The March edition of Peace and Justice News puts the spotlight on Women and Violence. After the mass protests of One Billion Rising on International Women’s Day last month it became clear that so much needs to be said on this topic.
Therefore our features this month all approach the topic from different perspectives. Varsha Gyawali and William Duncan both remind us that the cost of conflict falls disproportionately upon women. However, Varsha points out that women must also be recognised as combatants in some conflicts, and that women also have a hugely significant role to play in peacemaking, since for many women peace means much more than simply the absence of armed conflict. On the other hand William describes for us the particular wrongs committed against women both during wartime and afterwards. It is therefore appropriate that our final feature is from Anne Scott, secretary of Scottish WILPF who writes about why it is so important that the Arms Trade Treaty includes references to the specific violence faced by women and girls in conflict.
This month our Unsung Heroes feature looks at those who work to help women who have been victims of violence a little closer to home- Nicola Chuhan looks at Edinburgh Women’s Aid. Our reflection too looks at violence which is too often overlooked, and even excused in our culture, Helen Harris considers the media coverage of the Steubenville rape case.
And of course we have Centre News, News from around the movements, and, this month, two reviews looking at the activism of two extraordinary people.
Read more here: http://peaceandjustice.org.uk/newsletter/peace-and-justice-news-april-issue-women-and-violence/
This month’s edition of Edinburgh based Peace News draws our attention back to Afghanistan. Nearly twelve years after the invasion of that country by coalition forces, the plight of the Afghan people has largely dropped off the radar. Thus in this edition we are privileged to present to you two which present a rather different perspective. Firstly, Kathy Kelly writes about the Kabul Women’s Duvet Cooperative, which was established by the Afghan Peace Volunteers, supported by Voices for Creative Non-violence. We also feature an article by Maya Evans, who will be familiar to many of our readers. Maya writes about meeting the families of victims of suicide bombings in Kabul.
In a slightly different vein, we also have an article which considers to the recently leaked US Department of Justice memo on the legality of the use of drones for the targeted killing of American citizens.
This month we are also pleased to welcome to of writing team William Duncan, currently studying at Oxford, who provides for us a measured editorial on the knock-on consequences of intervention, with a spotlight on Mali.
Of course we also have our usual features, Centre News and News from Around the Movements, as well as Unsung Heroes, which this month features the founder of Voices of Creative Non-violence, Kathy Kelly, by Heather Tait. And our reflection this month compares the anti-Militarism of Martin Luther King with the increasing militarism of Barack Obama- despite his recent positive move towards greater gun control.
As always, if any of our readers wish to contribute to Peace News, on any topic, their contributions will be gratefully received. In the light of the recent ‘One Billion Rising’ event, the theme of the next edition is Women: how they are disproportionately affected by war, and their rights more likely to be violated.
Read the full edition here: http://peaceandjustice.org.uk/newsletter/peace-and-justice-news-afghanistan-issue/
NATO’s attempts to master the dark arts of spin cannot be allowed to conceal the brazen opportunism of the alliance
Back in 2002, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy brilliantly satirised the official excuses for the invasion of Afghanistan . “It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas,” she said. “We are being asked to believe that the US marines are actually on a feminist mission.”
The effort to rebrand militarism as compassionate and motherly continues today in NATO’s Brussels headquarters. Stefanie Babst, a senior official in the alliance working on “public diplomacy” (a synonym for propaganda), keeps busy trying to raise the profile of a decade-old United Nations Security Council Resolution on gender, peace and security. It is “extremely encouraging” that NATO is committed to this resolution – number 1325 in case you were wondering – and its call that women and children be shielded from violence during armed conflicts, Babst has declared.
Can it really be the case that NATO is sparing women from the horrors of the war it is waging in Afghanistan? Of course, it can’t.UN data published in December stated that 742 civilians were killed or wounded by NATO or by Afghan forces loyal to Hamid Karzai’s government in the first ten months of last year. Most of these casualties – including 162 deaths – were attributed to air strikes, a NATO speciality.
