Secret service

Fredrik Haumann / Panos Pictures

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) turns 30 this year. For three long decades they have operated underground – first during Soviet occupation, then under the iron fist of the Taliban, and now under the rule of tribal warlords in the Western-backed Government of Hamid Karzai. RAWA would rather the warlords were punished for their bloody crimes than that they were legitimized as parliamentarians. If you’re going to speak such unpleasant truth to such nasty power, you are bound to be unpopular.

‘The dangers that women face in RAWA are really hard to find in any other part of the world,’ says Afghan activist Sahar Saba. ‘We are threatened personally on a daily basis and so are our families – death threats, imprisonment, kidnapping, even throwing acid on our faces.’

In Pakistan, where many RAWA members are based and where the organization runs schools to counter fundamentalist ideology, the group comes under attack from the Taliban, from other _jihadi_ fanatics and from Pakistani fundamentalist political parties. Saba tells of extremists shooting at the staff at a RAWA-run hospital, attacks with stones and teargas on RAWA demonstrations, and threats published in newspapers.

Even the magazine the organization sporadically publishes is too hot to handle. ‘If it were found in someone’s house or they were seen reading it, their life would be in danger. In the Taliban time, a few of our male supporters who were transporting the magazines were arrested and sent to prison. Only with the mediation of some tribal leaders were they released after a few years.’

Just what is so incendiary about RAWA’s message? It’s actually pretty basic – equal rights for women in Afghanistan, political self-determination, secular democracy and freedom from fundamentalism. They have refused to compromise on these core values. Today, with the Karzai regime in place, they are critical of the perversion of ‘democracy’ by warlords in government and they reject the influence of outsiders on Afghan politics.

RAWA’s outspoken opposition to fundamentalism has led to guerrilla tactics when it comes to organizing. ‘It’s not about trusting each other but about reducing risk,’ says Sahar Saba. ‘One of the ways of doing that is not to use your real names, avoid conversations which may reveal information about the other person or their family, don’t visit houses where other RAWA members are living, don’t exchange addresses or phone numbers. I remember when I went to a RAWA school as a 10-year-old. We were told why we have to change our names and why we have to be careful if someone knocks on the door. We learned how to act in a way that doesn’t create suspicion.’

All this cloak-and-dagger is essential to the group’s survival and effectiveness. Were a RAWA member captured, she would not have the information that might endanger any others. ‘Our leadership council is not known to many, even within RAWA, for security reasons. Changing houses is one of the biggest problems for us, especially being women. Sometimes we have to change a house within months to avoid discovery. In TV interviews we have to cover our faces. Not to show our faces is very difficult. When we organize a function, we don’t talk about the location. We keep it unknown until the last minute.’

Communication becomes quite a hurdle. ‘You cannot really use the phone because it could be monitored by the intelligence services. It’s very difficult to exchange information quickly. In this society you might need to have an urgent meeting late at night, but as a woman it’s not possible to go alone. Even if you are a group of women you need men to go with you.

‘Women who join RAWA do so consciously. They know the dangers; they know the struggle in Afghanistan for women’s rights, for freedom, for democracy is not just to sit and talk in a room or to organize a conference in a hotel. It is really to pay a price – as our founder-leader Meena did in 1987 when she was assassinated. Meena taught us that struggle for women in Afghanistan means to sacrifice, to face challenges and dangers. And changing this situation means facing enemies like the Taliban or other fundamentalists who never consider women as part of society or even as human beings.

‘For me personally, if I go to a refugee camp or to a village inside Afghanistan and if my words are able to give hope to other women, girls and even men – that’s something that gives me strength to face the challenge. What these fundamentalists have done to us makes you want to tell the world that there are people who want a different Afghanistan, who want a different future. And those people, women first of all, are ready to pay a price and they will pay the price in order to change the situation. To keep the fundamentalists from winning, we women have to keep hope alive.’

Under the brutal Taliban regime, RAWA kept schools going for girls in private houses. They exposed via their website the testimony of widows forced into prostitution by the Taliban’s ban on women working and the hypocrisy of Taliban supporters who were the women’s frequent clients. They risked life and limb to photograph secretly the Taliban’s gruesome punishments and public executions. Today they run orphanages and teach literacy classes for women who often graduate as grassroots activists for women’s rights. And they continue to inform the world of news about Afghanistan the mainstream media won’t touch. They have achieved all this without breaking cover. •

  • The RAWA website went online in 1997 with the words: ‘Thank you for visiting the homepage of the most oppressed women in the world! If you are freedom-loving and antifundamentalist, you are with us!’
  • New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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