…in politically significant ways.”

Bombing as Development Aid

We are told by US officials and media pundits that the US has bombed Afghanistan to help kick start a post-Taliban democratic rule. Or, to use the more colorful language of Christopher Hitchens, “The United States of America has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age.” The benefit of such “ends justify the means” ideology is that whole villages become statistics on a balance sheet. Consider, for example, a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof, which begins,

One of the uncomfortable realities of the war on terrorism is that we Americans have killed many more people in Afghanistan than died in the attack on the World Trade Center…So what is the lesson of this? Is it that while pretending to take the high road, we have actually slaughtered more people than Osama bin Laden has? Or that military responses are unjustifiable because huge numbers of innocents inevitably are killed? No, it’s just the opposite. Our experience there demonstrates that troops can advance humanitarian goals just as much as doctors or aid workers can. By my calculations, our invasion of Afghanistan may end up saving one million lives over the next decade.

In a world where money and weapons dominate, the slaughter of innocents becomes a form of development aid. One obliterated village here pays for two saved villages there. Perhaps it is comforting to know that villages like Mudoh, near Tora Bora, were sacrificed for a good cause. “A new cemetery carved from a rocky bluff where the village once stood holds the remains of 150 men, women, and children…they were killed, and the village obliterated, by American warplanes.” Strangely, Janat Khan, the mayor of Mudoh, is not happy with his village’s role in bringing Afghanistan out of the Stone Age. “No one should ever have to bury a baby’s hand,” he told reporters as he recovered fragments of corpses in the aftermath of the bombing.

With a landscape littered with landmines, an agriculture dominated by lucrative poppy production, a population traumatized, disabled, and starving from decades of war, non-existent infrastructure and economy, the new government of Afghanistan, or whatever emerges from the Loya Jirga, has a near impossible task in store for itself. It is difficult to imagine a valid democratic process taking place when most of the people are starving, homeless, and uneducated. The Afghan people have needed basic survival assistance from foreign agencies since well before 11 September 2001. If anything, they are in worse condition now. In the capital Kabul, poverty is so severe that many families have begun turning their children over to orphanages, desperately hoping that they will provide the necessary food and shelter. The situation in rural areas is even worse. Some villagers are “surviving on a diet of boiled grass and tea” and “selling all their land, livestock, in many cases even the tools they use to plant and harvest” to survive. Numerous reports describe villagers selling their daughters in exchange for a few bags of wheat. A US Agency for International Development report “based on interviews with 1,100 households across Afghanistan found that the level of ‘diet security,’ a measurement of vulnerability [sic] to famine, has plummeted from nearly 60 percent in 2000 to just 9 percent now.” Tragically, the World Food Program has been forced to scale down some food aid programs in Afghanistan, as it is 48% under funded.

Less than $1 billion of the $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan promised at the Tokyo conference in January 2002 has been delivered. Kieran Prendergast, the UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs said that while “it was understandable that donors might wait for greater stability before committing to long-term projects…We must also recognize that implementing rehabilitation and reconstruction projects will greatly help bring about that stability.” Apparently, social infrastructure is not considered a precondition to a viable political process. Instead, the aid is being intentionally withheld until after the Loya Jirga. According to the administrator of the United Nations Development Program Mark Malloch Brown, “The countries are ready to post the money” but won’t do so until after the meeting because, “The international community is waiting for a political stabilisation of Afghanistan.” Brown says that “a rapid acceleration of financing” will follow the meeting. Essentially, wealthy donors are holding the Afghan people hostage to an “appropriate” outcome to the Loya Jirga

At the Mercy of Warlords

The “appropriate” outcome, of course, hinges on the good behavior of the warlords. Afghanistan is dominated by war criminals such as Rabbani and Dostum who, with backing from the US and other governments, have reconsolidated their old feifdoms after the Taliban’s demise. Those controlling the December 2001 Bonn Conference that formed the interim regime sought to balance Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, with the mostly Panjsheri Tajik Northern Alliance, whose leaders have occupied 17 of 30 government posts, including the key ministries of Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs. Karzai himself came to power only after “enormous pressure from the American government…delegates in Bonn chose a different leader, Abdul Sattar Sirat…[but] pressure from American and United Nations officials resulted in the naming of Mr. Karzai.” Initially Karzai got no votes, “But all the delegates understood that the Americans wanted Mr. Karzai.” The inclusion of the Northern Alliance in the upper echelons of the interim government is likely to mean a major role in the Loya Jirga process as well. Already Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most notorious Afghan warlords (backed by Turkey, who now heads the international peacekeeping mission in Kabul), has been elected as a delegate to the council, despite guidelines barring participation by those responsible for killing civilians. The inclusion of criminals like Dostum is a slap in the face of those Afghans who have suffered their depredations and greatly undermines the effectiveness of the Loya Jirga in setting standards of peace.

