Women and the Northern Alliance
An Interview with RAWA Spokeswoman, Tahmeena Faryal
One of the themes
sounded by proponents of the current war in Afghanistan happens
to be largely true. The Taliban regime really does oppress women
in the name of a strict and somewhat dubious interpretation of the
tenets of Islam. Women, who had been teachers, doctors and professional
people in Afghanistan to a significant degree before the turmoil
that ensued when the Soviets were tossed out, are not allowed on
the street without a male family member, are not allowed to receive
education beyond a minimal level, and of course are required to
be completely covered when not in the home.
Thus the shaving of beards and the doffing of burqas in the
wake of the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul were freighted with
cultural and political significance. Perhaps many women prefer to
be veiled – and seeing how attractive many Afghan women are to this
particular Westerner, maybe I can see some remote justification.
But following such practices should be a matter of religious conviction
and/or respect for tradition rather than a decree from the government.
Laura Bush talked about the deplorable condition of women under
Taliban rule when she took over the weekly presidential broadcast.
Odd that she didn't mention the administration's valiant if sometimes
reluctant ally, Saudi Arabia, which treats women similarly.
DOES BOMBING HELP?
While the treatment
of women and most other people by the Taliban was unquestionably
deplorable, one should be permitted to wonder whether bombing the
countryside and supporting the Northern Alliance was the most effective
way to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan. To get insight,
I talked this week with a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women
of Afghanistan (RAWA), a group that has been getting a fair
amount of media attention lately, but apparently doesn't yet have
a seat at the table in Germany that is supposed to determine the
political future of Afghanistan.
Tahmeena Faryal, who works in the foreign affairs and publications
department in RAWA's office in Pakistan, has been on a speaking
tour in the United States that was planned before 9/11. She told
me she was moved to Pakistan as a child and has been involved for
years in the struggle to gain attention for the issues of women's
rights and human rights in Afghanistan.
RAWA was founded in 1977, before the Soviet occupation. Its
founding leader, "martyred Meena" as she is described on the RAWA website, quickly became active
in the anti-Soviet opposition. In 1981, the year RAWA began a bilingual
magazine called Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message), she
represented the Afghan resistance movement at a French Socialist
Party congress. She helped RAWA start schools, a hospital and handicraft
centers in Pakistan before she was assassinated, reportedly by agents
of KHAD (the Afghan branch of the KGB) in 1987.
RAWA outlived its founder's death and has stayed together even
as most civil and political Afghan organizations have disappeared
or been melded into larger armed factions. So it at least has whatever
credibility comes with relative longevity as an organization.
WOMEN AGAINST BOMBING
One might have
imagined, as firmly as RAWA has opposed the Taliban regime during
virtually its entire time in power, that it might have welcomed
U.S. efforts to oust the vicious regime. But RAWA has consistently
opposed the US bombing campaign. And it has warned, most recently
in a statement issued November 16, that the Northern Alliance is
not likely to be much of an improvement.
"You must remember," Tahmeena Farwal told me, "that the elements
that make up the Northern Alliance held power in Afghanistan from
1992 to 1996. Human Rights Watch and the US State Department were
among many organizations that documented the systematic abuse of
human rights, and especially of women, when these people ruled Afghanistan.
The chaos they created was so pervasive that some people actually
welcomed the Taliban in 1996."
Tahmeena is dubious that the Northern Alliance has changed
its character significantly while out of power. "Despite soothing
statements to the international press, I would expect the pattern
to reestablish itself if they take even a dominant position of power.
We'll see looting, abductions and even killings. I don't think they
have changed. They are the same people who made Afghanistan almost
unlivable from 1992 to 1996."
USELESS BANTER IN
Ms. Farwal was
also skeptical about the meetings taking place this week in Bonn
among various factions (mostly heavily armed) in Afghan political
life. "It could have been a source if hope if they had invited or
relied on more democratic groups," she told me. "But the Northern
Alliance, the most dominant military group, is still a bunch of
criminals with a fundamentalist agenda."
RAWA wasn't invited to participate, of course. Tahmeena doubts
if its members would have agreed to sit at the same table with people
from either the Northern Alliance or the Taliban. "These are the
people who created Afghanistan's recent problems," she told me.
