The women's war

Of all the Taliban's many enemies, few oppose them with such bitter passion as the women of Afghanistan, whose place in society is now scarcely higher than that of animals. But some, reports Raymond Whitaker, have taken their lives in their hands to fight for their rights
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The Independent Online

The sequence lasts only a minute. In a packed football stadium in Kabul, a woman in a blue burqa – the head-to-toe covering that the Taliban force every woman to wear in Afghanistan – is taken from a vehicle and made to kneel on the edge of the penalty area. A Taliban fighter steps forward with an automatic rifle and shoots her in the back of the head, then pumps several more bullets into her prone body.

The death in 1999 of Zarmeena, a mother of seven who was said to have killed her husband as he slept, has been seen around the world, thanks to another woman who was in the crowd that day. At great risk to herself, she smuggled a digital video camera into the stadium under her burqa and filmed the execution through the gauzy slit which permits the wearer a dim view of her surroundings. She was a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which has also filmed public amputations and the stoning of women.

If the world wants to gather the intelligence it needs in Afghanistan to capture the suspected arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden, it could take a few lessons from these women. RAWA is a feminist organisation that has operated more or less undercover for over 20 years in the face of hostility from the Communists, the mujahedin, Islamic fundamentalists, the Taliban – and members' own families.

Feminism has never gained much of a foothold in Afghanistan. The virtual imprisonment into which the Taliban have shoved women all over the country – never appearing unveiled before any man outside their immediate family, never going out unescorted by a male relative, beaten for laughing or other "immodesty" in public, and certainly never going to a male doctor – has been the norm for centuries in the movement's heartland, the rural Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.

Rulers there attempted to challenge these traditions at their peril. In the 1920s, King Amanullah, fired by Ataturk's reforms in Turkey, called a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal assembly, at which he announced a programme of sweeping modernisation. The climax came when he condemned the subjugation of women, and called on his queen to remove her veil before the assembled elders. Shocked, they returned home to foment a revolt, which forced him to abdicate and flee Kabul in his Rolls-Royce.

It was the 1950s before any further attempt at liberalisation was made, but unveiled women risked having acid thrown in their faces by Muslim zealots such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, later the leader of the most fiercely Islamist mujahedin faction in the war against the Soviet invaders. In some respects, Hekmatyar is more modern than the Taliban – he supports education for women, for example – but when RAWA was founded, he became one of its most bitter enemies, with fatal results for many of its members.

Ironically, the closest any Afghan woman ever came to enjoying Western-style social freedom was under the puppet governments installed by Moscow, which tried to give them their place in the new revolutionary order. People rarely believe me when I tell them that when I first visited Kabul in 1992, it was possible to see bare-headed female university students in jeans and make-up, smoking in the street. By the time I returned in 1994, the Communists had gone. The capital was ruled by northern-based mujahedin, the forerunner of the Northern Alliance now seeking international help to oust the Taliban, and Hekmatyar was bombarding the city in an attempt to seize power for himself. But middle-class women could still work and move around, wearing just a scarf over their heads.

For their less well-connected sisters, however, it was a different story. They found themselves at the mercy of ill-educated rural fighters who lost all restraint in the urban atmosphere of Kabul, kidnapping and raping women with virtual impunity. Female doctors and civil servants were appalled when the Cromwellian Taliban seized the capital five years ago, and forced them out of their jobs and into burqas, but many others were relieved, at least initially.

The founder of RAWA, known only as Meena, never lived to see the Taliban. She grew up in the days when left-wing rhetoric and feminism were synonymous, and founded her resoundingly named organisation in 1977, when she was a 20-year-old student. Unlike some others of her background, though, Meena did not welcome the Soviet invasion that came two years later. She immediately began organising protest rallies of students and high-school pupils, only to discover that in the brutal struggle between the occupiers and the bearded Islamists who had declared a holy war against them, there was no room for a secular middle-class feminist.

Meena went into exile in Pakistan, but, as it turned out, she was not safe there either. She was assassinated in 1987 in Quetta, where she set up a clinic for women: her organisation blames a combined plot by Khad, the Afghan KGB, and exiled Afghan fundamentalists of Hekmatyar's Hizbe Islami faction, who each had their own reasons for wanting to kill her.

Most of RAWA's activities are now among the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, where it runs co-educational schools for young children, as well as literacy and handicrafts projects for women. Members in the West help to operate a slick website (www.rawa.org), which includes a clip of Zarmeena's execution. "Thank you for visiting the homepage of the most oppressed women of the world," it says. Even in Pakistan, though, RAWA has to be careful. Under constant harassment and threats from Pakistani as well as Afghan zealots, members use only their first names and usually refuse to be photographed. The website offers a single mobile-phone number: a call brings a visit from Nida, a serious 28-year-old with tinted glasses who is the organisation's director of education. She has to be accompanied by a teenaged male relative.

Nida left Afghanistan when she was 12, but has returned a few times, most recently under the Taliban. "It was a shock," she says. "I had never worn a burqa in my life before, and I could hardly walk in it. But in Kabul, I saw women sitting under them in the hot sun, selling all they owned to make a little money. If you are a woman without a male relative, you are not allowed to go out at all, even to the doctor, and you have to paint the windows of your home black.

"I know it is said that the Taliban restored some order and discipline in Kabul, but they have stolen the soul of the people. I had heard the stories, but when I saw it with my own eyes, it was unbelievable. People are constantly afraid. If they are not killed by hunger, rockets or disease, they fear being imprisoned or put to death for no reason. The Taliban say this is Islamic law, but it's nothing but arrogance. They even said that women must not wear new burqas, only old."

RAWA continues to educate women and children in Afghanistan, but in small groups and under conditions of great secrecy. "It is an underground business," said Nida. "They keep Islamic texts to hand, so that if they are raided by the Taliban, they can appear to be studying Muslim theology, which is all that is permitted." In Pakistan, the organisation does not attach its name to many of the activities it runs, for fear of fundamentalist retaliation; sometimes only the staff of a project know that RAWA is behind it.

Members often come under pressure from their own families. "They do not consider it suitable that we have to spend nights away from home to do our work," says Nida. "Committed women like me tell prospective husbands that we will carry on after we're married, and if they don't like it, we won't marry them. My father supported me, and so does my husband. He's not afraid of the fundamentalists.

"We are waging a two-way struggle: with our families, to make them understand that we have to work for Afghanistan, and with the fundamentalists, who want to keep the country backward. That's why we make a point of educating boys as well as girls, and in the same classroom: to teach them about progress."

Meena was something of a left-wing firebrand, and the organisation she founded has been accused of being Maoist. Nida dismisses this as just one of the calumnies heaped upon RAWA by "ultra male chauvinists". "They say we are whores, and tell people that if they send their children to our schools, we will poison them," she said. It might be closer to the mark to call them middle-class do-gooders, were it not for the fact that what Britons would consider unexceptionable Women's Institute work, carries a potential death sentence here. "Only my family knows I am in RAWA, otherwise my life would be in constant danger," says Nida.

Whatever happens in Afghanistan, activists like Nida face a hard struggle. Hekmatyar is trying to make a comeback from his exile in Iran, the Taliban's attitude to women is medieval, and the Northern Alliance promises social conditions akin to the Thirty Years War. The favoured option of the United Nations, a Loya Jirga presided over by the former king, Zahir Shah, is unlikely to have women's rights on its agenda, especially if – as is possible – the Taliban take part.

"We know our way is very difficult, and that it will take a very long time to change attitudes," said Nida. "But we never think of stopping. We are prepared to make sacrifice after sacrifice for Afghanistan."

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