In 1977, in the heady days before the Russia-backed coup, a group of Afghan women intellectuals set up the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). The new organisation was an attempt to address women’s rights and social justice by engaging Afghan women in peaceful socio-political activities to promote secular, democratic values in the country. Despite its important social work, during its subsequent three decades RAWA’s activism has been far from welcomed by the country’s succeeding governments and conservative social leadership, due to its specific attempts to challenge the status quo.
The initial years saw RAWA’s activities largely confined to demonstrations for women’s rights and democracy. But after the Moscow-directed coup d’etat of April 1978 and the eventual occupation in December 1979, RAWA joined the war of resistance, advocating democracy and secularism. It was during the Soviet years that the organisation began to spread its influence, sending activists to work among refugee women and children in Pakistan, establishing schools and helping to provide much-needed healthcare facilities. It confronted the Soviet occupation both politically and physically – demonstrating in public, while at the same time working to uncover crimes being committed. RAWA reports that during this time, many of its activists were arrested, tortured, and kept in some of Afghanistan’s most notorious prisons for up to eight years at a time.
In 1992, the Soviet-installed puppet regime collapsed to herald a new and more brutal era under the Taliban. Due to rigid policies and growing atrocities, RAWA faced increasing social, economic and political challenges. In October 2001, the US ‘war on terrorism’ led to the fall of the Taliban but the struggle against religious fundamentalism remained. The government of Hamid Karzai aligned itself with the Northern Alliance – seen by many as equally brutal as the Taliban – and former warlords began taking positions on the political dais. For a group that believes that one Afghan fundamentalist regime has replaced another, RAWA’s calls remain poignant and pertinent: “Freedom and democracy cannot be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values.”
Mariam Rawi (not her real name) remembers being enthralled by RAWA as a young girl, impressed with its independence and thrilling emphasis on women’s rights. Unlike many of the group’s other members, Mariam’s parents respected her decision to get involved. At the age of 15, her father chose to send her to a RAWA school instead of more-traditional institutions. Now 31, Mariam says that her father wanted her not just to receive an education, but to develop a conscience – to “choose the right path and have a purpose in life by fighting for the rights of the voiceless people, especially women.” Now, Mariam is a member of the group’s foreign affairs committee, travelling around the world to raise awareness about the plight of Afghan women. Despite her high-profile success within the organisation, however, to this day security remains a major issue for RAWA and its workers: Mariam declined either to be photographed or to use her real name for this article.
Partially due to such concerns, RAWA members behave like a family, sharing their problems and aspirations. Many who are involved in work on the same project live collectively in a single house. Although for safety’s sake those who have families are not allowed to invite their relatives, the collective house nonetheless provides a supportive environment. “There are many RAWA members who, on their very personal issues, such as marriage, choose to first consult with RAWA and then with their own family members,” explains Mariam, who has lived with the organisation since she first became involved. In this way, RAWA is able to offer an element of stability, particularly for women, in what can at times be a chaotic environment.
Having started work with the group when she was 18 (able to distinguish, she says, between her country’s friends and enemies), Mariam notes that she was well aware of the difficulties that her decision would entail. RAWA’s legendary founder and eventual martyr, Meena Keshwar Kamal (commonly known by just her first name), provided a critical early inspiration, as have the stories and experiences that Mariam has subsequently encountered from women around the world. Some of her greatest motivation, however, is the ongoing preaching in her own country that “women are half of men and are weak creatures”. While these fundamentalist traditions may be particular rigid, the organisation has operated on the assumption that, with courage, its members can break a crucial path – “We must be the vanguards,” she emphasises.
Confronted with such issues, Mariam feels that her time with RAWA has offered more than simply stability, but has also helped her to formulate her identity. She says she has become aware not just of her political, social and legal rights, but has also been allowed the opportunity to help others who have been deprived of those same rights. In Afghanistan – as in many other places in Southasia, but perhaps more so – speaking up for personal rights, confidently interacting with others, and even staying away from one’s family can be considered revolutionary steps, challenging as they are to traditional teachings and beliefs. Perhaps most importantly, Mariam explains that the person she has become is a woman who can enjoy the same rights as that of her brother and other Afghan males.
To believe that positive change is possible takes a certain amount of tenacious idealism grounded in a strong faith in the cause. RAWA sees one of its largest achievements as the fostering of a wider consciousness among Afghan men in support of women’s rights and equality. On a more material level, over the years RAWA has provided women and children with education and health facilities in both Afghanistan and in Afghan-refugee areas in Pakistan, where a large part of its operations are concentrated. They have built a health centre in Quetta, as well as a number of schools in Quetta and Peshawar, aimed at Afghan refugees.
RAWA has provided shelter to women who have been raped, along with their female relations, fathers who have sold their daughters out of hunger, widows forced to beggary and prostitution in order to feed their children, and orphans with nowhere to go. To run its schools, literacy courses, hospitals, mobile health teams and income-generating projects, RAWA has increasingly relied on funding from international sources. Seeking financial support within Afghanistan has been difficult, partly due to the desperate economy and partly due to the organisation’s contentious radicalism. RAWA has also, however, been donated free land for many of its projects, and many of its teachers work without salary.