"The likelihood that they will do anything for the people rather
than simply serving their own narrow causes is very small."
RAWA and Ms. Farwal believe – however anomalous this might
be from an organization with "revolutionary" in its name – that
Afghanistan's former king has the best chance of mediating something
close to a tolerable settlement. "Twenty-five to 30 years ago,"
she told me, "family life was fairly normal, there were no dress
codes, women participated in government and in the professions,
especially teaching. Women were encouraged to become educated, not
forbidden. All this coincided with the king's rule." He might have
shortcomings, and he is not exactly a spring chicken, but the king
could be Afghanistan's best hope just now. Tahmeena thinks he has
good people around him.
told me that sentiment for democratic policies is stronger in Afghanistan
than most outsiders understand, but it has been sublimated and repressed
for so long it is difficult to know how effective even a majority
could be. During the last two decades of civil war and outside invasion,
"most people have not only lost most of their material possessions
but have compromised their moral values," she told me. It will be
difficult to convince most Afghans that a better day is even possible.
"We need a period of stability and peace, under a government that's
not ruled by criminals," she said.
RAWA also believes that the best bet for a temporary outside
peacekeeping – or peace-building – force would be under the auspices
of the United Nations. "If only US troops were stationed in Afghanistan
many people would regard it as simply another invasion," she said.
"People look at the UN differently."
I pointed out that the UN doesn't exactly have a sterling record
of successful nation-building in Somalia, Rwanda or even Bosnia.
She replied that the organization has had some success in East Timor
and its guardianship of Cambodia seems to have worked reasonably
well. But even if the UN is imperfect and makes mistakes, she says,
at this point it looks like the best Afghanistan can do in a bad
TALIBAN REALLY REELING?
Ms. Farwal told
me that from her sources and what she can tell from news reports,
the Taliban seem to be genuinely disorganized right now. Most of
the news of defections among Taliban troops seems accurate to her.
That fits with the way she has assessed the regime's legitimate
popular support for some time. "If the Taliban hadn't had military
support from other countries [mainly Pakistan but Saudi Arabia also,
or at least some of the rich residents] it wouldn't have been able
to rule for so long. The people opposed them but the regime was
too powerful and ruthless."
But she soon returns to the theme that the Northern Alliance
– or any organization that is essentially fundamentalist in character
– is unlikely to be much of an improvement. And even if a reasonably
democratic coalition could be cobbled together and earn the support
of the people, it would face daunting problems. Schools, offices,
hospitals, embassies and factories have been reduced to rubble by
decades of war. The resources to rebuild from within will be almost
impossible to come by. "We need humanitarian aid from outside, at
least for a while," she said. Her organization also sees some potential
in the building of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, as long
as some of the revenues trickle down or otherwise benefit the ordinary
people of Afghanistan.
noted that putting together a central government that is strong
enough to hang together but not dominated by one ethnic group and
not strong enough to oppress minorities will be a problem. She took
some hope from history, however. "For hundreds of years the various
tribes and linguistic groups lived together with little conflict,
and even banded together to fight against Genghis Khan, the British,
the Russians and other outside powers. After the experience of the
last 20 years most Afghans rightly fear a repressive central government.
But under the king we didn't fear that kind of repression," she
RAWA might never be as politically influential as one might
hope in a reconstituted Afghanistan. But if Tahmeena Farwal is representative
of the group (and I recognize that they probably knew they were
sending somebody who would be effective and sound rational to Westerners)
it would not be out of line to hope that it will at least get a
Before the Soviet invasion there were hundreds of political
and social groups grouped roughly around the idea of more democracy,
more human rights and more liberty in Afghanistan. Only RAWA has
survived from those long-ago days. Its members seem to have learned
about effectiveness and the real enemies over the years.
they have decided that Islamic fundamentalists will almost always
prove themselves eventually to be hostile to the kinds of rights
and freedoms they believe women in Afghanistan and everywhere should
I asked Tahmeena Farwal if she was any more optimistic than
she was a few weeks ago, now that the Taliban seem to be on the
run. "If the future means dominance by the Northern Alliance, I'm
afraid not," she told me. "I hope the international community will
recognize the danger that such dominance would pose to the people
of Afghanistan who yearn for basic freedom and human rights."
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