The complete subordination of women was one of the first acts of the Taliban. But the women of RAWA refused to cower. They used the burqa to their advantage, secretly photographing Taliban beatings and executions, and posting the gruesome pictures on their multi-language website, rawa.org, which is read around the world. They organized to educate girls and women in underground schools and to run small businesses in the border towns of Pakistan that allowed widows to support their families.
If caught, any RAWA activist would have faced sure death. Yet they persisted.
With the overthrow of the Taliban now a reality, RAWA faces a new challenge: defeating the powers of Islamic fundamentalism of which the Taliban are only one face and helping build a society in which women are guaranteed full human rights.
Cheryl Benard, an American sociologist and an important advisor to RAWA, uses her inside access to write the first behind-the-scenes story of RAWA and its remarkably brave women. Veiled Courage will change the way Americans think of Afghanistan, casting its people and its future in a new, more hopeful light.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Chapter One: Men, Boys and Dust
Men, boys and dust. That was my initial impression when I first went to the Afghan border area in 1982, an expert in project design sent to assess the efficiency with which aid was being delivered to Afghan refugees by the international community. I had lived, traveled and studied in other countries, including Islamic ones, but even there, my contacts had been limited to people like me–modern, educated, urban people. This was not the group that populated the border area or lived in the refugee camps.
Reviewing the aid projects consisted of two activities. I toured the camps, visited the health clinics and distribution centers and surveyed the other services Western agencies were providing. I took part in the meetings where these agencies discussed how things were going and decided what to do next.
The camps were in desolate areas half an hour to an hour from the nearest Pakistani town. You took an unpaved road into what seemed like nowhere and bounced along until the drab silhouette of tents or mud huts appeared before you. Your driver stopped at a polite distance, and you got out. Within seconds, a crowd of men and boys materialized, apparently out of nowhere. They must have seen you coming, then emerged from their dwellings and approached, but it never seemed that way. They always seemed to just appear, and in large numbers, too.
They would form a circle around you and stare at you intently, though not threateningly. There were no women in their midst, never, and no girls. Their society was highly segregated, you knew that much already, and here you could plainly see it for yourself. However, they seemed to take your presence completely in stride. After a while, children would be dispatched to run into the camp and fetch a person of authority. If someone had some knowledge of English, that person would also arrive. The reason for your visit would be elicited through a combination of the driver’s explanations and your own communication with the powers that be.
In the tedium of camp life, your arrival was a major ceremonial occasion. If the camp featured a school, the children would be exhibited, the little girls peeping out from their many-layered wrappings while the boys were made to perform their military drills for you. Tea would be brought. Chairs would be fetched, two or three of them, whatever number the camp owned, and set up right there on the middle of the plain, and you would be urged to sit down while the important people of the camp–the elders, the school-teacher, the person who spoke some English–drank tea with you, sitting on chairs if there were enough, or squatting on the ground if there weren’t. Everyone else would remain standing in a circle, still watching and staring. You would feel a little bit like the French kings, who took their meals in public while select groups of their subjects paraded past the table to watch them eat. Your gender never seemed to make the slightest bit of difference. These tribal Afghan men were completely willing to negotiate, debate, interact with you in a neutral and solemn manner. Even their body language indicated that they weren’t perceiving you as female. They neither kept an awkward distance nor did they seek an uncomfortable proximity. For photo opportunities, they would stand shoulder to shoulder with you, fixing the camera with a grimly somber gaze. You could feel like “one of the guys.”
I also took part in the meetings where the resident Western helpers discussed their work. There were quite a few women among the aid workers, but as an issue, Afghan women went as unremarked in these meetings as they were physically invisible in the camps. Occasionally, someone would bring up the horrific mortality rates for women and newborns during childbirth, as well as for children under the age of five. Someone who had just compiled clinic statistics would mention the extremely high rates of domestic violence, the many women whose arm had been broken, who had been severely beaten by a husband or a male in-law or whose life-threatening health problem had been neglected until the matter was hopeless, even though the free clinic was a stone’s throw away and the men of that family visited the clinic constantly to complain of a headache or to demand vitamins.
