Rawa Seal

RAWA, The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has been struggling against Islamist fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan for more than two decades with little notice from the rest of the world. Founding leader Meena established the groundwork in the late seventies during the Resistance War against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Her fight for democracy and women’s rights led to clandestine home-based schools for girls and women, a hospital and mobile medical units, orphanages, a women’s handicraft project and a bilingual magazine for women in Afghanistan and Afghani refugees in Pakistan. In 1987, the Afghan branch of the KGB assassinated Meena, who had agitated against the Russian occupation during the Resistance War.

Since her death, the situation for women in Afghanistan has declined to abysmal. Lack of funds and the turbulent political climate threatens several of RAWA’s desperately needed projects, including a covert campaign in which under the cover of their burqa, a head-to-toe veil that covers even their eyes, they document Taliban atrocities with photographs and video tape.

We spoke with RAWA spokeswoman Marina Matin — a Kabul native who now works in the organizantion’s headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan — about the RAWA’s gutsy, decades-long resistance effort and its present struggles amidst the crossfire.

Divas: How did you become involved with RAWA?

Marina: My mother is a member of RAWA. She was working and she is still working…so this is how I got involved in RAWA’s activities. I used to be a RAWA school student, so that also of course strengthened this ready relation.

Divas: What is the current situation in Islamabad?

Marina: Well, the situation in Islamabad is…calm. For today, at least, today it was not that much. But yesterday, which was a holiday — Friday — for Muslims there was strife and demonstrations which is happening everyday… But the political situation is of course very, very critical here, especially in Peshawar and in Quetta. But in Islamabad the restrictions are very much [and fundamentalist forces] are controlling it.

Anyway, the fundamentalist forces are just trying to — because practically they are losers — so they are just trying to keep their morals high. And, on the other hand, as far as these demonstrations are concerned here, they are arranged by two fundamentalist Pakistani parties who are normally enemies for each other, but now they get together and shout and give slogans for Osama, because in fact it’s not Osama who is being supported, the money he has is what is supported.

So…well, this is the situation, like here the institutions are closed… But in Islamabad, life is going on of course, with the critical aspect, especially in politics.

Divas: Your English is very good. Did you learn English in the RAWA school?

Marina: I studied in RAWA school till ninth grade and then I worked in RAWA publication office for two years for the Urdu magazine. And then I joined Pakistani school and I’ve been studying for the past four years in Pakistani school in college. But the main thing is that I am in contact — regularly I’ve been reading magazines and newspapers, daily English — and I’ve been in contact with journalists so this gives me an opportunity to strengthen my conversation.

Divas: How do women become RAWA members? Do you recruit members or do women request to join?

Marina: It’s different… For example there is a RAWA member who is a nurse now. She joined our literacy courses around ten years back. She studied in the literacy course and then she was upgraded to the political course and then she joined one of our nursing courses in Quetta. And now she is a nurse inside Afghanistan working and she is an active RAWA member. There was another lady, a widow…she started studying in our political course and now she is a RAWA member and she is a teacher at one of the schools of RAWA.

So at times we, of course, get people who approach us and they ask for membership, but of course we have our own conditions for that and late— for the last two or three years we stopped issuing membership cards to people because the number was getting too much — we have more than two thousand members — and it’s a bit difficult because the situation is very critical and you need to be very, very careful as far as the members and membership card is a concern, because when you give membership card that means that that very person has all rights to represent you in any…anywhere at any time. So that is a big responsibility you give to someone and it is a big, sometimes, risk.

So to be able to take the security measurement in RAWA, we stopped giving membership cards. But we have very, a lot of thousands of, you could say, active supporters who are working with us, who are like…they’re teachers, they’re doctors, they’re lawyers who are not working officially, but they used to be lawyers, and they are actively supporting us in our activities.

Divas: Can RAWA depend on most women in Afghanistan being sympathetic to or supportive of its cause? Are women free to be open about their activism around other women, or do they need to conceal their involvement with RAWA from women who might oppose what RAWA is doing?

Marina: Well, of course, you… it’s not a question of concealing it from other women or men. It’s a question of taking care of the principals, the security principals, and rules of RAWA. Because RAWA is a wanted organization in Afghanistan and RAWA is — they’re the, I should say unfortunately — the only organization who has never been compromising with Taliban or Jehadis and Northern Alliance. So of course they will consider us as their foremost enemy in the country.

Working with RAWA, being active in RAWA activities, at least supporting RAWA, is a risk for each and every family. So of course when you’re working with RAWA you have to be very careful as far as telling the people around you about your identification. As far as identification is concerned you have to be very careful for that. Because you should not reveal your identity, of course. But on the other hand this principle should not stop you from widening the scope of your work among the masses.