The delegate selection process leading up to the Loya Jirga has been wracked with problems. According to a UN Election observer, “We have found some illegal methods in the elections and interference by the Northern Alliance, such as sending money and mobile phones to their supporters” to garner votes. When UN election observers entered the city of Gardez, the local commander fired rockets at them. Eight delegates to the Loya Jirga were murdered in May and there has been a general increase in violence in the months leading up to the meeting. For example, in Mazar-e Sharif, the city ruled by Dostum, “armed men broke into the home of an Afghan aid worker and raped the women and looted all the household assets,” in February. In the same city in April, a UN employee was dragged from his bed and killed by gunmen.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch explains, “Warlords are making a power grab by brazenly manipulating the loya jirga selection process. If they succeed, Afghans will again be denied the ability to choose their own leaders and build civil society.” The CIA agrees. In a leaked report the agency warned, “Afghanistan could once again fall into violent chaos if steps are not taken to restrain the competition for power among rival warlords and to control ethnic tensions.” Human Rights Watch advocates an end to the US use of warlords “to provide security,” and an extension of the international peacekeeping presence to all of Afghanistan. Clearly, “improved security in Afghanistan would greatly raise the chances for the successful Loya Jirga.” The lack of security was already frustrating the distribution of aid. Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Afghanistan’s lack of a nationwide peacekeeping force is allowing local warlords to jeopardize efforts to…deliver humanitarian supplies…Outside Kabul, warlords and bandits have become so pervasive that aid agencies are unable to deliver relief supplies to large swathes of the country.”

The CIA’s Kind of “Outreach”

Rarely admitted is the fact that “the power of the warlords…has been enhanced by the money and weapons that the United States has funneled to regional leaders who have helped Washington.” To support the bombing campaign, the CIA indiscriminately enlisted the help of leaders who “could quickly put men in the field and were willing to follow US orders…Payments ranged from $5,000 for village elders who could supply personnel to more than $100,000 for warlords who could field hundreds of troops.” An intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, “We were reaching out to every commander that we could.”

This closely parallels past US actions in Afghanistan in the 1980s when seven factions of Mujahadeen warriors were armed and trained to fight the “menace” of a communist threat. During this period, Hekmatyar came into his own. By the CIA’s own description, he was a “facist” and “definite dictatorship material.” Hekmatyar’s misogynist fundamentalist attitudes were well known – he was notorious for throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. The fact that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the chief beneficiary of CIA arms and military training to Afghan factions in the 1980s cannot be understated.

Prior to 1993, Afghans and people in the Middle East were the major victims of the CIA-trained terrorists in Afghanistan, so it wasn’t really worth paying attention to what was happening there. Then the World Trade Center was attacked with a truck bomb, and the men involved were linked to CIA-sponsored factions in Afghanistan. The Washington Post published an article entitled, “Aid to Afghan Rebels Returns to Haunt US: Washington Created a Monster by Arming Zealots, Many Say.” The article called the first WTC bombing “a sour last chapter to one of the great US foreign policy success [sic] stories of the 1980s.” Of course it wasn’t the last chapter, nor the most sour, for Americans or Afghans. With the CIA reprising its 1980s “outreach,” it is little wonder Afghanistan remains so insecure.

Today the capital Kabul is safer than the rest of the country, largely due to the presence of 4500 international peacekeeping troops. The opinion of many Afghans, aid workers, the US State Department, and even Karzai himself, is that the international peacekeeping mission in Kabul should be expanded throughout Afghanistan. In contrast, Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld has said, “There’s one school of thought that thinks that’s a desirable thing to do. Another school of thought, which is where my brain is, is that why put all the time and money and effort in that?…If it’s appropriate to put in more forces for war-fighting tasks, the United States will do that [but] there are plenty of countries on the face of the earth who can supply peacekeepers.” Once again the US shows that it is only interested in promoting war in Afghanistan. In this vein, Rumsfeld advocates “helping them develop a national army so that they can look out for themselves over time.” In the mean time, Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan has said, “American military forces might intervene in local conflicts in the absence of international troops stationed around the country.” This absence of peacekeeping troops the Bush administration deliberately maintains, which ensures that the United States, rather than an international body, has control.

