On Seeing the Face of an Afghan Woman

by Lesley Mackay

 

Bejhat in London

What if you could be brutally attacked for flying a kite, for reading a book, for showing your face in public? What if the law forced you to blacken the windows of your house so no one could see you from the outside? What if you could be killed for indulging in a moment's self-expression? Under those circumstances, who would you be?

Although it is unlikely, you might be thoughtful and balanced. You might speak with warmth and courage. There might be light in your eyes as you describe your incredible struggle.


Bejhat's burqa
Bejhat, a young Afghan woman who has lived in Pakistan since the age of 10, is all those things. Bejhat always travels with a piece of clothing she hates—a light blue gown designed to cover a woman from head to toe. 

The heavy polyester looks suffocating, its only detail a three-inch mesh strip that covers the eyes. Bejhat calls it "a bag so gloomy it can make you want to throw yourself away." Yet last year, she slipped the burqa over her head, knowing she needed to wear it for a few weeks. She was going to Afghanistan, the country of her birth, where the gown is mandatory. She was going to meet girls and women in her homeland.

In Kabul, Afghanistan's gutted capital city, Bejhat found thousands of women who have suffered far, far too much, women who are disoriented from starvation, scarred from savage beatings, intimidated into silence, and forced into begging and prostitution because they are prohibited from working. Yet, incredibly, she also found women who were disregarding Afghanistan's laws to run underground schools, medical teams, and support groups. Members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, these activists—2,000 strong—are struggling to turn the anti-female republic upside-down. Afghan women are victims, but these women are breaking the victim mold.

Students and nurses formed the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 1977. Two years later, the Soviet Union invaded, forcing Afghans into a war of resistance. Life for women fell apart as they were battered by wave after wave of misogynistic violence. Male warriors in the country freely attacked girls and women: the Soviet invaders, the fundamentalist Afghan "freedom fighters," and, from the mid-1990s to the present, the Taliban. Yet women activists have not surrendered. "We will not give up on this situation," says Bejhat. "We struggle not only for our own rights, but for the rights of all women.”

The women's opponents are the Taliban, an extremist Islamic militia that took control of Kabul in 1996 and that rules more than 90% of Afghanistan today. Boys and young men from this militia swagger down destroyed streets like lords, wearing eyeliner, turbans, and tunics and carrying whips. "I was horrified when I saw them," Bejhat says. Her horror quickly turned to fear when, in a quiet market, a Talib accosted her, his hands waving, his voice full of rage, because she lifted the front of her burqa so she could breathe. He would have killed her, she is sure, "as a prostitute," had he known she was a RAWA leader.

Bejhat got out safely, and a few months later traveled to the US and Europe to tell the world what she had seen in Afghanistan. One morning, wearing pants and a short, sophisticated haircut, she stood before a large crowd in London, radiating quiet and peace. "I am from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan," she clearly stated. "And I am here to tell you about the women who are the world's worst victims of the twisted philosophy of fundamentalism. Our organization got started because even before the war, our women were bought and sold like cattle," she explains.

Since the group’s founding in 1977, RAWA women have found ways to heal some of the wounds of unending war, to educate, and to create physical and cultural spaces that honor women and girls. Members operate refugee camps and secret schools, literacy programs, and medical teams. They put out a pro-female magazine, Women's Message, and stage pro-female demonstrations in the refugee areas of Pakistan—an extremely risky act. Their humanitarian activities are illegal, and they live in constant danger. In 1989, RAWA's founder, Minna, was assassinated; others in the group have been harassed, arrested, and tortured.

Despite their incredible courage and commitment, RAWA members most often do not get the response they deserve in the developed world. "Many times people tell us to get rid of the word ‘revolutionary’ in our name," Bejhat says. “But what is revolutionary is calling for women's rights," she says. "What is revolutionary is calling for education and democracy. So, yes, we support what is revolutionary in today's Afghanistan. We won't compromise our policies."