The outcome of these discussions was always the same. There was nothing you could do about it, the aid workers regretfully concluded. You weren’t here to interfere in people’s cultural traditions. The Pashtuns were just like that. You couldn’t change them. It was pointless to offer services that would benefit the women, because the Afghans just didn’t want that. They were used to things being this way. Even the women themselves didn’t expect anything different. I found these discussions deeply depressing, of course, but was inclined at first to accept the premise. It was obvious that the Afghans lived in an age, if not a universe, quite different from our own. Their men indeed made a very resolute impression and did not at first sight appear to be a group you could easily sway or mold.
Collectively, their reputation was this: an intractable, archaic people, stubborn, violent, with a history of overthrowing any ruler who tried to reform their backward social ways and of defeating any foreigner who tried to change them. Even their own kings were not able to move them forward by more than a cautious millimeter or so without risking assassination or at best deposition. They rose up when you tried to free their women from the veil. Talk of educating their girls, and they would rebel. After hearing enough of these cautionary tales, the term they might start nagging at you a little. “They” were the Afghan men, clearly. Weren’t the Afghan women part of the national “they”? Did they have opinions, too? It seemed not. “They don’t question their lot,” you would be told. “They feel safe within the family,” some would offer consolingly. “They can’t imagine a different life.” I couldn’t argue with any of that. The statistics were appalling, mortality rates astronomically high, literacy rates appallingly low, but in the end they were just that–numbers.
It was hard to get any real sense of Afghan women. You never met them, they didn’t talk to you, you barely saw them. They were little more than a defensive motion in the distance–a covering hastily drawn around themselves and a glimpse of fabric as they disappeared into the recesses of a tent at the first sight of strangers. At your approach, the women vanished with the same immediate magic that made the men suddenly appear. Maybe the women really did accept things as they were. Maybe it really would take a very, very long time to gradually change things. Maybe you really couldn’t apply your own standards and had to leave it up to them to transform their own society in due course.
Maybe they really were so shy and traditional that the idea of visiting a clinic, of going to a school, of leaving their tents was anathema to them. Then, on a later trip, I was told that there was a hospital for Afghan women, a small one, on the outskirts of Peshawar, run by an idealistic group of Afghan doctors–and that I might find it an interesting place to visit. It wasn’t part of my official program, so I took a scooter taxi, tunneling down a series of increasingly narrow streets and alleys until I reached the flat brown building, encircled by a mud wall, that held this clinic. There was one ward, a large room consisting of about thirty beds. The doctor led me in and took me from bed to bed. I started at the first one and made my way around the room, talking to each occupant while he translated or added his own explanation. The visit lasted for perhaps an hour, but it seemed like forever, in the way of tragedies and accidents and other terrible, unmeasurable moments. It is no exaggeration to say that when I emerged from that room, I was not the same person who had gone in.
The women in that ward were simple, ordinary refugee women. They came from villages or very small towns. Even before becoming refugees, they had been poor. They had no education. They had no notion of an outside world where life might be different. They were being treated for various ailments, but in the end, their gender was their ailment.
In the first bed, a skinny fourteen-year-old girl lay rolled into her sheets in a state of almost catatonic unresponsive-ness, eyes closed, not speaking even in reply to the doctor’s gentle greeting. Her family had brought her to be treated for mental illness, the doctor explained with regret. They had recently married her to a man in his seventies, a wealthy and influential personage by their standards. In their version of things, something had started mysteriously to go wrong with her mind as soon as the marriage was agreed upon–acase of demon possession, her family supposed. When, after repeated beatings, she still failed to cooperate gracefully with her new husband’s sexual demands, he had angrily returned her to her family and ordered them to fix this problem.
They had taken the girl to a mullah, who had tried to expel the demon through prayers and by writing Quranic passages on little pieces of paper that had to be dissolved in water and then drunk, but this had brought no improvement, so the mullah had abandoned his diagnosis of demon possession and decided that the girl was sick. The family had brought her to the clinic, to be treated for insanity. “We’ll keep her here for as long as we can,” the doctor said. “Then we’ll prescribe tranquilizers. There’s nothing else we can do. She has no choice. She has nowhere else to go. She just has to come to terms with this.”