A Time for Optimism?

What is striking about the current situation is the level of engagement by ordinary Afghans, who are enthusiastic about participating in the rebuilding of their country after decades of war. For example, 250,000 refugees from northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border, have demanded representation at the Loya Jirga. In the Kandahar, a surprising number of women turned up to nominate themselves for the Loya Jirga delegate elections. “I want to help my sisters in Kandahar. We have all suffered the pain together and now it is time to give a voice to women,” said one candidate. Close to 1,000 nomadic Afghans representing 12 tribes from provinces in central and south-central Afghanistan elected representatives for the Loya Jirga. “I am relatively optimistic, devastation of the past has changed our attitudes and people have every reason to pin hopes on any peaceful political developments,” Ghulam Nabi Chaknowri, an elderly Afghan refugee said of the Loya Jirga.

Afghans are naturally excited about a process that has been touted as a turning point towards peace and democracy. However, the success of the Loya Jirga is based on the assumption that the numerous and well-armed warlords will simply melt away and allow a transparent and democratic process to occur. But either the warlords will participate (like Dostum), which would run counter to basic standards of human rights, or they will attempt to disrupt or subvert the meetings (like Hekmatyar, Rabbani, and others).

At best, the Loya Jirga is unlikely to be anything more than a public relations stunt to legitimize the current regime and the US bombing campaign that led up to it. Karzai “is expected to win an easy victory and lead the new government, Afghan officials and Western diplomats said.” This is because, “He is being strongly backed by the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah…and he has solidified his ties with several powerful former leaders of the Northern Alliance.” But he could not have reached his current level of power without “the enormous influence of the country that is backing him-the United States.” The key combination of money and weapons was crucial in leveraging Karzai’s rise to power: “many leaders [in Afghanistan] see American money and military clout as the ultimate source of power here. But the Americans cannot dictate events, or they risk making the council appear to be under foreign control, a situation that could boomerang in this nation that is fiercely resistant to foreign domination.” Clearly, the risk is in the Loya Jirga appearing to be under foreign control, regardless of who is actually in control.

For the thousands of Afghans who are optimistic about the Loya Jirga, its outcome could be one more devastating disappointment. Mr. Stanekzai, a former air force pilot under the Taliban, expressed the general sentiment of Afghans: “the people are very tired of fighting and war and they will participate. In sha’allah (God willing), this election will be honest.” But the honesty of average Afghans may not be enough to fight the power of money and weapons, the most often used tools of the warlords and their Western benefactor. “We thank the US for helping us against the war on terrorism,” says Abdul Sameem, director of the Alauddin and Tahia Maskan orphanages in Kabul, “but we want them now to help us in our war on ignorance and poverty. That’s more important to us than a war on terror.”

James Ingalls is an Advisory Board member of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for and awareness of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. He is also a Staff Scientist at the California Institute of Technology. Sonali Kolhatkar is Vice President of the Afghan Women’s Mission. She is also the host and co-producer of a daily drive time public affairs and political radio show at KPFK Los Angeles, part of the Pacifica Network.


This Is What We Believe In: OC punk label raises funds to help Afghan women

Published on July 5 – 11, 2002 in the OC Weekly

By Chris Ziegler

OC WeeklyClick here to read the original article.

Sept. 11 made punk rock put its militancy where its mouth is: after America entered a permanent yellow alert, criticizing the government wasn’t quite so simple. Heela Naqshband even remembers punk kids wondering if they should turn their flag patches upside-down—which for every not-punk American means right-side up.

But Afghan-born Naqshband and her husband, Shahab Zargari, think progressive kids need to stick to their politics now more than ever. So Naqshband and Zargari—who, with about a half-dozen friends, run a punk label called Geykido Comet Records out of a Fullerton apartment—stepped in to help the sometimes-overlooked victims of the war on terrorism. Their recent compilation CD, Dropping Food on Their Heads Is Not Enough, is a fund-raiser for both the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and the Afghan Women’s Mission (AWM).

