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A conversation with RAWA member Tahmeena Faryal

19 Feb 2002

On December 3, 2001 members of the Boston based Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia and the Boston College Faculty for Social Justice and a Humane Foreign Policy hosted Tahmeena Faryal, a representative of RAWA.  The following are excerpts from the conversation that took place between members of these organizations, independent individuals and a member of Solidarity.


Q: Some key legislation on womens rights was passed under [King] Immanullah and [King] Zahir Shah.  What are your thoughts on this question in light of the recent discussions to institute a US backed monarchy?


A: In 1933 we had a king that is now in exile [Zahir Shah] and is now at the Bonn meeting.  In the first constitution that mentioned women and womens equal participation in society was in 1964. He was the king for 40 years.  Immanullah [King from 1919] was very different in many ways.  The first school for women was established when he was the king.  His wife had a major role in that.  But after that, during Zahir Shah also women were in a much better situation.    He was definitely not as progressive as King Immanullah. I would say that yes Immanullah was [a] progressive king but not Zahir Shah.  People and especially women had a lot of rights under him.


Q: That is why RAWA is supporting him right now?


A: [Yes].  We support him only when there is a comparison between him and the Soviet backed regime, the puppets, and the fundamentalists.  The people in Afghanistan compare [i.e. contrast] the years under which he was the king with the Soviet invasion and fundamentalist domination…


Q: Is the position tactical, I mean its not a political position but out of the possibilities…


A: Yes, its out of no option.


Q:  We are interested in your reflections on the PDPA.  Would you say one of the reasons it forfeited mass based support especially in the rural areas is because it attempted to institute compulsory womens education in rural and urban areas?  What is the political history of RAWA in relation to the PDPA?


A: Of RAWA?  We have always opposed them. 


Q: Can you talk about the three or four year period before the actual Soviet invasion.  I mean do you see a major difference there between what was happening before and when the Soviet Union really started to treat Afghanistan as a client state, which finally led to the invasion.


A: Well, these PDPA that they then became known as Khalq and Parcham.  They were established in the 1960s.  But from the very beginning they were very much influenced by the Soviets.  The further coup de tat and the Soviet invasion.  The Soviets, the Russians, were quite sure that they had their puppets in power and they had already supported them. They helped them to have a coup de tat against Daoud because they realized that after some time, that Daoud is not going to be their puppet, and that with him they could not achieve what they wanted.  I think maybe in the beginning the Soviets did not want to have a military invasion.  They thought that maybe with the coup de tat and having their puppet regime there without military invasion they could achieve what they wanted.  But people [from] the very first days [of] their bloody coup de tat, had a very suffocating political situation especially for those who opposed them.  The environment was not tolerable for most of the intellectuals.  They put many of them into prison, they removed them from their jobs, it was in some ways much more risky than for example under the Taliban.  Most of them were KGB trained people.  The Soviets realized that without a military invasion they could not achieve what they wanted, although unfortunately they had not learned that even a military invasion cannot work in Afghanistan.

From the very beginning RAWA opposed the PDPA as a puppet party.  And the one that actually betrayed some of the words like Democracy, the rights of women, freedom.  Today we have problems because we have to use those words.  We have problems because of what they did under those words.  The same as what the fundamentalists did under the name of Islam. 


Q:  We were wondering about the PDPA and its seemingly progressive politics particularly towards women, canceling debts of rural peasants, freeing them from all kinds of oppression putting up lots of schools.  Those are the kinds of things that the US published in its country study report even as it was opposing the PDPA and pumping in billions of dollars.


A:  They did some reforms in Afghanistan, there is no doubt about it.  About women, about peasants they took land from the landlords and distributed it: land reform.  But obviously this was not the way that things could be done in Afghanistan.  Especially with their policy towards women. They had their womens organization.  But their agendas were very different from that we have as a womens organization.  We always oppose their womens organization as well, because they never wanted to make women realize about their real potential and their real abilities.  They rather wanted to prevail the western values and culture to Afghanistan in order to bring the Russian culture.  I remember when I was in Afghanistan as a child in school that once in a while they came to our class and talked about the PDPA and what they had done and sending the students to Russia and just making them familiar with Russian and western culture. 