Documents made public through the heroic work of WikiLeaks have helped give us a glimpse of what Afghans have to endure. On 16 August 2007 Polish troops mortared a wedding party in a village called Nangar Khel. Four women and one man were killed. A pregnant woman in attendance was among those wounded by shrapnel. Though an emergency caesarean was performed, her baby died.
NATO’s attempts to master the dark arts of spin cannot be allowed to conceal the brazen opportunism of the alliance. When the Soviet Union started to collapse, there was much nervousness among NATO staff that their beloved institution would go out of business. After a lengthy period of scrambling around for reasons why the alliance was still relevant now that the Cold War was supposed to be over, it was given a new lease of life with the implosion of Yugoslavia. In 1999, NATO celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by raining down cluster bombs – weapons so dangerous that over 100 governments have subsequently agreed to ban them – on Serbia. No soldier, general or political leader serving the alliance has ever been held to account for that monstrous war crime.
Afghanistan has helped ensure that NATO will remain alive and kicking for the foreseeable future. In August 2003, NATO took charge of the US-led “stabilisation force” occupying Afghanistan. Karl Eikenberry, now US ambassador to Afghanistan and a former deputy commander of NATO’s 28-nation military committee, stated in 2007 that “the policy of turning Afghanistan over to NATO was really about the future of NATO rather than about Afghanistan, one that could ‘make’ the alliance. The long view of the Afghanistan campaign is that it is a means to continue the transformation of the alliance.”
Transforming NATO “means in the first place expanding it into a global military force, one able to wage wars like that in Afghanistan and others modeled after it,” Rick Rozoff has observed on his excellent “Stop NATO” blog.
In his New Year’s message, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary general, rejoiced in how there are now nearly 140,000 NATO soldiers deployed around the world: in the Balkans, Iraq, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean (off the Horn of Africa), as well as in Afghanistan. Rasmussen would like us to think that all these men and women are working tirelessly to bring peace and stability to trouble spots. But closer inspection of NATO’s track record shows that their primary purpose is to ensure that the US and Europe will have access to energy supplies and other resources that our myopic governments regard as essential for our economies.
NATO’s activities in Africa, for example, have received only a fraction of the media coverage given to Iraq or Afghanistan. But the bit of information that we have available to us is illuminating. James Jones, who stepped down in October as the US national security adviser, paid a considerable amount of attention to Africa when he was a high-level NATO commander a few years previously. In 2006, Jones signalled that NATO was thinking about using the fight against piracy as a pretext to launch a mission off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea.
The aim of this mission would be to avert any perceived threats to the energy supply routes for Western nations, he said. It is about time that journalists grew more sceptical than we have been towards the whole industry of think tanks and self-appointed experts in Brussels and Washington who praise NATO at every available opportunity. For many years, I was naive enough to believe that an influential outfit called the International Crisis Group (ICG) was a credible source of information and ideas on conflict resolution. My illusions have been shattered by an article from its president Louise Arbour last month, in which she argued that greater resources should be allocated to NATO’s war efforts in Afghanistan. Arbour used to be the UN’s high commissioner for human rights but did not direct one word against how NATO’s bombs routinely rob Afghans of that most basic of rights: the right to life. Shame on her.
Read more: http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2011/01/17/fake-feminism-nato-style.html#ixzz1CuuH933x
At present, the female literacy rate stands at 13 percent, one of the lowest in the world, with only 5 percent of them making it to secondary school
Although a number of laws have been put in place to improve the lives of Afghan women, there are still significant obstacles to overcome; the road to independence appears to be a long and challenging one.
Many women are turning to suicide in order to escape the violence they face. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where suicide rates of women outnumber those of men.
According to UNIFEM, Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous and restrictive places to be a woman and an estimated 87 percent of women are victims of domestic violence.
“If this is indeed true, it is due to the 30 years of war that has instilled and molded violence in the lives of the people in Afghanistan,” Shakila Hamidi, program manager at Women for Afghan Women, told MediaGlobal. Women are especially vulnerable in areas of armed conflict.
The most common forms of abuse include forced and child marriages, physical and sexual abuse, honor killings, and badd, the tradition of giving away girls to settle disputes. According to UK-based charity, Womankind, between 60 and 80 percent of Afghan marriages are forced, with more than half of all girls married before age 16.