“Different labels were doing benefits for the New York victims,” says Heela, “but what no one realized is that the people of Afghanistan, particularly women and children, had been suffering for years.”

It’s not a side of the story the mass media likes to tell, they explain. Once you get past Osama bin Laden (who, lest we forget, isn’t Afghan) to the dubious relief efforts (“Dropping food into a country full of land mines,” Heela sighs), information on Afghanistan sort of peters out. And that’s where Geykido Comet (GC) comes in.

Amnesty International calls it “the world’s largest forgotten tragedy,” Heela writes in the liner notes to Dropping Food on Their Heads Is Not Enough. “I call it my homeland.”

“In the early ’70s, Afghanistan was where all the hippies would go for opium,” says Shahab. “They had roads, schools—the French were building colleges there.”

“My mom had miniskirts; my dad wore bellbottoms. It was pretty modern for being so far away from the West,” says Heela. “And then it just disintegrated. And all I know is the disintegration part.”

It’s hard to grow up not knowing anything about your country, Heela says. When she was born in 1979, the Soviets were on the way in, and anyone who possibly could was on their way out—including her parents, who never planned to settle permanently in America. They were so sure they’d be home soon that they almost left baby Heela in Afghanistan, taking her only at her grandmother’s urging. She has never been back—but she still wanted to help.

She stuck with her brain-draining customer-service job until she got a $2,000 bonus for a year’s service. She quit the next day, and that’s where the compilation CD came from. Half the proceeds—not just the profits, but half of every damn dollar that comes into GC—will go to RAWA and AWM, and Shahab and Heela hope every CD sold will raise both funds and awareness of the real situation in Afghanistan.

“Even now, it’s dated,” Shahab admits. “The inserts talk about all the s___ the Taliban did, and they’re already ousted. But still, no one here knows what the f___ they did over there, so it raises awareness that way. I’m hoping people get this in their hands and go, ‘S___, if all of this information is what we’ve been missing, what the f___ else have we not been told?’”

And Dropping Food fits in nicely with the rest of GC’s roster, an impressive cross-section of punky sub-subcultures—crust punk, pop punk, garage punk, punk punk—with such locals as Anaheim’s Bikini Bumps, Fullerton’s Voids, Long Beach’s Ciril and Laguna Hills’ ESL bumping chords with big-deal bands like Anti-Flag, Chumbawamba and even Jello Biafra himself. Heela says it’s part of the label’s effort to put a little substance into OC’s superficial style—and to counter a sometimes-vapid youth culture.

“We live down the street from the Nixon library!” she laughs. “It’s so conservative here, despite what MTV says about all the ‘cool bands’ or whatever.”

“The way we at GC look at ourselves is that we’re really an alternative to the ‘alternative’ in OC,” says Shahab. “Not that we’re the only ones, but when this type of thing comes out of OC, it’s like, ‘What?’ But this is what we’re into—and this is what we believe in.”

Dropping Food on Their Heads Is Not Enough is available for $8 from GC Records, P.O. Box 3743, Laguna Hills, CA 92654;


Chain of International Violence in Afghanistan, an Interview with RAWA’s Tahmeena Faryal

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

Copyright 2001


Your Checks Are In Their Mail – L.A. Times

When people from around the world send money to an Afghan Women’s fund, the cash first makes its way through a Pasadena coffeehouse.
By Jeremy Rosenberg
Special to Calendar Live LA Times – December 19, 2001

For many Afghan women, their struggle against the Taliban has been paid for out of a coffeehouse in Old Town Pasadena.

Step upstairs at the Zona Rosa Cafe, and you’ll enter the de facto office of the Afghan Women’s Mission. The AWM is the money-managing intermediary of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the much-in-the-news underground human rights group now based in Pakistan

Visitors to RAWA’s web site wishing to make a donation are instructed to send money to the AWM’s post office box on South Lake Avenue. The local group collects, collates and forwards the dollars to Central Asia, along with other relevant bits of correspondence.

Six volunteers grab laps full of envelopes. They reach across the table like casino dealers; arms dive under other arms as in a game of Twister. They place checks in seven piles, each with a handwritten label made from scraps of loose-leaf paper. The “General” pile grows the tallest. Others include “Publications,” “Education” and “Malalai Hospital.” The hospital is a shuttered RAWA health-care facility in Quetta, Pakistan. The AWM has collected $60,000 in order to re-open the institution.