Bejhat needs her righteousness to deal with the Taliban. While the name Taliban simply means "students," these boys and young men have not studied history or literature or science, and know little but scraps of a distorted version of Islam. Bejhat feels she partly understands the mentality of the Taliban.

"We are all members of Afghanistan's young generation of war, migration, and misfortune," she says. After the Soviet invasion when she fled with her family to neighboring Pakistan, she lived and studied in a pro-female RAWA refugee camp. "I loved it—the experience made me who I am," she says with a true smile. Like many RAWA activists, she still lives today as a member of the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan. But most of the Afghan boys who also fled the war grew up in emotional misery and never recovered. They were rounded up, taken away, and isolated in extremist Islamic schools.

"Why are the Taliban so hateful to women? The main reason is that at a very young age they were orphaned or separated from their families," says Bejhat. "They did not grow up with their own mothers and sisters, who were lost or who died during the war. They were taken to very strict religious schools. They were controlled and indoctrinated, and never encountered a woman. Their teachers taught them that a woman is half of a man."

With the Taliban’s deep hostility crammed down their throats, Afghan women have lost almost everything—including peace of mind. In 1998, Physicians for Human Rights estimated that 97 per cent of them suffer from major depression. Despite its risks, activism may provide their best chance at happiness. "The situation is not hopeless," says Bejhat. "It makes our commitment stronger. I will work with RAWA until the end of my life." One day, she believes, her people will dig their way out of devastation, hardship, tyranny, and abuse. "My desire is to return as a free woman to a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan."

There is some good news. In 1996, the same year that the Taliban seized Kabul, RAWA made a quantum leap by launching a website. With strong (and upsetting) words and images, the RAWA site (at www.rawa.org) provides a bold indictment of religious fundamentalism and its social impact, and shouts out loud for support for Afghan women. Today, "RAWA's greatest ally is the Internet. It changed the way we operate and, of course, the way we feel. Through our website, we have made many contacts. We have gained the support of many dedicated women's groups, activists, and individuals. Some of them are so dedicated, especially in the US," Bejhat says, clearly moved.

RAWA's site created a domino effect, spawning pro-Afghan-woman initiatives in other media. Oprah Winfrey featured the site on her television program, encouraging viewers to visit and then mail small cameras to RAWA in Pakistan to kick off a new media initiative. Viewers mailed so many cameras that the group asked that no more be sent. RAWA is now disseminating them so Afghan women can take pictures of Taliban atrocities from behind the eye-coverings of their burqas. This documentary campaign, illegal of course, shows the mounting spirit of creative rebellion among Afghan women. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, which conducts the Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, women are increasingly "risking their lives" in acts of anti-Taliban defiance.

Sometimes these brave women are betrayed. In 1999, a RAWA woman made a video from under her burqa of the public execution of a woman accused of killing her husband. When RAWA tried to sell the footage to international news channels, it was rejected as "too strong"—too strong to be aired, but not too strong to have happened to a woman in Afghanistan.

In spite of setbacks, RAWA women do all they can to make a difference. It is up to the rest of us to decide if we will respond actively or passively, merely admiring their courage. As we make up our minds, Bejhat would have us know that we have actually been involved in her country all along, as citizens of the democratic nations that have messed up hers. "No country has its military troops in Afghanistan. But what's happening is that with the support of other countries, the Taliban has been able to impose itself on the Afghan people. The US has always played a negative role."

But Bejhat doesn't blame Americans. "At RAWA, it has always been a principle that you shouldn't confuse governments and people. The Taliban may rule Afghanistan, but it does not represent the Afghan people. With the Internet, we can see the difference between governments and people.”

Bejhat hopes that we American women will clarify who we are and follow in her activist footsteps. "I live in Pakistan," she says. "But, personally, I have always had this sense of myself as a citizen of the world."

Citizen of the world—that is something to live up to.

To find out how you can help the people of Afghanistan, go to the RAWA website at www.rawa.org and to the Feminist Majority Foundation website at www.feminist.org.


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