Furthermore, women are subjected to repression, isolation, and enforced ignorance.
At present, the female literacy rate stands at 13 percent, one of the lowest in the world, with only 5 percent of them making it to secondary school.
Christine Ouellette, country director for UN Women listed a number of reasons for violence such as illiteracy, weak rule of law, limited access to justice, harmful traditions, and poverty. “Since 2001, the life of women has changed, but Afghan women are still experiencing violence and it takes time to change,” she said.
Circumstances for women vary depending on their tribe, province, and family, but overall, Hamidi says that the majority of women have no power over their decisions.
“There are very educated women who serve in the parliament, host television shows, teach at schools, and run their own businesses,” Hamidi notes, but she is quick to point out that they make up a tiny percentage of Afghan women.
“Many women have only known the power of man, living in their nuclear family where the father was supreme and when entering a marriage the husband had the upper hand,” said Hamidi. “A woman who cannot choose what happens in her life and who also has limited freedom is a recipe for disaster. When looking at the bigger picture, the lack of women’s rights leads to the instability of a country as a whole.”
Hamidi is convinced that education is critical for improving the circumstances for women in Afghanistan. First, she looks at the women themselves, “Through education, women are being taught how to take the right steps in ensuring freedom and working towards reaching positive goals,” she said. Then she criticized Afghan men for their role. “An educated man knows very well that if he works with his wife and educates her well, stability in their lives is promised.”
“If you educate a woman, you are educating her family, her village, her province, and eventually, her country,” Hamidi promoted.
While the abuse women are facing may not be as easy to quantify as physical war injuries, the impact it leaves behind seems to be just as tragic.
Although issues of surveillance, control, and violence are present within the entire nation, these are particularly acute for Afghanistan’s women. Exposing women to violence and stifling their education and development hinders the growth of the country. Progress is slow when half the citizens are left behind.
Read more: http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2011/01/27/abuse-stifles-the-potential-of-afghan-women.html#ixzz1CutmMfBa
From October 2009 to September last year, 3,970 Armed Forces staff were diagnosed with a mental disorder
Worrying new figures have revealed 10 a day are now being treated for psychological problems as a result of the bitter fight with the Taliban.
The daily threat of roadside bombs, fierce gun battles and seeing comrades killed or horrifically maimed in the blood and dust of Afghanistan has led to a steep increase in the number of personnel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
But experts claim many troops hit by mental illness do not present with any symptoms until many years after the incidents that triggered the problems.
A report for the Government by former navy doctor and Tory MP Andrew Murrison calls for serving personnel to be screened for signs of psychiatric disorders in a bid to prevent chronic illness later.
MoD figures show the number of troops with mental health issues was last year up 28% on the year before while those with PTSD had risen by a shocking 72%. Military charity SSAFA Forces Help said: “It is not surprising the intense nature of current and recent operations is resulting in an increase in mental health issues amongst those who have deployed.
“SSAFA Forces Help welcomes the fact there are now far more comprehensive and robust mechanisms in place to detect these problems at an early stage.
“However, we should also be concerned that many veterans do not present with psychological injuries until many years after serving.”
Another charity, Combat Stress – which last year launched an appeal to raise £30million to address the issue – told of the “ever increasing caseload” of troops with mental problems. Spokesman Robert Marsh said: “The report underlines the importance of investing in high quality mental health services for veterans as well as serving personnel.”
From October 2009 to September last year, 3,970 Armed Forces staff were diagnosed with a mental disorder.
Of those, 235 suffered PTSD. Troops who do not get psychiatric help before quitting the services often end up homeless, suffer drug or alcohol abuse and even drift into crime.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said yesterday: “For too long, the mental health issues of our veterans have been ignored. Many simply haven’t been given the help they require or deserve.
“Given the sacrifices we have asked them to make, the least we can do is support them when they need it most.” The Government has pledged to act with millions of pounds being pumped into a new scheme to help troops suffering mental health problems.
A new NHS screening programme will identify victims of battlefield stress and GPs will get special training on dealing with sufferers of PTSD.