The check sorting takes 90 minutes. The stacks grow with each tearing or cutting of an envelope–$500 from a doctor and his wife in Wisconsin, $697 raised by a woman who walked from New Hampshire to New York, $102 from a bake sale held by a school’s “femme club” and “diversity club,” $500 from a prominent actress, $9 for RAWA pamphlets, $5 in royalties for republishing a photograph.

And to the delight of the volunteers, there’s this note, enclosed along with a glamorous photograph on an invitation and three checks that total $1,950:

“To RAWA: On Nov. 8, my NYC nightclub event, Click & Drag, had a benefit for RAWA called ‘Freaks for Freedom…'”

“A lot of people mistake me for being Afghan,” confides Sonali Kolhatkar, the 26-year-old vice president and public voice of AWM. “I’m a brown woman talking about Afghan women’s issues, so I must be Afghan. I don’t know if it’s worked to my favor or not; I would rather it had nothing to do with it.”

It’s Sunday evening, and Kolhatkar sits upstairs at the coffeehouse, where she will meet with potential volunteers. This is her fifth AWM-related event during the past 36 hours. “We really believe in [RAWA’s] vision,” Kolhatkar says. “And that’s why they are so deserving of the work that we do. It’s really a labor of love. They don’t pay us, we don’t draw salaries from it. All of us who work on this issue are inspired by what RAWA does, are moved by their courage, and really get a sense of, if they can risk their lives, we can, you know, work weekends.”

Kolhatkar takes off her glasses, places them on the tabletop. She wears a stud on her right nostril and a colorful chunky necklace. Her dark hair is set in a bun. Her ski jacket and shirt are black, her pants gray. Though she was born and raised in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where her parents worked in professional capacities, she travels on an Indian passport. Ten years ago, she came to America to attend college and graduate school.

Kolhatkar is no stranger to social and political causes. She was a webmaster during protests against the Democratic Convention two summers ago in Los Angeles. She first heard of RAWA via an e-mail petition describing the plight of woman in Afghanistan. After some further research, she came away shocked. “I felt like this had to be the worst example of what women are going through today, and an issue that is not being talked about enough,” Kolhatkar says.

A few months later, she received an e-mail announcing that two RAWA members were coming into the country, and asking if she would be interested in helping organize their visit. The note was from Steve Penners, a man she didn’t know. He had found her name on a list. It turned out he lived down the street. They met, and collaborated on the hosting. Within six months of its founding, the president of the AWM had a vice president and inspired advocate.

“[I] got to meet these two RAWA members; they spent some time in my home; I really was touched by who they were, what they had to say,” Kolhatkar says. “I mean these were women who were my age, innocent and wise at the same time, really ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. And with bravery that I’d never seen before. These were the same women who were on the front line of what was going on in Afghanistan.”

RAWA itself was founded in Kabul in 1977, when Kolhatkar was a 1-year-old. She says the group has about 2,000 members, including a core group who have been active for years. Many are living in exile in Pakistan. RAWA’s founder was assassinated in 1987.

A RAWA member’s life is dedicated to RAWA. . . their whole life is dedicated to that struggle. And it’s not a normal life,” Kolhatkar says. “They are an underground organization; they cannot show their face in public. . . they have to work incognito. And they have to move their base of headquarters from house to house to house, every few months.”

Kolhatkar says the situation for Afghan women has gotten worse in the past two months.

“I say that with confidence,” she states. “The situation has gotten worse because although some Afghan women can walk around without wearing the burkah now, they are still starving. The aid is not reaching them, and these men with guns are still ruling Afghanistan.”

Kolhatkar says mainstream media has underestimated RAWA.

“They don’t expect them to have a political analysis,” she says. “They don’t expect them to talk about human rights issues in the larger picture. Larry King recently interviewed a RAWA member. It was disgusting. The only questions he asked were things like, ‘Do girls commit a lot of suicide in Afghanistan? What was it like growing up as a girl for you?’

“And then his last question to Tahmeena Faryal, the RAWA member–her back was facing the camera for security reasons–he ended the program saying, ‘I wish you could see her, she’s so pretty.’ Can you believe that? I was so horrified. And I said, ‘That’s the only way in which he can define a revolutionary woman? By how pretty she is?'”

The Afghan Women’s Mission operates a comprehensive web site.

Jeremy Rosenberg can be reached at

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times


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.