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Afghanistan: RAWA's Lonely Struggle For Women's Rights

The U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan may end up pushing the ruling Taliban from power. Their stern beliefs have made life particularly harsh for the country's women. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox speaks to one woman whose organization has been trying to improve their lot and would like to be part of a post-Taliban government.

Prague, 22 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In November 1999, a spectator in the crowd at Kabul's sports stadium aimed a smuggled video camera through the eye-slit in her burqa, the head-to-toe covering required for all Afghan women.

What she recorded was the first public execution of a woman by the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic militia who had taken over most of Afghanistan three years earlier.

The tape shows the accused -- who was said to have killed her husband -- cowering before the Taliban soldier who then shoots her in the back of the head. It was later screened on British television and parts of it posted on the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). It's just one example of the way RAWA has been trying -- for nearly 25 years -- to draw the world's attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan.

Founded in 1977 in Kabul, the association is now based in neighboring Pakistan, where it runs clinics and schools for the many Afghan refugees living in camps there. Focused on supporting the anti-Soviet resistance during the 10-year occupation, RAWA now concentrates on social programs and fighting for women's and human rights in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and among Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

RFE/RL spoke to RAWA member Mariam Rawi on the phone from Pakistan. That's not her real name -- RAWA's members, like the secret camerawoman, have to work undercover for fear of reprisal from Islamic hard-liners.

Rawi describes how the Soviets' occupation of her country in 1979 led her to flee to Pakistan. It's there that she later met RAWA's founder, known only as Meena, who was killed in 1987.

"In the first years of Russian troops, when the fighting in the resistance war began, I lost my father in the fighting with the Russians. Since my mother was a widow and I hadn't any brother -- we were four sisters -- we had to leave Afghanistan to the refugee camps in Pakistan. After two years, the first school of RAWA was established near to our refugee camp. I graduated from this school. It wasn't a usual school. Besides the other subjects, we had classes in political awareness. [When] I saw the martyred leader of RAWA, Meena, and I saw the other members of RAWA who were working very hard and serving the people, the women, in the refugee camps, I decided to be like them and serve my people."

Rawi says the plight of many women in her home country worsened after Soviet troops withdrew and former resistance groups took power in 1992.

Since the Taliban took control in 1996, she says it's gotten even worse: "We can say that in every field women are more needy. Today they are deprived of education, or jobs, [they can't] get outside the house alone without being accompanied by a man. They are selling their children in the streets because they are not able to feed them. Many women turn to prostitution and they are begging in the streets. In different areas of Afghanistan there are different things the women need. In the refugee camps in Pakistan, for example [there] aren't any women doctors in the hospitals and they aren't allowed to have jobs. They need, of course, some health care facilities that they cannot reach."

Under Taliban rule, education for girls is prohibited and women are banned from working -- a particularly harsh restriction on the many widows who lost their husbands in the decades of internecine war.

Life in the small portion of the country still controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance is less restricted. Girls can attend school and women can work. Last week, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said that women should be included in any future administration.

Though it's too early to say if this will happen, talks on a successor government to the Taliban are under way, spearheaded by the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. Rawi says her organization supports the king's efforts and wants to be represented in the future government, but hasn't yet been approached.

In any case, she says RAWA will not have anything to do with the Northern Alliance, whose time in power was marked by lawlessness and -- according to human rights groups -- attacks on civilians.

"Unfortunately, we didn't receive such an offer [to take part in talks]. Basically we think it's because of our political standpoint against any brand of fundamentalist groups, against the Pakistan government. [And] we believe that both the Northern Alliance and Taliban are fundamentalist, they are criminal, they are depending on foreign countries and they are against women, against freedom and democracy in Afghanistan. That's why we are not ready to have any kind of compromise with any kind of fundamentalist groups or to be part of such a government that includes fundamentalist groups. That's why we did not receive an offer."

Rawi's standpoint on other women's groups that may get involved in the talks shows how difficult it will be for all the various interests to agree on a transitional government.

"If these women's groups are in any kind of compromise with fundamentalists we are against them and we will be against them. But if they are not in any kind of relationship or compromise with this or that fundamentalist group then we will try together to establish the part of women in the future government of Afghanistan."