The News on Sunday, September 14, 2003

These women have a dream

By Arif Jamal


With All Our Strength
The Revolutionary Association of the Women, Afghanistan
Ann E Brodsky
Published by Routledge, New York
Price: $25

The book under review tells the story of a political party -- or call it a group -- The Revolutionary Association of the Women, Afghanistan. Popularly known as RAWA, the organisation is unique in the whole Muslim world because it is simultaneously fighting for three different causes -- feminism, secularism, and democracy. It presents that side of the Afghan society which the world refuses to see. Though a relatively small group of women, RAWA continues to give hope to all those who fight for the ideals of feminism, secularism, and democracy in the Muslim world.

The story of RAWA is also the story of its founder, Meena, and that of the unfortunate country which gave birth to this unique movement. It is also the social, psychological and anthropological history of the society that has seen one upheaval after the other.

The author of the book, Ann Brodsky, is an assistant professor with the Department of Psychology and Women's Studies Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

She has started the book by tracing the origin of RAWA and describing the early life history of its founder Meena who was born in a middle class family in Kabul. Meena's grandfather served as an adviser to Afghan kings Nadir Shah and King Zahir Shah. Her father, however, renounced royal ties and built his life as an architectural engineer. Meena, it appears, inherited her independence of mind from her father.

Unlike most Afghan women, RAWA's founder grew in a relatively comfortable economic atmosphere. She belonged to the first generation of women in Afghanistan who received education. Her aunt and her contemporaries describe her as a kind, soft-hearted and loving girl.

Meena went to one of the best schools in Kabul, Malalai High School, in the early 1970s. That was the time when the relative calm of King Zahir Shah's long reign was coming to an end and the student activism and protest was at its peak in Kabul. The student movement comprised people of all political hues -- from Marxists to Islamic revivalists.

Women too formed a part of these student protests. They were so politically charged that some 5,000 of them came out in the streets to protest acid attacks on women by Gulbadin Hekmatyar and his men for wearing western dress. The attackers had thrown acid and burnt the exposed legs and faces of women on the streets as well as shot them in the legs. Meena was too young to be politically active at that time but it was this kind of bigotted obscurantism that she was to struggle against till her premature death.

Meena went to university in 1976. RAWA was founded as an independent feminist organisation by a group of five girls, with Meena as their leader. The group was able to expand to include 11 core members during the first year of its existence.

For RAWA, education held the key for the empowerment of Afghan women. Writing about the group's stress on education, Brodsky says: "Meena and RAWA wanted a women's liberation that would arise from the people once they had education and consciousness, not one imposed from above by outside foreign forces. Nonetheless, this solitary appearance of similarity between RAWA and PDPA, with RAWA actively working to change conditions for women in Afghanistan and PDPA espousing this desire, led to false rumours of an association between the two that follow RAWA even today." In reality, RAWA was a rival of the PDPA (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan) regime.

With All Our Strength, click here to order it
With All Our Strength:
The Revolutionary
Association of the
Women of Afghanistan

By Anne E. Brodsky

Everything, however, changed with the Saur coup d'etat in 1978. From then onwards, it was a war between RAWA and the communist government in Kabul. It is a strange coincidence that RAWA and obscurantist mullahs like Hekmatyar came to be pitted against the same government in Kabul. Both the groups also found refuge in Pakistan from where they were to wage their wars, separately. There, however, was a difference between the two wars and their objectives. If Hekmatyar and others wanted to overthrow the communist government to impose an obscurantist political system, RAWA fought for an egalitarian and democratic system.

Meena's real struggle started in Pakistan when she founded first RAWA community in Quetta where 18 women lived and worked together at a handicraft centre. Their families were also living with them with their husbands helping the centre in different ways. The handicraft centre, one of the first RAWA projects in Pakistan, was much needed because the number of war widows was increasing and they urgently needed some source of income to support their families.

RAWA and Meena, however, were mainly concerned with education and this concern was not confined to adult education alone. Because there was no arrangement for the education of refugee children, RAWA therefore opened its first Watan schools in 1984 -- one for boys and the other for girls. The schools were opened with the money raised through the handicraft centre. These boarding schools continued to function for the next 10 years. At their peak, they educated 250 girls and 500 boys every year. Today, RAWA-run schools, hostels and orphanages are present all over Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Brodsky argues that RAWA's vision of and approach towards education form the basis for the presence of word revolutionary in their name. RAWA did not believe in educating women only for the sake of education. It wanted to give women a political, social and cultural consciousness. Education was a means to achieve this.

Another major RAWA project, the Malalai Hospital, came up in the 1980s. It continued providing free medical care, including surgery, to Afghan refugee women and children from 1986 to 1996 when the international assistance dried up. This hospital had a staff of four doctors, eight nurses and 14 paramedics.

The standard of education and healthcare the RAW provided to the refugees was certainly not ideal but it was certainly better than what a third world state would provided to its citizens. The standard of RAWA-run schools is far superior to that of public sector schools in this part of the world.

RAWA faced a crisis when Meena was murdered in mysterious circumstances in 1987 by two men who had links with KhAD and Hekmatyar. This put the group in turmoil and at that time it seemed that it might not survive. However, it did survive because of the dedication and hard work of its cadres. Not only that, it grew in strength and numbers more rapidly than before after the death of Meena. The sapling Meena had sown soon became a tree.

In 26 years of its existence, RAWA has survived against many odds. All these years it has been fighting against all kinds of obscurantism both in Afghanistan and among Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This has not ended even with the fall of Taliban regime. In fact, it has taken a new turn and RAWA's struggle for feminism, secularism and democracy continues unabated.

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