Many families were affected by the PDPA because of the crimes that they committed.  They killed so many intellectuals.  In just a few month they killed 20,000 people most of them intellectuals and university students.  Those crimes only for some of these reforms, people will never forgive them.  They [i.e. the PDPA] were never acceptable and will never be acceptable to the people.  The PDPA is known as the party that sold Afghanistan to the foreigners.  That is what they are known for.  People know that, especially those who are a bit familiar with the political history of Afghanistan, that they were the beginning of the tragedy in Afghanistan.  That todays Taliban are a consequence of their coup de tat and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, and for that they will never ever forgive them.


Q:  Could you comment on whether the people in the Northern Alliance would even be marginally accepted?


A:  Well, basically the people who are now in the Northern Alliance are those we call fundamentalists that were created and supported during the Cold War by many countries including the US.  Right now among the Northern Alliance there are also many people who were being the puppets in that regime and now they are in the Northern Alliance. Most of the puppets are in exile in other countries, especially Holland, which unfortunately is the country that has been very generous in giving them political asylum. 


Q: Who are the Northern Alliance in terms of social base?


A:  Five groups.  They are the fundamentalists who were created and funded during the Cold War, at the time known as the Mujahideen, or so called freedom fighters.  They are professional soldiers [i.e. mercenaries].  Most of the people and most of the fighters in the Northern Alliance are with them because of the money.  Obviously they have their main leaders and commanders who were the ones that were supported during the Cold War and have the fundamentalist mentality.  Not all of the 15,000 soldiers are of that background.


Q: Are most of them from a rural background?


A:  The soldiers yes.  Most of them are not even educated, at least not well educated.  The leaders of the Northern Alliance come from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups, belonging to different countries.  That is part of another [problem], what makes the political situation more complicated  because different countries are involved.  Each and every one of them have their own interests, and for each interest they have their own group that fought in Afghanistan, and thats another reason that we didnt have stability in Afghanistan after the Soviets left because we had the hand of so many countries and so many…


Q:  I read in an interview today with a representative of  RAWA in which she was saying that the Northern Alliance actually carried out many acts of brutality specifically aimed at women.  I was wondering if you have any comments on that and also given that they are probably going to form the next government how is that going to affect your strategy?


A:  The Northern Alliance and their main leaders and commanders they are criminals, as criminal as Milosevic.  The people of Afghanistan want them to be brought to an international court of law, now they are the future rulers, again.  That is very scary that the different countries and the United Nations rely on the Northern Alliance again in its bombing campaign in Afghanistan.  The provinces that were captured by the Northern Alliance have already been looted, where they did the same thing that they did from 92 through 96.  People are so afraid.  They have the same power that they did between 92 through 96.


Q:   They also have repressive policies towards women?


A:  Yes there were many cases of rape and forced marriages. 


Q:  What kind of possibilities are there right now for an independent democratic movement in Afghanistan.  Are there political organizations in the region, in Pakistan say, that you can ally yourself with?


A:  In Pakistan?


Q: Or in Afghanistan.


A: In Afghanistan there are definitely if not many organizations, many individuals who would say the same as RAWA does, or at least would agree on a broad based government that should be based on democratic values.  Well the Northern Alliance also talks a lot of Democracy, but its important to know which groups did not have their hand in the blood of the people.  There are for sure many such groups.  If not groups there are many such individuals.  The King himself we believe is at this point the only alternative.


Q:  Are there are any other organizations that represent a democratic force in Afghanistan?


A: As an organization we dont know any.  Especially as a womens organization unfortunately RAWA is the only one.


Q:  What would be the profile of RAWA more from the city or…


A: We have women from different backgrounds.  We have women from urban areas, from rural areas, from very removed corners of Afghanistan.  They started with RAWA with literacy classes and now they are members.  We have women from very different ethnic groups.  That is one of the main issues that we try to consider, especially the way it has been used and misused by the different warlords to create more and more ethnic or linguistic or religious differences.  We try to make RAWA to make it … to have them all united.


