Awakened Woman, August 8, 2003

A Fist in the Mouth

Brodsky's With All Our Strength tells the RAWA story
Reviewed by Diane Schulz

In April of this year, the Women's Council of Sonoma County (California) was honored to host Anne Brodsky, author of With All Our Strength, the story of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and Tahmeena Faryal, a spokeswoman for RAWA. We listened to Tahmeena and Anne discuss the harrowing situation of Afghan women, in both Pakistani refugee camps and inside the country of Afghanistan, as well as the challenging work done by RAWA members.

The founder of RAWA, a visionary woman by the name of Meena, who was subsequently assassinated for her activism in 1987, joined together with four of her acquaintances from high school and university to establish RAWA which quickly expanded to include a core group of eleven women. Brodsky quotes Shaima, now a senior member of RAWA, about her memory of the early days. "We were daily witnesses of rape, of domestic violence in families and of oppressions in work and all aspects of life. It was obvious that women always had the inferior role in family, society, everywhere. And we thought that one woman cannot change all of this; there needed to be many women coming together, establishing a group movement to get rid of these inequalities."

A term in Dari, one of the common languages of Afghanistan, mushti dar dahan, or "a fist in the mouth", is particularly apt in describing just how revolutionary these founding members were. Shaima explains that women had to be "a fist in the mouth" not only towards the men in their families, but to society and government, where they had no position of respect or leadership.

Education and consciousness raising, along with a great need for security, were the first steps these women took. "From the beginning we thought we needed ways to continue this struggle because we knew that it would not take 1 or 2 years, but decades or centuries and in order to continue this struggle the first bricks needed to be laid in such a way that when others continued to build it would work." (Shaima) Against a background of ever changing governments, from the overthrow of the king, a brief flirtation with democracy, the takeover of the Soviet Union for ten years and finally the horribly oppressive Taliban regime, the women of RAWA and their male supporters have continued to educate and train women to become leaders.

Brodsky's book lays to rest the persistent rumor, even heard today, that RAWA is a communist organization. She shows how the rumor began because people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly men, simply found it impossible to believe that women could form an independent organization and actually run it. "Since only the communist party organizations even remotely supported women's equality, the logical rumor was that they were the women's wing of one of those parties." (Shaima) Another source of the rumor stems from the fact that Meena was married to the founder of a radical leftist organization, the Afghanistan Liberation Organization (ALO) although they were both so dedicated to their separate causes that they rarely spent any time together and indeed had very different visions of the future of Afghan society. Anne explains, "As in the United States since the 1950's, red-baiting is an effective tool to discredit an organization. The fundamentalists called everyone who opposed them communists, with no regard for the subtleties of Marxist versus Maoist ideology." She goes on to say that RAWA has also been called an organization of lesbians or prostitutes, among other things. Another senior member, Zarlasht, is quoted:

All these labels have been only because we have talked of democracy . . . At the time that we were talking about democracy, democracy was considered equal to infidelity. Today, after September 11 and after the U.S. bombing, we hear a lot about democracy . . . All this makes us laugh. These were the anticipations that RAWA had years ago. Years ago we had warned them that they were mistaken in the generous support they were giving to fundamentalist forces . . . but who heard and who cared? And now unfortunately we saw the result.

Central to RAWA's philosophy and methods is an alternative model of education based on the truly democratic and relatively "flat hierarchy." "Members are not micromanaged when in new positions, but rather allowed to find what they think is the best way to carry out an activity." Because RAWA uses a committee structure for decision making, a great deal of innovation and flexibility is allowed. Activities are carried on in a great many locations, hence the leadership is de-centralized. In Pakistan in 1984, Meena founded the Watan boarding schools for girls and boys. These schools operated for 10 years and many of the younger women of RAWA and their male supporters are graduates of these two schools. Almost all of them had experienced war, personal loss and family trauma as young children, so "students were encouraged to treat each other as sisters and brothers . . . This atmosphere helped students cope . . ." It also created strong bonds that even today are the model of community building that is applied throughout RAWA's activities.

Political consciousness and activities have always been part of RAWA education, because that is the only way for women to have their voices heard. To re-enforce verbal expression, women interview other women and write about their personal experiences in Payam-e Zan, RAWA's quarterly political magazine, printed in Dari and Pashtu, the two official languages of Afghanistan. The magazine has been a very important recruiting tool and is extensively used in study groups as "source material to talk about the social and political situation for Afghans, each using the appropriate content and level of analysis for their group."

Another important message to us women of the West is RAWA's view of men. They are not allowed to join RAWA as members, but their understanding and help are sorely needed, especially in their societies where women are required to have a male companion to move around in the world outside their homes. "There is often a false assumption in the West that feminist necessarily implies separatist," writes Brodsky. As one member, Dunia, puts it: "We are not anti-male. We also can't work without men. Women can't drive in Peshawar (Pakistan); you get looked at, it draws too much attention. It is a problem for members if the rest of their family (especially the men) are against their RAWA work."

Jawid, one of RAWA's male supporters, explains further:

Our help is on a daily basis with many activities but we are not involved in decisions and policy and other major issues . . . We have the right to criticize or suggest our ideas and opinions . . . but our opinions cannot be the determining factor. When they have decisions that they have to make on schools, clinics, classes, policy and other things, we can also share our opinions, but again it isn't the determining factor.

Even today RAWA operates within a terrorist social climate. We as women of the West can hardly grasp the terror that these women live with every moment. When Tahmeena spoke to our Women's Council gathering, she brought home to us this feeling of terror. We were not even allowed to take a photo of her except from the back. We have the freedom to speak and move about freely, whereas RAWA members must be constantly on guard lest the fundamentalists whom they fight against track them down and kill them.

Brodsky's book is both an historical account and a call to action. Please visit the RAWA website at, make a donation and buy a copy of With All Our Strength, which is listed on their website with a link to These courageous women need our support, and in getting to know their stories, we can learn from them how to build a future based on equality for women. They are facing the toughest odds and in overcoming obstacles they have a lot to teach us.

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