Women and the Taliban

Established in 1977, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) work from Pakistan, often risking their own lives to carry out their health and education programs.

RAWA members also act as witnesses and have made chilling recordings of the oppression and violence suffered by women under Afghanistan’s Taliban rule.

The following is from an Oct. 18 forum on BBC, Talking Point.

Newshost: Rebekah, New Zealand: How is the bombing in Afghanistan affecting women there?

Sahar Saba: Afghanistan is a country which has been at war for the last 20 years – of course women again are the first victims. Thousands of women have been forced to leave Afghanistan again with their children. There has been a lot of mental concern for women because the Taliban have announced this new law to force men to go to the war front.

Also because of the lack of food, lack of access to healthcare – this is a big issue for thousands of women. The borders at both sides, with Iran and Pakistan, are closed, which is another big issue for women and children, that they cannot come to Pakistan through the mountains.

So economically and socially, it has very bad consequences for our people in general and for women in particular as we have seen in the last 20 years. Again they are becoming the victims because of this war and this is the situation of war. So if they want it or not they are becoming the victims.

Newshost: Avinash Waghray, New Delhi, India: Are the air raids on Afghanistan justified?

Sahar Saba: Not at all, because this is not the solution. It cannot eradicate the real terrorism and as we have clearly seen, our people again are becoming the victims.

Right now, thousands of our people are in danger of hunger or starvation, bombings etc. – no one can guarantee their lives. We have been receiving reports from Kabul – just yesterday we talked to one of our colleagues – bombs have been dropped close to civilian places. This is not the solution for today’s Afghanistan.

Secondly, no one is sure about the result of these attacks. Who will replace the Taliban if they are removed? That is the biggest concern for everyone in Afghanistan.

Newshost: Manoj Mathew, Jabalpur, India: Are you getting any help from the men in Afghanistan for your fight against women’s oppression in your country.

Sahar Saba: We do, fortunately – we have many great male supporters inside Afghanistan and also in Pakistan. It is very difficult to work without men in these societies. So, of course, we are trying to get more support. But that’s why we believe fundamentalists, religious extremists, are far different from the common people – our enemy is fundamentalism, not the men in Afghanistan.

Newshost: Michael Gotianun, Manila, Philippines: If women are not allowed to work, what happens to widows or single mothers with no close relatives?

Sahar Saba: Unfortunately, hundreds and thousands of these women have no option left for them except to beg or to go into prostitution or commit suicide. This is the situation – this is the tragedy – with women in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, RAWA is the only active organization in Afghanistan and cannot do more due to our very critical financial problems. Many [women] have committed suicide and the suicide rate is increasing every day. Also, there is the psychological issue with Afghan women – more than 95 percent of women in Afghanistan have very serious psychological problems.

Newshost: Roushan Aziz, Dhaka, Bangladesh: As the Afghan women are not allowed to go to school, then how do you carry out your educational program?

Sahar Saba: It is unbelievable working in a society like Afghanistan but we do have projects that are completely underground. We have never let the Taliban know about our activities – the places, the timing etc. But we do expect anything from them at any time – it doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems. We are working and taking a risk with our lives. It is only because we know how important it is to give education under such a brutal regime.

Newshost: Alice Dunkerley, Spain: How different was life before the Taliban? Can you see women ever having equal rights, not only in Afghanistan, but places like Pakistan also?

Sahar Saba: We cannot say that women had full rights in Afghanistan or even in Pakistan but what we can say is that we definitely cannot compare the situation of women today with the situation of women 30 years ago. Thirty years ago we had a country – women at least had rights – women were in the government, more than 70 percent of the schoolteachers were women, boys and girls were studying together.

We had rights and we were considered as human beings. But what happened with the Taliban, with the fundamentalist Northern Alliance and all these parties, the wheel of history has turned 100 years back. This is the tragedy, that we are not going ahead but we are going back.

Newshost: Cristian Lillo, Temuco, Chile: Does the Northern Alliance treat women better than the Taliban?

Sahar Saba: No, unfortunately they are both fundamentalists – they have the same mentality, the same ideology and it’s based on experience that we had during their time in power. We can never forget those four darkest years in our history – in many ways they were worse than the Taliban. There were kidnappings of young girls, rapes – even of 70-year-old grandmothers. So how can we say they are better? No, they are as bad as each other – they are fundamentalists and that is why both sides should be [replaced].