Q:  How would you define the basis of unity in RAWA?  What would be the common vision of RAWA?


A:  They would be our goals.  Those who want to be RAWA members or supporters our goals are important.  Anti-fundamentalism and obviously anti-terrorism, for a democratic government, rights and freedom of women, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, anti- all the criminals in the more than two decades of war in Afghanistan.  Those are important for us.  It is not important if these people come form Pushtoon, Tadzik, Hazara, Turkman, Shia, Sunni [backgrounds], the language, whatever language they speak, that is not important to us at all.


Q:  Is there a political party that RAWA would support, substantially support to come into power?


A:The parties that we have are not acceptable to RAWA.


Q:  Would you ever be a political party?


A:  I dont know, I think that RAWA hasnt thought about it but maybe, yeah at some point.


Q:  If there was going to be a discussion among women representatives from other organizations like members of the Northern Alliance, would RAWA rather not participate in a meeting like that?


A: We think that on one hand RAWA would not like to be on table with criminals, on the other that could be another form of struggle against them. 


Q:  To really form a coalition like they are supposedly trying to do, RAWA would rather not like to be in coalition with them?


A:  RAWA will be part of the womens summit in Brussels that will actually take place tomorrow [December 4, 2001].  RAWA is part of that, its an Afghan womens summit for Democracy.  There are women coming from different backgrounds.  Some of them having coalition with the Northern Alliance, directly or indirectly, openly or secretly but we know that they are Northern Alliance women.  Because we believe that this is another form of struggle for us, RAWA also has a member at the Bonn talks, not as RAWA but as part of the Kings delegation. 


Q:  You have grown in a period of civil war and massive repression, how did you grow, how did you organize during the last twenty years?


A:  RAWA is not the unique such phenomena in the world.  We are witness of many other countries in war for decades.  Obviously where there is suppression there is definitely resistance, you cant really stop resistance.  Because if there is an action there is a reaction.  And there is always this reaction against oppression, the resistance is that reaction.  It was very difficult for us to organize our activities and to conduct our projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But we managed it.  And obviously it was taking risk.  We lost our founding leader Mina, and that can happen to other members also.  Weve always been inspired by other organizations, especially womens movements, in countries like Iran that we have in some ways similar background, history, and obviously language and their struggle against fundamentalism.


Q:  What kind of linkages perhaps RAWA has had with other movements in South Asia in Pakistan, India and Iran which are supportive of your goals?


A:  In Pakistan we have contacts and relationships with womens organizations, democratic organizations.  In whatever ways that we can keep those contacts.  Unfortunately, as you may know in Pakistan there are not many grassroots womens organizations as you do in India.  That makes our contacts a bit limited.  They are usually very surprised by our activities.  They say  how you can organize a demonstration with 2,000 women?”, how you can organize a womens day function of 2,000 women or men?”.  They are very surprised.  But its really great to have the support of women like Asma Jehangir and Hina Jillani [NB: two prominent human rights activists in Pakistan] that have been very outspoken and they have also risked their lives in order to bringing up especially the honor killing” in Pakistan [NB: honor killings” refers to the murder of women by their own families in response to women asserting their freedom, especially sexual freedom].  They have been very supportive of RAWA.  Actually recently [for] the first time a RAWA representative was in India, and I am sure you know that it is so strange for someone to get visa from Pakistan to India.  We have to be even more careful, because of the relationship between Pakistan and India.  We have sometimes been labeled by the Pakistani government as agents of India.  Especially RAWA is sometimes confused with RAW[NB: the Indian intelligence agency, similar to the CIA.]. 


Q: I have a question about civilian casualties, we have been hearing conflicting reports of the number of people killed.  I was wondering if you have any independent sources who could confirm these numbers?  What is RAWAs analysis?