Divas: Who is in RAWA? How old are the women and what are their backgrounds?

Marina: We have all ages. We have ‘above 50’ members, we have in forties, we have in thirties, we have in twenties, we have lots and lots of young girls. We hope that this is a positive plus-point about RAWA because in movements you usually find aged people, but there is no young participation. But we have, because there have been many students…RAWA used to have three schools in Quetta…that was a very good place where students used to come and they used to get an education and at least, if not members, they were going to be active supporters for RAWA.

So we have all ages, yes. But there are many… We have some orphanages in different parts of Pakistan where orphans are educated, being given education, and of course out of those orphans…of course there will be another generation of young RAWA members who are studying there.

Divas: How has the global spotlight focused on Afghanistan since September 11th helped or hindered RAWA’s mission?

Marina: Well, for us, one thing that I would make clear before giving the positive and negative aspects, which have been after 11th September — that is right that every organization who is working needs publicity. To be known, to get funds, to be able to reach people, for that you need publicity. But we…our main goal is not to get publicity, but is to get people to know, at least, what is happening. It’s not a question of making RAWA known, or making any member of RAWA known, making her a famous personality. It’s a question of raising the issue of Afghanistan by any means.

But on the other hand, after 11th of September, the situation…the way it’s going to turn…that of course is going, unfortunately against…on one hand it’s going in favor of us because the Taliban are being destroyed, but on the other hand it’s going against us, against our people, because the people are the sacrifice of this anti-terrorism war. And on the other hand the Northern Alliance is going to get support from US and US alliance… So this is a negative. We have been always trying to make the world realize that they are going to make another mistake. So it has both positive and negative aspects.

Divas: Part of RAWA’s mission has been to film and document the brutality against women under the Taliban and Jehadi regimes. How is it decided who will get access to cameras and what they will photograph?

Marina: Yes, as far as those cameras are concerned, we are not in a position to buy such cameras, of course. One of our members was invited on Oprah Winfrey show and there Oprah talked about RAWA and asked the people that RAWA is… and told them, gave them information, and told them that RAWA is the only organization who is trying to document the atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance and Taliban in Afghanistan. So they need professional cameras, they need professional instruments for that.

After that we received lots and lots of cameras for video and photography, but out of them most of them were out of order, they were not working, but still that was showing of support of sympathy of people for us. After that, out of them…some of them were working and many of other supporters sent us professional cameras, which we use for our work. But those are not sufficient, on one hand, but on the other there are members who work doing this. Yet, of course, a supporter cannot do this, this is a big risk for a supporter, at least this is a big responsibility for a supporter and this is a big sacrifice for a supporter.

Members…our members do it and of course, those people are not professionals they don’t know how to professionally make films, they just try to film the thing. So of course it’s risky. For example, the execution of some [women, filmed] by one of our members sitting inside the stadium. And Taliban were just on the steps, not far from her. It’s risky, but when you think of a goal in front of you, and when you think that this documentary which I am going to make, how much worth does it have? How much we need these kind of things… Because people around the world, they don’t depend on what you say or what you write for them; they need to see something. And for that you need to give them documents. So the price of this work is very much, and for that you have good…and sacrifice.

Divas: Can you address how technology, specifically the internet, has enabled RAWA to disseminate information and educate a worldwide audience about the situation for women in Afghanistan? How does RAWA maintain its website, and is it possible for women in Afghanistan to gain access to the internet?

Marina: Internet has been very, very, very helpful, very helpful as far as publicity is concerned, as far as funding from individuals, from organizations are concerned…helpful as far as the market for our products are concerned. The thing…in Afghanistan it’s really difficult to get access to internet, it’s really difficult. Because the phones — the telephone communication system — is very poor there…on one hand. And on the other hand the computer is another tv-type thing, which might go against Taliban… You never know what is going to happen.

So, this is a problem, of course… Our main office is in Quetta and we got able to use [the internet] in 1997. End of 1997 we started using that and that was really, really, really much helpful because there’s a wide, big, big majority which is using it. And…it was after the internet when we, in fact…our world came to know about RAWA very much and the trips started. And now our members are being invited to different countries and that’s a good opportunity for us to give awareness to people there, educate them about the situation here. And it was after the internet when the fame was given to RAWA and its work, and its goal, and its activities — [it] has brought lots and lots of people who try to help us financially.

Divas: Under fundamentalist rule are women’s beliefs more extreme in terms of freedoms for women? Do you think women become more proactive and more involved in activism because of the situation that they’re faced with?