The job of spotting potential mental health issues in combat falls to sergeant majors. One such person is Stuart Potter.
The 34-year-old told how he encourages his 160-strong company of troops in Afghanistan to talk through problems.
Sgt Maj Potter said: “No matter who you are, the realisation that you are in someone’s sights, that someone wants to kill you, is traumatic.
“For years there has been a stigma attached to feeling shame or upset at mental issues. When I first joined, some said it was a sign of weakness.
“But now I encourage soldiers to discuss their feelings, with mates, commanders and with me. As soldiers we understand what other soldiers are going through.”
Mental illness numbers were “significantly higher” among membersof the Army and RAF, female troops, and Afghanistan veterans.
But some officials claim the figures were skewed by changes to the way they were compiled, with repeat attendances now recorded as new cases.
Read more: http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2011/01/24/ten-troops-a-day-suffer-mental-health-problems-in-fight-against-taliban.html#ixzz1CurxJLA3
Sacrificing women’s rights to secure peace will leave us back where we were 10 years ago
Wazhma Frogh, June 23, 2010
“If the conflict is to be wound down, real compromises will have to be made on the constitution, women’s rights and civil liberties.” These are the words of an editorial comment in Afghan Scene , a magazine written by and mainly for the international community in Afghanistan.
After years of fierce fighting and numerous counterinsurgency initiatives, the Afghan government and some of its international allies seem to have reached to the peak of desperation. They are now even exploring whether Afghan women’s rights can be sacrificed in order to declare “mission accomplished”.
The idea of subsuming women’s rights so that the war can end has come in formal and informal talks between some parliamentarians, government officials and is also reported to be part of cynical discussions among some of the international diplomats in Kabul gatherings.
Many women activists believe the growing Talibanisation of the Afghan government will not only bring further instability, as it could upset the diverse ethnic composition of Afghanistan, but also predict that they will pay for this political settlement with their rights.
Despite receiving promises from the members of the international community and the Afghan government about the so-called “red lines” of talks with the Taliban, women activists are concerned that recent developments are step-by-step moves towards the loss of women’s rights.
The Afghan peace jirga earlier this month legitimised criminal aspects of the insurgency by referring to offenders merely as political “angry brothers”. It ensured that impunity will continue – for example, through the formation of a commission to review the cases of militant prisoners.
In the past two weeks, according to Afghan national television, around 15 ex-combatants have been released from two prisons in Parwan and Kabul. The longest trial that took place was four hours.
Women activists fear that the judiciary is not equipped to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. As a result, notorious war criminals and human rights violators will be released under this political settlement, including the men that threw acid in the faces of girls in Kandahar, those who assassinated the senior police officer, Malalai Kakar , and those militants who continue to target girls’ schools.
The same peace plan also allows the militants to keep their guns even though they embrace the reintegration mechanisms. This is of great risk for the women of Afghanistan, who have been oppressed, killed and tortured by the power of guns during the civil war and afterwards.
It appears that the government is over-ambitious in this talk of political settlement with the militants, and the new commission is more political than legal, so it will serve political agendas. The president has used his powers to pardon prisoners, as we witnessed in the past – including criminal elements of the insurgency who were responsible for kidnapping rackets . It is questionable whether the commission will be just and transparent amid the corruption and growing nepotism of the state.
The former chief of the Afghan intelligence services has shared his concerns over the political pressure of the quick release of militants in the past few years. He called the Pul e Charkhi central prison a “terror camp” where militants and terrorists are too easily freed to go back to militancy.
Women activists are concerned that this short-termist approach to “peace” will not only be a threat to justice but will also create further opportunities for more corruption and nepotism within the Afghan government.
The overarching concern is the impact of such a strategy in the short and long run. If dangerous criminal militants are easily freed, what does this mean for societal welfare and security in the first place? Does it not call into question the overall “counterinsurgency” operations?
While these developments reflect looming threats for the women of Afghanistan, the argument of sacrificing their rights has been created for purposes of the peace programme. But Afghanistan has the second largest maternal mortality rate in the world. More than half of school-age girls are not able to go school and those who dare to go are too often threatened by insecurity and school attacks.