Newshost: Ajit Matthew, Bangalore, India: Do you think women will be ever treated on a par once the Taliban leadership is removed?

Sahar Saba: We cannot say anything for sure but it depends more on who will replace the Taliban and what kind of government we will have in the future. Of course, we hope to have a different government from these fundamentalists where women at least are a part of the society – where women at least have the right to work or to get something not only for themselves but for their children. But we cannot say anything for sure.

Newshost: Ásdís Berg_órsdóttir, Reykjavik, Iceland: Now there is much talk of the future government of Afghanistan, of a gathering of Afghan individuals and leaders to plan for the future. Has anyone approached RAWA with an offer to be included in such an assembly?

Sahar Saba: We think that RAWA must be a part of the future government, not because of any kind of interest to be in power but just to represent half of the population of Afghanistan. We do consider this as our right because we have been working for the last 24 years and we have made sacrifices.

We believe that the goals we have – the objectives – which are women’s rights, democracy and secularism is what our people and our women want. So we hope there would be a place for RAWA on behalf of Afghan women.

Newshost: John Wachman, Chicago, U.S.: Can your desires for the rights of women be achieved under any form of Islamic government?

Sahar Saba: The issue is not with the Islamic governments – the issue is with fundamentalism.

That is why I would again say with the example of Afghanistan, that Afghanistan was a Muslim country 30 years ago. But it was a different country. At least it was a normal country, but today it is not. So we don’t believe that Islam or any religion can be an issue. The issue is how they are misleading the people under the name of Islam or religion – this is the issue.

Newshost: Judy C., Seattle, U.S.: Even if the Taliban is removed from governing, how might it be possible to reshape men’s thinking? They have had total authority to brutalize women and even kill them. What could possibly make them stop?

Sahar Saba: Regarding the Taliban and the fundamentalists – everyone knows who they were and how they were brought into power. So the issue now is between those who have brought them into power and the Taliban itself – it has nothing to do with our people.

So it is better to find a solution to this and we believe stopping any kind of support – financial, military and political support to both sides – the Taliban and Northern Alliance – would be the best solution. Also the intervention of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan could do something.

Newshost: Anne Tuite, Antwerp, Belgium: Do the women of Afghanistan actually want change or is there a large number of women within Afghanistan who support the oppression of women?

Sahar Saba: How could one support such a brutal regime – having no rights, not being considered as a human being. I can say that the majority of women in Afghanistan are fed up with the fundamentalists, with the atrocities, with the crimes that have been committed against them.

Newshost: Liza Marie, U.S.: Have you made any progress in letting the younger women of your country know that what is going on – like the way woman are treated there is not the way of the world and that it has not always been the way it is now?

Sahar Saba: This is one of our main activities, to especially educate young girls. The priority for us is the young generation – especially the girls.

That’s why even in Afghanistan those home-based classes, the literacy courses are all for these women and also raising awareness – not only about the situation in Afghanistan, about their rights as women, but also about the situation of women around the world and how they can have freedom – how they can have their rights as human beings. We believe it’s very important to educate this young generation because the fundamentalists have not only destroyed the past and the present but our future as well. This is our responsibility to rebuild this future.

Newshost: Bolandi, Poland: How do the ordinary people feel – especially men, husbands – about the bad situation of women in the Taliban’s Afghanistan?

Sahar Saba: Most of the men – most of the families – hate the Taliban. They are hoping to see the elimination of the Taliban from the political scene because they are tired of war, they are tired of the destruction, they are tired of the atrocities and brutalities that we cannot find in any part of the world. So that’s why no one can support a regime like the Taliban or the fundamentalist in Afghanistan.

Another issue is why we don’t see a visible resistance movement – people with empty stomachs and empty hands and facing an enemy which is talking with the language of the gun – it impossible to hope for resistance from them. But people are not happy with the situation and they want to change the situation.

Newshost: Chaman, San Francisco, U.S.: Do you not think there are women who love to cover themselves up to protect themselves and for religious reasons? Even in a free country such as U.S. there are women who cover themselves up.

Sahar Saba: Yes, there might be, even in Afghanistan, but the issue of the burkah in Afghanistan and why it has been opposed by many women is that it has been imposed by force – otherwise it is a right whether you want to cover yourself or not. It must be that you have this as a right.

Yes, many women have covered themselves because of religious belief and many for other reasons. But it must not be by force – this is the issue today in Afghanistan.