Marina: Well, you are correct from one hand because, of course, your activity always…your reaction always depends on action. A reaction is always coming out of an action. That is true, but on the other hand the restrictions are so much, the limitations are so much, that even if you wished to do that inside Afghanistan you cannot do it in such a way. …Because we believe in reality, specifically concerning our women… We believe that you should never be too much backward from what reality is and be too much forward from what reality is…to try to conflict with the situation, and the cultural, and social, and economic aspects.

Divas: RAWA describes its beliefs as anti-fundamentalist and pro-democracy. What are the religious beliefs of your members, are most Muslims?

Marina: Yes, you can say all of our members are Muslim, because Afghanistan is a Muslim country. The majority is Muslim… I personally am Muslim, my mother is Muslim. But we believe in secularism as far as religion is concerned. We believe that religion is very personal. It’s your personal relation with God, so it’s an individual matter and no one else has a right to force you for anything.

And on the other hand, Islam also says if you are Muslim and you want someone else to practice Islam the way you are doing it’s just your duty to tell her what is right and what is wrong and it’s totally up to her or him whatever he or she is going to do. …We never consider religion as one of the merits for anything. It’s something too personal, and it’s something which should be kept aside. It is there, but it should not affect your participation in any work directly.

Divas: Does RAWA believe in complete freedoms for women—political, religious, social, sexual? Do you advocate all of these things or is there a morality that dictates what you will fight for?

Marina: Of course, of course. We are Muslims and we belong to Afghanistan and Afghanistan is a culturally, socially, economically backwards country. Our people, always, whatever we are doing, whatever our policies are, we try to, as I told you, not to be too much at this extreme or not to be that much at that extreme. We always try to respect and take care of the tradition and religious aspects of our life, our people’s life, but, of course, considering the negative aspects and trying to eradicate them.

So…we believe in freedom. We believe in all kinds of freedom for women. But the morality side is there, of course. So what our procedure of work is that we try to get the opportunity, the freedom, the liberty… But of course, by then the women, who are educated, who know, they should know how to use that freedom…which are the right ways to use that freedom. So that is why we educate women first: to tell them ‘what are our traditions?’ To go with them ‘what are the positive and negative aspects? Which are to be fought, eradicated and which are to be encouraged very much?’ They need to know this. This is a positive point about our religion. We never — it’s a joke among us — we never…we try not to make our sexual relations like an Indian film…this is a positive aspect we believe in.

Divas: Is fear a palpable emotion among women in Afghanistan, or has it just become a normal part of life?

Marina: I should say that the situation for women in Afghanistan who are living inside — and even living outside it in refugee camps — they are constantly living in an uncertain situation and the concern is always there… I won’t call it fear…there’s a concern, which is always with you. There’s a tension, which is always with you and never leaves you alone. So, you can simply not separate the times when you are afraid, when you get scared, and the times when you are calm. Because the concern and the tension is always there, that is one point.

The next thing is that…that’s personally related to me, and I think and I am able to represent some of my colleagues too… I was born in ’81 and Afghanistan was invaded in ’79. So as far as I remember, I remember war, fighting, bloodshed, people killed, looted, girls raped, mothers raped…homosexually used… So I’ve heard that… Because whenever I go to a journalist to a family, the family tells the story and the journalist starts crying. But nothing happens to me. Because I’ve got used to it and I’ve been hearing so much, I mean, watching so much and listening to so much, this kind of stories. So that delicacy — I’ve been asked this question by many journalists: “Have you got fear? Well what is your feelings? Express your feelings?” — unfortunately, personally, myself, I’ve lost that delicacy in feelings to express this, because this is always with me. This…you could say this has changed a part of my life.

But, on the other hand, while saying this, I would like to add that that does not mean if I have this thing always with me, I have got used to it, so it’s something good. Like I have got used to it so it’s fine with me, of course not. Because there are thousands of mental disorder cases in Afghanistan. And there are especially women, especially young girls that weren’t educated women. Because they had to suffer so much. So that affected them very much.

Divas: Is there anything good, anything joyful that helps you get through the most difficult times? And what does RAWA do to help prevent women from turning to suicide, which we know is common?