Women in politics are taking risks with their lives (those who threaten or kill them rarely go punished), while the new election law gives their seats to a man if they don’t run for office due to security reasons. The media rarely covers the conditions for women in the central and northern provinces who are plagued with hunger and poverty because they do not relate to the counterinsurgency initiatives.
It is in these circumstances that we are being asked to sacrifice. As one activists from the Afghan Women’s Networks said: “We have sacrificed for the past 30 years with our lives and rights and the men were the ones who killed and ruined. We are also not so privileged that our government will fight for us – therefore it is time for them to sacrifice their powers and give up creating more violence and injustices for women.”
There is a humanitarian call for the international community members struggling for stability and governance in Afghanistan to unify their voices as the plight of women gets murkier. There is a stronger need for further accountability on the part of the Afghan government before we end up in the same Afghanistan that we were in 10 years ago.
Written by Sonali Kolhatkar [June 01 2006]
Available from ZSpace
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the US on September 11th, 2001. Despite interviews with Larry King Live, and promotion by Oprah, few mainstream media outlets examined the radical nature of RAWA’s political vision and strategy, or their organizational structure. Sadly, many on the left have also overlooked the lessons we can learn from this extraordinary women’s movement, choosing instead to relegate support of RAWA to mainstream feminist groups.
Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, women’s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?
To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, “With All Our Strength” by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Afghanistan’s brutal history of war naturally shapes RAWA dramatically. The 1970s were a time of intense student activism and protest. In 1977, a young Kabul University student named Meena founded RAWA to struggle for women’s rights. RAWA was born into a nation on the brink of imperial war, occupation, and reactionary forces from which it has yet to emerge. A year after RAWA’s formation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began a ten year long occupation. RAWA’s initial goal of women’s emancipation, was broadened to include national emancipation. They participated in the nation-wide non-violent resistance, or jihad, against the occupation. But RAWA was also seen as a threat by the fundamentalist, misogynist forces which the US chose to work with. In fact, RAWA’s work was increasingly threatening to both Soviet imperialists and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1987, Meena was assassinated by a collaboration of both forces KHAD (Afghan secret police, controlled by the Soviet government), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the largest recipient of US financial aid).
Rather that destroying the organization, Meena’s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meena’s face has essentially become RAWA’s face.
RAWA’s underlying philosophy sees women’s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, women’s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the US, leftist Afghan women like Meena realized that the men in their movements paid lip service to women’s rights but did not see it as important as class, or other struggles. Women were told that their freedom would automatically follow from other social changes and that it was not necessary for women’s rights to be central to their struggles.
RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate economic democracy and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.
Excerpts from RAWA’s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aimsas:
(1) women’s emancipation, “which cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole”
(2) separation of religion and politics, “so that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives”
(3) equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups
(4) economic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation
(5) commitment to “struggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture”
(6) to draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially
(7) to serve and assist affected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy
(8) establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations based on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs
(9) support for other freedom and women’s movements worldwide.
RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and “the party line.”
Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:
“We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Sudan and other fettered peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting for their rights against reactionary and anti-liberty states and powers.”
For the formation of a free, independent and democratic Afghanistan the joint striving and struggle of pro-liberty and democratic forces is indispensable. This objective can only be achieved through relentless struggle, not through compromise and capitulation.
RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.
RAWA’s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.
Education is seen as part of RAWA’s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.
RAWA’s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled â€œincome-generating projects. The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.
RAWA’s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses. RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.
Health Care and Humanitarian Aid
Despite much-touted progress, Afghanistan still suffers from shockingly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality. In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 in the UN’s Human Development Index. With so much suffering around them, it is impossible for RAWA to speak of human rights and women’s political rights, without also addressing the lack of access to food and health care, which are prerequisites to other rights.
RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s refugee camps. In many cases, the people they serve have no other access to health care. When the need arises, RAWA conducts emergency relief operations alongside their political and educational work. They often assists refugees during harsh winter months with blankets, food, and medical aid.
Because of the large numbers of orphans in Afghanistan, RAWA runs several orphanages for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (They do not, however, offer Afghan children up for adoption in Western countries and urge instead urge Western supporters to sponsor orphans so that the children can remain in their own country while having access to education, shelter, etc.)
