The Women's Review of Books, February 2004

Afghan heroines
By Bettina Aptheker

Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan: The Martyr Who Founded RAWA, The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan by Melody Ermachild Chavis. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003, 208 pp., $19.95 hardcover.

MELODY ERMACHILD CHAVIS, accompanied by Latifa Popal, traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to interview everyone she could find who had known Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Meena's surname is never used. She is simply and always Meena. Through these interviews and other research, Chavis reconstructs Meena's life, while also providing a brief history of Afghanistan and the region. She provides a useful map of the area, and photographs of Meena. Acknowledgments at the end of the book detail her investigatory process and the names of the many people whom she interviewed.

Chavis, who lives in Northern California, makes her living as a licensed private investigator, handling death penalty cases. She is a highly trained investigator and an expert at interviewing witnesses. She had the fullest possible cooperation from RAWA, which wholeheartedly supported her project. Chavis is donating her proceeds from the sale of the book to RAWA.

Latifa Popal, who accompanied Chavis on her travels and served as her guide and translator, was born and raised in Kabul. When she was 17 years old, she and her family fled. They left Afghanistan in the winter of 1986, traversing the mountains of Tora Bora by foot to a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan, as literally millions of Afghans had done before them. Popal worked in the refugee camps teaching children to read. Eventually she and her family left Pakistan and took up residency in a number of European countries before settling in the United States.

Chavis writes in a simple, direct way, in keeping with RAWA's mission to educate women and girls; the writing is completely accessible to anyone with, say, a high school education. Sometimes she creates dialogue or imagines scenes, as when the book opens with Meena's near-death in childhood from typhoid fever. The story is so filled with horror and suffering that any other approach would have rendered it unbelievable, or worse, melodramatic. It is the power of the story itself that sustains the book's momentum.

Born in Kabul in 1957 into a comfortably middle-class family--her father, Latif, an architect, her mother, Hanifa, his second wife--Meena was one of ten children, with pleasures and privileges unknown to the vast majority of Afghan women. She was privileged, too, as part of the Pashtun ethnic majority, since many other ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks and the Hazara, faced severe discrimination. Her father was a progressive man and encouraged her studies at Malalai Girls High School in Kabul, where she excelled. From her history teacher, Madame Nooria, she learned about revolutionary Muslim women such as Jamila Bopasha, a leader of the Algerian resistance to French colonialism, and Ashraf Dihquany, an Iranian who led an underground resistance to the Shah. Thus, Meena was endowed with a radical, feminist legacy; and, likewise, she was carefully instructucted in the Koran.

By the late 1950s, first under the government of Prince Mohammed Daoud, and then under King Zahir, women had begun to enjoy a growing freedom of movement, education, professional training, and employment. The first national elections in Afghan history were held in 1965, with both men and women allowed to vote. Kabul was a city of about 350,000 people, with wide boulevards, shops, cafes, gardens, museums, and a growing intelligentsia. And yet, there was a vast difference between the population of urban centers like Kabul, Kandahar, and Bamiyan and the overwhelming majority of Afghans, who were peasants farming wheat and rice or nomads herding sheep, camels, and goats, living in poverty, eking out an existence in mountainous, unforgiving terrain. Traditional practices left most children, especially girls, uneducated; health care almost nonexistent; polygamy standard; and women segregated from men and heavily veiled if they left their homes. Ninety percent of the women and 63 percent of the men were illiterate.

In 1973, with the overthrow of the king, who had, in fact, been elected and was in the process of developing a constitution for the first time in Afghan history, Prince Daoud returned to power, declared himself president, and invited an increasing Soviet presence including technicians, teachers, doctors, engineers, and military advisers.

Meena entered Kabul University in 1976, at the age of 19, determined to study law, because she thought it would enable her to make the greatest contribution to the liberation of Afghan women. However, as she began her studies, Afghanistan was descending into political chaos. In April 1978, Daoud was assassinated. Two additional presidential assassinations took place before Hazifullah Amin took over government. The number of Soviet military advisers increased. As the Afghan government teetered, divided, and realigned itself, thousands of intellectuals were "disappeared"--arrested, tortured, and executed. Into this maelstrom, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, likewise factioned, grew and began its own reign of terror. Among the most notorious of the fundamentalist leaders was Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, whose band of fanatics, in an attempt to drive women from the university, threw acid on the legs and faces of female students.