The worldwide network of supporters that has arisen is also noteworthy, with a large number of individuals and small-scale organisations having taken it upon themselves, particularly in recent years, to keep RAWA solvent. The organisation does not receive monetary aid from governments, international aid agencies or large NGOs, and it faces regular challenges due to its adamantly anti-fundamentalist stands. A few years back, some embassies promised the group some money, on the condition that RAWA remove the word ‘revolutionary’ from its name. The members refused.
Despite having incurred the wrath of the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad, RAWA continues to point out that it is not Western governments but ordinary people that have contributed to its global support. Even as RAWA has become something of a darling of certain progressive Western groups, critics worry that it is overly radical: unnecessarily and harmfully critical of other Afghan women’s organisations working for many of the same causes while maintaining cordial relations with the fundamentalist forces. Although RAWA vehemently denies such accusations, emphasising the “great harmony” between the group and other women’s rights and anti-fundamentalist organisations, it categorically states that it does not acknowledge the women who have been appointed into the present government, due to their perceived weak positions against fundamentalism. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that, having heralded the struggle for women’s rights within Afghanistan for so many years, RAWA may now find it difficult to cooperate with some groups that it sees as being diplomatic in criticising the current state of affairs.
The reaction by the Afghan people themselves to RAWA’s activities has ranged from admiration to condemnation, and at many times both simultaneously. Although the group’s projects are generally supported in particular by local women, any community approval is equally confronted with contempt. Members are often labelled as prostitutes, infidels or Maoists. This last reference is one that has long dogged the group. It is a debate that probably stemmed from the fact that Meena’s husband, Faiz Ahmad, was the leader of an Afghan Maoist group (the Afghanistan Liberation Organisation) and that the year RAWA was established was an era when Maoist groups were on the rise. RAWA supporters dismiss such tags as fear-mongering, and suggest that many people simply find it difficult to accept that a woman can be independent – including mentally – from her husband. RAWA itself counters, “If an irreconcilable fight against the Taliban and their Jihadi brethren reflects a ‘Maoist’ stand, then yes, RAWA is more Maoist than the Maoists!”
Nonetheless, members admit that such reactions do tend to have a large influence, with many otherwise sympathetic people subsequently choosing not to support RAWA and its cause. A RAWA-published magazine called Payam-e-Zan (Woman’s Message) is generally unable to be sold in the bookshops. “In a number of places,” Mariam recalls, “booksellers have been abused and warned by gunmen not to sell RAWA publications.” On several occasions, the magazines have instead been collected from shops and burned, while the shopkeepers have been pressured to identify the RAWA members who transported the publications.
As has been the situation throughout the organisation’s three-decade existence, RAWA members in both Afghanistan and Pakistan live in constant fear of violence, including death threats. Members keep information about their homes and contacts secret, and have no offices – although the official RAWA website does provide addresses in Quetta and California for donations, as well as other forms of indirect communication. Their demonstrations have been attacked several times in Islamabad, while even today most of their activities remain underground in Afghanistan, as they were during the Taliban regime. “Even now RAWA is regarded as an illegal group according to Afghanistan’s law,” says Mariam. “This creates limitations to the extent of outreach RAWA can accomplish.”
RAWA has always been its founder’s organisation, even in death. Meena was born in Kabul in 1956, where, as a young schoolgirl, she became deeply involved in social activism. Influenced by the mass movements of the time, she left university early to devote herself to the education and social upliftment of Afghan women, of which the 1977 founding of RAWA was seen as a necessary step. Her organising work during the Soviet occupation gained much recognition. In addition to her regional work, Meena traveled to several European countries to spread awareness of the plight of the Afghan people. In 1981, she was officially invited to represent the Afghan resistance movement at the French Socialist Party Congress, where the Soviet delegation walked out due to a cheering crowd hoisting a victory sign.
But Meena also garnered displeasure for her views and activities, from Russian and fundamentalist forces alike. On 4 February 1987, Meena was assassinated in Quetta along with two family members. While the loss of its leader was initially difficult, RAWA has remained strong since Meena’s death. The end of the Soviet regime brought with it internal strife, more bloodshed, and the rise of the Taliban, which in turn brought a cruel brand of rigidity. The US-led war in Afghanistan in October 2001, bringing an end to the Taliban regime, was initially welcomed with significant hopes for a new beginning. But from the outset RAWA was highly critical of the intervention, emphasising the mounting civilian casualties and warning that the US-installed government was no less fundamentalist than the last.
Throughout these changes, RAWA’s social work among refugee Afghan women in both Pakistan and Afghanistan has continued to provide healthcare, education and financial assistance, as well as much-needed support to victims of war and assorted atrocities. Today, their central mandate remains unchanged, as Afghanistan struggles to transition to a peaceful and stable nation state. RAWA continues to remind the world that outside of the capital, the situation for Afghan women remains grim.
Even in the face of such solemn issues, however, RAWA members like Mariam Rawi maintain a spirit of optimism: that change is not a possibility to be desired, but a reality to be shaped through deeds. “If we want to see change in our life and conditions, only having a desire for a better future can’t change things,” explains Mariam. “We must put our desire into action and take practical steps for the realisation of our dreams. And in societies like Afghanistan, women have to accept some degree of risk in the fight against tyranny and injustice.”