Media, Documentation, and Technology
From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.
Payam-e-Zan (translated as ‘Woman’s Voice’) is RAWA’s main publication, a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan â€œoperates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment tool for RAWA, serv[ing] as a place to document RAWA’s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.
As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from Afghanistan, decided to document the rampant human rights abuses through still photography and video. Photographs documenting the victims of the fundamentalists, or in some cases, violence in action, are published on their website and magazine, along side reports by the RAWA members with details such as the date, time, names of victims, and perpetrators, etc. Digital cameras have made RAWA’s documentation much easier and also enabled RAWA to share the images of human rights violations more easily with an international audience via their website.
Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWA’s own archive. The most famous example of RAWA’s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in Kabul stadium. After 9/11, this video was viewed all over the world, despite the fact that it was more than 2 years old. When initially offered to news media in 1999, no one would touch the gruesome footage until it was politically convenient. The footage was also used in Saira Shah’s widely acclaimed documentary, Behind the Veil, which was re-aired repeatedly on CNN after 9/11.
The advent of the internet catapulted RAWA into the international like no other new technology. Wisely seeing the potential for international solidarity, and drawing world attention to a forgotten crisis, RAWA launched www.rawa.orgin late 1996. One member explained:
We never imagined the internet would bring such a positive result for us. It is very important and something that now we can’t imagine we could work without. At the time I remember it was kind of amazing. The first email from the US that we got, we all called each other to come see this and our eyes were so big.
Most of the relations between RAWA and their international supporters have developed through their website and e-mail. I too first discovered RAWA through their website and wrote to them expressing my solidarity.
RAWA’s website is the perfect portal for them to express their political views and publish their documents while preserving the anonymity of their members. Additionally, large amounts of material can be published and archived with little additional cost.
While Payam-e-Zan is still RAWA’s primary outlet to reach the majority of Afghans – who live in a poor country with little internet access, RAWA’s website is the main method of communicating with the outside world,
RAWA organizes public protests up to several times a year to mark various dates: March 8th, International Women’s Day; April 28th, the ‘black day’ when the fundamentalists entered Kabul in 1992; and December 10th, International Human Rights Day. According to Brodsky, “demonstrations are one of the large-scale non-traditional ways that RAWA educates and enlightens people.”They are usually held in Pakistan, as Afghanistan is still too dangerous. Thousands of women are bussed in from across the border to march with signs and banners. Sometimes the women carry sticks for self-defense, or are accompanied by male supporters who walk beside the march. The demonstrations often culminate in a rally in front of the United Nations Office in Islamabad and elsewhere.
One member of RAWA explains the importance of demonstrations:
“When a demonstration happens, some in backward places can’t even think a woman can stage such a thing. Our mission is to change that mentality and let women know they are human beings and equal to men.”
RAWA’s demonstrations also highlight events in Afghan history that either are forgotten or have been re-written. For example, the bloody events of fundamentalist infighting and civil war that followed April 28th 1992 are resurrected each year on RAWA’s signs and placards.
The women in RAWA’s demonstrations march militantly with faces uncovered and fists in the air. Their signs are explicitly pro-democracy and anti-fundamentalist. As such, the public demonstrations also challenge pervading assumptions among Westerners who were obsessed by images of mute, burqa-clad, helpless looking Afghan women, after 9/11.
Organizational Structure and Decision making
While RAWA had adopted a committee structure from the beginning, their founder Meena operated as a de-facto President. Her tragic assassination in 1987 highlighted the organization’s vulnerability with having a high-profile ‘leader’ who could be easily targeted. After Meena’s death, RAWA changed its structure so that no single member could assume a leadership role. Their goal was to “create a leadership structure that was democratic, collective, and as non-hierarchical as possible, thus promoting the equality and democracy that RAWA seeks for Afghanistan at large.” This manifested itself in the form of a “leadership council” of 11 members. These members are elected every two years by the entire membership.