Marina: Well, unfortunately, we haven’t got access to all those women and young girls who commit suicide or who are mentally disturbed, who are psychologically disturbed. Unfortunately we are not having access to all of them, before suicide, and after that. But as far as what we do to keep them out of that… The majority of our members, you could say more than 50 percent of them inside Afghanistan, and they are still staying there. No one of our members came from Afghanistan during the, after the last so many days because we thought that it’s a critical situation now, and if now you’re leaving people alone then it means you will never get their support. You will never…they will never trust you again, because…there’s a saying ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed.’ So when they need you…this is the time that they need moral support. …Because the majority of people who are inside Afghanistan are those people who cannot get out because they haven’t got money, because they are not, they cannot afford it, simply. So they have to stay, and they try to convince themselves so that they need moral support. This is one very important part of our work that our members in Afghanistan are doing now.

As far as the people in Pakistan are concerned, well, we have suffering so much the joy is simply not there. But, of course, we have our traditional functions, the marriages… We celebrate the 8th of March, for example. We celebrate so many other days…which we celebrate our own traditional days, and those, of course, will certainly celebrate the first day of our year which is banned by Taliban. And this is of course…whatever we do…has the political aspects in it. The first year tradition is…we celebrate it and we celebrate it with high emotion just because to resist Taliban’s rule. We celebrated recently 19th August as the Indepence Day of Afghanistan from British rule. And we had a grand, grand musical night in Pershawar… And people were dancing and laughing and cheering and clapping, and of course this is something that gives you joy, on one hand. And on the other hand this is a resistance against Taliban. You’re listening to music, you’re dancing, at three o’clock at night, and this is the resistance part of our struggle.

Divas: Do you have an example of a woman who is a diva?

Marina: Of course I would not consider anyone else than Meena, our leader. She was a complete, by any means, by all aspects…she was a politician, by all means. She was a struggler for women’s rights, by all means. She was a freedom-fighter. She was a mother, by all means.

The day she gave birth, first daughter, just after literally 15 or 10 minutes of the delivery she had to leave hospital for her work. And she simply didn’t care about the baby, about herself, and she rushed for the work. And this is, of course, in a country like Afghanistan… Because Meena was belonging to middle, upper-middle class of Kabul and she had all the opportunities in her hand and she was…going well. There was no, anything so hard for her to suffer and then come to this decision that we need to fight, we need to struggle. But she had that much strong of the wish, and sense of understanding the miseries of women… I won’t work for anyone else rather than Meena.

Divas: Is there anything that we can do to help?

Marina: Well, we appreciate all kinds of moral or economic support. If you can’t do anything else, you can educate one person, at least one person in your country about the situation and that’s a lot.

Divas: Is there any possibility that, amidst bombing, aid sent by the US will get to the people it is supposed to help? Has RAWA gotten any access to aid since September 11th — officially or unofficially?

Marina: No, not officially, not even unofficially. But, as far as the dropping of food is concerned, this kind of aid giving, this has been happening before. We appreciate this project, but one thing I would like to say dropping food and dropping rockets at the same time…what does it mean, simply? And on the other hand, there has always, each and every time there has been thousands of cases where the money, the aid is not given to the right people. The corruption is there, always. So, no one knows what is happening, the way they are like pouring it from the aircraft. And I hope that it will get to people, but again, rockets and food at the same time? What does it mean…I don’t know.

Divas: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would like to address?

Marina: The main thing which is needed for the present situation…after the attack we were trying to make the world, your government realize that to attack is not the correct [response to] the attacks. And after that, we would love the people of the United States to realize that Afghani nation has sympathy for what happened in US and we are really very, very sorry for that because human life is always a special thing. But on the other hand, just remember one thing…that it was just one accident in New York and Washington and you can see how people got offended, how they got hurt. We are suffering this for the last almost three decades and there was no Mr. Bush…

This was US who supported the Northern Alliance during the resistance war against Russians. This was US who have been supporting fundamentalist forces like Taliban in our country. So I personally, and I on behalf of RAWA, would think of US as one of the responsible countries for what is happening in our country. Which country should we attack for what is happening to us? And on the other hand, the way now that the situation is going to turn…the US is going to make the same mistake again supporting Northern Alliance. We experienced them from 1992 to 1996 and what happened? Everyone knows what happened by them. In fact…I think the Northern Alliance is the most responsible of the situation because they started the misery in 1992. They were the first ones to do this. They betrayed our nation during the resistance war and after that.

So please don’t support Northern Alliance because there is no difference between Taliban and Northern Alliance. They are both terrorist, fundamentalist…they are both anti-women, and they are both dependent on foreign powers without any self-conscience in them. There is just one simple, so-called difference between them and that is that Northern Alliance — they are Taliban without beards and with ties. There is simply no other difference with them. Just try to realize this and just try to make your government understand it.

Destinations: Afghanistan

Spotlight: RAWA

"Dropping food and dropping rockets at the same time… what does it mean, simply?"

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