A:  We dont have any confirmed number.  Its definitely in the hundreds, Taliban claim to be thousands, I dont think there would be thousands but definitely hundreds.  Maybe two weeks ago [there was an article] by AP confirming 400 civilian casualties, its apparently more than that by now.  There have been reports that villages in some parts that were bombed where the civilian casualties was 3 or 30 or 10.  Once Taliban reported that in one of the villages that 200 [were killed], but we dont have a confirmed number because it has been very difficult for RAWA to keep the communication as we could have it before.  Because we always had it through people, now its very difficult because the border is closed.


Q:  Is it difficult to distinguish between civilian and military casualties?  I know sometimes they say that if you live close to a military installation theyll count you as a military target. Is that an issue when you are trying to determine the number of casualties?


A:  I dont think that would be very difficult, because it is quite known [if in a] village there has been a terrorist camp or not or Taliban concentration camp.  Its not that there is specific areas the Taliban live, well, in Kandahar they have their headquarters, and it might be known to some people that Mullah Omar lived in those parts (I think he actually had many headquarters than just Kandahar).  The Taliban were everywhere, its not that they were in Kabul they were more concentrated.  I have seen 3-4 reports [where] the villagers have said that they dont have anything to do with the terrorist camps or the Taliban but the US bombed those villages and the officials would say that well we made a mistake, we bombed a village rather than a terrorist camp.  Unfortunately, its called simply a mistake. I saw a report by Human Rights Watch that in the southern parts a village was bombed and more than thirty people were killed, they had interviewed some of the survivors who had come to Pakistan.  They condemned that US bombing, the Human Rights Watch [i.e. the HRW condemned the bombing by the US].  And the US officials in response say that we killed those people because we want them to die.  Which I cant understand, what was the point, why do you want civilians to die.  Some people cant believe, they say that maybe Human Rights Watch misquoted, but I dont think that they would be that careless. 



Q: [Question about US complicity and whether RAWA would like to hold them accountable….]


A:  About the current bombing, we think that…this is how the people think (because many people told us), that on one hand this rooted out Taliban in Afghanistan or root out terrorist camps and terrorism and Osama in Afghanistan.  On the other the civilians were there, the civilians were also the victims and we have thousands and thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan.  At least in Pakistan after 11 September more than a 100,000 people came.  And when they came to Pakistan they had nothing, no food, no clothing, no shelter, nothing.  The citizens are so fed up with more than two decades of war, they think that if this could root out terrorism and fundamentalism this would be a positive sign.  And people see the Taliban almost rooted out, but definitely they are not happy with the arrival of the Northern Alliance.  And in that case they dont see any difference. 


Q:  Would RAWA consider bringing US to an international court?


A:  RAWA has always had positions and always condemned US policy towards Afghanistan.  And RAWA was one of the organizations that had warned the US 20 years ago when they first started supporting the fundamentalists, that an 11th September incident would happen.  Because it is in their nature that they are not only going to be dangerous to the people of Afghanistan and the people of the region, especially Paktistan.  Now the government of Pakistan is really trembling from its fundamentalists. 


Q: Has RAWA made a political statement against the US after the current action?


A: We have two statements on our website, one is after 11th September and one is after the US bombing.


Q:  One of the questions we are wondering about is how RAWA feels about the appropriation of womens issues by some in the US right.  Laura Bush for instance speaking out on womens rights etc, and there is this sense that the US has liberated women in these kinds of times, there is a complete kind of appropriation  of womens issues by the rightwing.  I was wondering what you think about it, what RAWA thinks about it?


A:  So far I havent seen an official statement by RAWA about this.  But I think that the main question for all of us and the women of Afghanistan is: where were they before September!


Q:  [Comment suggesting RAWA form alliances with people in South Asia to prevent isolation]


A:  We believe in a strong solidarity in definitely broader context, between RAWA and womens organizations in other countries, especially in India, which has a strong womens movement.  We have closely worked with the women of Pakistan to the extent that we could, they have been quite supportive.  We want to have more and more contacts.  It is very risky for that member [i.e. the representative of RAWA who visited India] to be in India because of Pakistan, because of the Northern Alliance, it was such a big risk but because of the importance of making that contact RAWA took the risk and sent a representative there.      

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail

20 May 2006

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