The election of the Leadership Council is to my knowledge, unique among subversive movements. Because of RAWA’s underground nature, its members are geographically dispersed and cannot communicate with one another frequently. Consequently there are no nominations or election campaigns. Members simply submit in writing 11 names of members that they think ought to comprise the Council. The top 11 vote-getters are then elected.
Leadership Council members simply continue in their daily functions as RAWA members, while taking on the responsibilities of that particular committee. They meet several times a year to oversee RAWA’s operations and author RAWA’s standpoints and statements in a way that reflects the memberships sentiments by conferring with the spokespeople from all the underlying committees. Their names are never revealed outside the membership for security reasons. RAWA’s structure is consistent with their philosophy of the collective being more important than the individual.
The remaining RAWA members join any one of the following seven standing committees (see Appendix B). These are:
2. Social (humanitarian)
6. Foreign Affairs
Each committee has a number of sub-committees focused on its various responsibilities. All committees, including the Leadership Council, are composed of an odd number of members to avoid deadlock in decision making.
Each committee has a ‘mas’ul’ which is Persian for “responsible person.” The mas’ul functions like a spokesperson for the committee, to whom members can turn for mediation, or to make complaints. They are also responsible for communication between various committees. Brodsky elaborates: “Overall, RAWA’s committee structure can be thought of as having branches in which each mas’ul is the sole connection between the committees and members she is responsible for and the next level up in the committee structure.” This fosters the relatively independent operation of each committee, and ensures projects that are locally responsive.
As any serious activist knows, committees cannot function without regular meetings, and RAWA members have their fair share of frequent meetings. One of RAWA’s most interesting type of meeting is a mechanism that enables them to deal with internal conflict: the ‘jelse entaqady’ or ‘mistake meeting.’ This is an “evaluation and correction mechanism that operates at all levels of the organization in order to facilitate RAWA’s distributed decision making style, and address mistakes, problems, and differences of opinion.” Differences of opinion or disagreements are directly addressed with the people involved. The committee mas’ul is often a mediator in such meetings, and an odd number of attendees ensure that there can be no deadlock.
Secrecy is a huge factor in RAWA’s operations because of the dangerous nature of their work. As a result most members often know only a small number of other members personally at any given time. RAWA’s dispersed committee structure, and its members belief in the collective having more importance than the individual, ensures the organization’s continued functioning.
Only Afghan women based in Afghanistan or the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran can be RAWA members. Men are not allowed to be members. However, many male relatives of RAWA members are dedicated to supporting the organization in any manner available to them. Male supporters often help with security at public events, escorting foreign supporters, passing out RAWA literature, etc.
What we can learn from RAWA
RAWA’s approach to activism is very practical and tailored to suit the needs of their situation. Their political vision is simple, yet adheres to some basic fundamental truths such as the universality of human rights and democracy. While this may make some Western leftist ideologues scoff, it is an approach that, at the very least, works in a country like Afghanistan which has lost so much and is struggling to preserve the most basic of rights.
However, RAWA’s simple political vision enables it to be flexible to situations as they arise. For example, RAWA does not denounce capitalism. Rather they call for “economic democracy.” This enables them to train women in marketable skills through their ‘income-generating projects.’ The practical short-term goal of enabling economic independence for a poor struggling, often illiterate woman, is achieved in this manner. RAWA does not engage in micro-lending however, preferring to grant women the basic foundation they may need to start up an operation, free of charge.
RAWA’s organizational structure is also quite practical, having preserved the organization for nearly two decades after Meena’s death. Rather than strain to achieve some idealistic but impractical notion of absolute participatory democracy, they have instead conceived a structure that has limited hierarchy (the Leadership Council), which is outweighed by ample democracy through simple and functional elections and committee membership.
RAWA’s emphasis on the collective over the individual is also a philosophy worth aspiring to. Among Western activists we have seen an increasing tendency to valorize individual figures, at the expense of collective action.
RAWA’s Educational Policy, from www.rawa.org
We teach our students:
Recognition of these basic principles and values:
· Everyone must respect all human beings regardless of language, religion, race, color, etc.
· There is no difference between people; no human being is superior to any other because of class, color, language, race, or religion.
· All human beings do not have to think alike or live the same way.