MEANWHILE, STUDENTS AT KABUL UNIVERSITY and in high schools began organizing a pro-democracy movement. Meena decided to give up her legal studies, which had begun to seem absurd in the context of a lawless society and instead, to launch RAWA. Working with great caution and secrecy, she met individually with women, developing personal ties before presenting her idea for founding a revolutionary organization. RAWA's official founding principles were: (1) The restoration of democracy in Afghanistan, with free elections, and voting rights for both men and women. (Likewise, RAWA used a democratic process within its own organization. Every woman fully participated, and issues were discussed until consensus was reached.) (2) Equality and social justice for women, including access to education, health care, legal rights, freedom from poverty and violence, including domestic and sexual violence. (3) Religious observance up to each individual to decide. (4) Separation of religious institutions and government. (5) Women of every ethnicity welcomed.

Meena felt that having women in charge of their own organization working for equality and liberation was by its very nature revolutionary. Her politics were neither left nor right, neither Communist nor fundamentalist. She stepped outside the parameters of debate established by Afghan men and insisted upon a feminism that grew out of women's everyday lives, everyday needs, and everyday survival. She believed that rooted in these principles, democracy could flourish.

Shortly before founding RAWA, Meena had married a physician, Faiz Ahmed, who was leader of the Afghan Liberation Organization, an independent, pro-democracy, Marxist group. Important to Meena were Ahmed's affirmation of women's liberation and his commitment to her education and her right to hold independent political views. Meena and Ahmed's first baby was born in 1979 under the most dire circumstances, as Meena was being hunted by the secret police. She named her baby girl Anosha, which in the Farsi language means "immortal." Four months after Anosha's birth, 50,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, and Meena fled to Pakistan to continue organizing. Ahmed had already been forced to flee, and they saw each other only sporadically as Meena traveled between Peshawar, where Ahmed was located, and Quetta, where she worked.

Meena set up RAWA's base of operations in Quetta and later in Peshawar. RAWA established schools for both girls and boys within the refugee camps, a sewing cooperative to help women earn money, safe homes, and what medical care they could. Meena and others traveled by foot or by bus between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass, one of the most dangerous of mountain passages, bringing medical supplies into Afghanistan, holding literacy classes, and smuggling weapons and cameras under their burqas to aid the resistance and photograph atrocities. Trusted men, allies to RAWA, escorted the women when it was necessary to conform to fundamentalist edicts. Ultimately, RAWA established Malalai Hospital in Pakistan to treat victims of landmines.

In October 1981, Meena traveled to France at the invitation of the French government, under the socialist leadership of Prime Minister Francois Mitterand, to attend the International Socialist Conference in Valence. She gave a speech to delegates from 250 nations in which she described the Soviet invasion of her country despite pressures from an international movement more comfortable with condemnations of Western imperialism.

Meena gave birth to twins in May 1985 in the relative safety of Pakistan, although she agonized over her decision to have more children. The women of RAWA helped her to care for her babies, as they had cared for countless others, many of whom were orphaned. Tragedy struck hard a year and a half later when word reached Meena that Ahmed had been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. His killer was Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, the same man who had thrown acid at the women students in Kabul a decade earlier. Three months later, on February 4, 1987, Meena herself was betrayed by a trusted friend who had served as her English and Russian translator. Her body was never recovered. Hekmatyar was believed responsible for her assassination as well.

In the aftermath of Meena's death, the RAWA women feared capture, but realized after several weeks that whatever torture Meena had endured, she had remained silent. Meena's selfless devotion and love made it possible for them to carry on. Her strength had transcended even death. In collaborating with Melody Chavis to write Meena's biography, RAWA wished to keep the memory of her work and vision alive to inspire future generations of women in Afghanistan and in the world.

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