The Afghan female activists challenging Western stereotypes

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Originally published by Contributoria on 1st November 2014.

Picture an Afghan woman. Your mind might be conjuring up an image of a docile burqa-wearing individual staring pleadingly at you. Or perhaps, clutching a wounded child closely, lamenting incoherently, with tears falling down a war-weary face. Maybe you see someone picking through the dishevelled debris of what used to be a market, scouring the scorched earth like a blighted vulture.

The reason for this is that Afghan women, and women in the developing world more generally, are all too often depicted as helpless victims; mere objects of harrowing news reports or poster-women for the next charity appeal. At best they might be portrayed showing some entrepreneurial spirit helping themselves and their family through some microfinance venture; nearly always with help of a benevolent Western benefactor in one form or another.

But there are a group of dedicated, incredibly brave and fiercely independent women who are fighting for women’s rights, freedom and secular democracy whilst also doing everything they can to empower not only themselves but their communities as well. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is an ‘independent political/social organisation’ established in 1977. Whilst predominantly secular, they do often wear burqas out of sheer necessity, plus it helps keep their identities hidden and has allowed them to secretly record atrocities.

In their 35-year history RAWA have fought unwaveringly against the Soviet occupation, the Mujahideen, the Taliban and most recently against the US-backed Islamic Republican government. The fearless exploits of these incredible women do not sit well with accepted narratives of Afghan women as passive victims. Added to the highly secretive and underground nature of the RAWA, it’s not hard to see why they haven’t received a great deal of international exposure.

There’s good reason for their secrecy. They have faced hostility from all sides since RAWA’s inception. One of their founding members, Meena Kashwar Kemal was assassinated in 1987 by the KGB and many other RAWA activists have been murdered or attacked over the years. As such, RAWA is organised horizontally in cells, its members strive to remain anonymous and activities are often restricted to members’ homes.

The US Intervention: a war for women’s rights?

One of the most paraded moral justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was the advancement of women’s rights. Laura Bush has been a famous advocate of the benefits for women since the beginning of the war, pointing to figures such as the 2 million girls now enrolled in schools. But this notion of a privileged, powerful Western woman speaking on behalf Afghan females about how great the American invasion has been for them is exactly the sort of thing that feeds into the type of negative representation this article is hoping to address.

As one RAWA activist under the pseudonym Reena rightly points out, if the Americans had really wanted to help Afghan women they should have engaged with democratic women’s groups in Afghanistan, allowing them space to speak for themselves:

‘There are many democratic groups in Afghanistan; maybe they could have, negotiated with them, talked to them, from the very start. It seemed like the most ridiculous thing to do to bring such fundamentalists back to power’.

Reena claims things have actually gotten worse for women since the invasion:

‘The conditions of women are worse…Afghanistan remains the most dangerous place for women. Self-immolation, suicide rates, are extremely high – it has never been this high before. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are poor. They do not have healthcare.’

RAWA have described the governments since the war as ‘exact copies’ of the Taliban in their attitudes towards women. This opinion was arguably justified by former President Hamid Karzai’s controversial backing of a ‘code of conduct’ in 2012 that has been described as a ‘massive step back’ for women’s rights. It appeared to legitimise domestic abuse, unequal divorce proceedings and severely limit women’s independence. In Afghanistan women can be punished for ‘moral crimes’ such as running away from an abusive husband, and in some instances victims of rape are jailed as a result of their ordeal.

Franz-Michael Mellbin, EU ambassador to Kabul told the Guardian earlier this year “[The prosecution of] moral crimes is something that is a scourge for women in Afghanistan, it means that girls and women who are victims…are further victimised by the state”. He described Afghanistan as ‘one of the worst places to be a woman’.

Karzai has since been replaced by Ashraf Ghani, but only after months of deadlock resulting from an inconclusive election in April. Ghani now heads a ‘government of national unity’ with his main presidential rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The political impasse has seen the Taliban take the initiative and make significant inroads in several provincial capitals. This has prompted Ghani to sign a bilateral security deal with the US, which permits its troops to stay in Afghanistan until 2024. A recent post on the RAWA website described the deal as “disgraceful” and labelled the new government “shameful,” and “made up of the criminals of the past three and a half decades”. Clearly, RAWA don’t hold much hope for the new political settlement. The way the national unity government was hammered out behind closed doors over the course of several months does not sit well with many in Afghanistan, with some describing it as the “death of democracy” in the country. RAWA would go further and say democracy is yet to have been born in Afghanistan.

Many problems, many solutions

The threat of violence is real for nearly all women in Afghanistan, with one report by Oxfamclaiming a staggering 87% of them have suffered from either physical, sexual or psychological abuse. A lack of education is the root cause of so many other problems, and in Afghanistan a mere 12.6% of women are literate. A study by the Asia Foundation found that Afghan women saw illiteracy and a lack of education as the most pressing problem ahead of lack of women’s rights, lack of employment opportunities and domestic violence.

Despite all the risks, RAWA run hundreds of literacy courses for women and girls across 12 provinces in Afghanistan, thousands of ‘home-based’ schools and 15 fully functioning schools in neighbouring Pakistan. They also run 8 mobile health teams across Afghanistan and have a health clinic which provides free health care to those that can’t afford it.

RAWA also provide income opportunities to as many women as they can through chicken farms, small carpet-weaving, embroidery and knitting workplaces, a bee-fostering project and tailoring units. In addition they help women, mostly widows, to set up their own similar projects by providing them with short-term loans.

In fact, for every problem Afghan women face – and they are a myriad – it seems the RAWA are doing something to address it, working within communities to help them help themselves. All of this and the RAWA receives no funding from any outside agency.

Naturally, such a lack of funding means that the scope of RAWA is limited and their work is but a drop in an ocean of tragedy. Their unwavering anti-fundamentalist opinions, uncompromising political beliefs and secretive methods are a both their greatest strengths and weaknesses. These factors mean RAWA remain marginal, ‘underground and semi-underground’. Nevertheless, it is the bravery, tenacity and complete independence of the RAWA that makes it so astonishing.

The RAWA has its problems and its limitations, like any organisation, but they are a truly inspiring group of individuals who work together for the benefit of their communities without relying on Western intervention; in fact, fighting on in spite of it. So I hope that the RAWA might help us reconfigure our pre-conceived notion of Afghan women as the passive victims of patriarchy, poverty and war.

Image courtesy of RAWA.org

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