The second woman had a baby in the bed with her, a tiny thing with a shock of dark hair, hooked under her arm like a doll; the mother seemed listless, barely more responsive than the girl we had just visited. What was wrong with her? Or was it the baby that was ill?
There was nothing wrong with either one of them, the doctor said. A normal birth, a healthy baby. They should have gone home a week ago, but no one had come to pick them up. The doctor shrugged, patted the woman’s arm and said something consoling to her, but she didn’t answer. The baby was a girl, he explained, and this had made her hus-band and his family very angry. To show their disapproval, they were refusing to collect her. They would come eventually, they always did; this was just a disciplinary measure, to frighten her into thinking she had been abandoned, so that she would try harder to meet their expectations in the future.
The woman in the next bed looked really ill, haggard and very pale. She had a visitor. An elderly woman was perched right up on the bed beside her, sitting on her heels like a little sparrow, clutching the younger woman’s hand tightly and stroking her cheek, looking sad and worried: her mother. This young woman had suffered a miscarriage, the doctor explained, her sixth or seventh one in a row. He had sat down with the husband and explained to him very carefully that there was no reason why he and his wife should not one day have a successful pregnancy and healthy children.
But first, his wife’s body needed a chance to rest. There was no point in relentlessly trying for one pregnancy after another. It was not only pointless but also dangerous. His wife was already weak and anemic; if the next miscarriage brought any complications, she might die.
The husband had listened with little interest. “Then he said, ‘It is the woman’s job, intended by God, to give children. If she dies, that is God’s will, and I will marry another woman,’” the doctor related, his voice somewhere between indignation and despair. Sometimes he thought of dispensing birth control secretly, but women had so little privacy in these traditional families, and if anyone found out, it would be the end of him.
I continued the circuit. Looking back, I don’t remember a single woman whose problem was primarily medical. The doctor knew that; for most of his patients, dispensing tran-quilizers was the best he could do. As we progressed deeper into the ward, the women became more vocal, on each other’s behalf if not on their own. The next patient had been brought in for “mental disturbances” caused by the fact that her eight-year-old son had been taken away by her husband to participate in the “holy war.” This happened a lot, the doctor explained, and the mothers often took it very badly. Some became hysterical and could not be calmed down. They would cry for days and even become violent, throwing themselves against walls in their grief. Many of these boys died; what did they know about being a warrior? This woman’s story caused a number of the other women to sit upright in their beds and start speaking in agitated voices. I had been led to believe that the Afghans were universally behind the “freedom fighters,” ready to pay any price to punish the Soviets.
These women had a different view. To them, martyrdom was not heroic and the sacrifice of children was not gladly given. They wanted their young sons alive and accused the rebel leaders of being tyrants, unscrupulous and corrupt. I had been led to believe that Afghan women had no views or, if they did, that they followed those of their men exactly. This was my first indication that such was not the case.
I met women who were not ill at all, not the least little bit; having been widowed or rejected by an angry husband, they just had nowhere else to go, and the doctor was allowing them this bed as their only refuge. I met women who needed physical therapy because they had been confined to dark tents for so long that their bones and muscles and skin had been damaged. Convicts get an hour in the prison yard, to exercise see the light of day; I met women who had not been allowed out of their tents for years, except under cover of darkness. I met women who had been forcibly married, women who had been arbitrarily divorced, women whose sons had been turned into child soldiers and their daughters into child brides through the whim of their husbands, women who were crippled because after a severe beating medical treatment had been withheld. Some had been made apathetic by despair, but not one of them welcomed her abuse as being in line with her religion or her culture, and several of them were very angry. You could go to a conference on women in Islam in Washington, D.C., or Berlin or Los Angeles and hear Muslim women militantly defend all sorts of inequities on the grounds that the Prophet or their national tradition or the Quran wanted it so, but you didn’t hear anything like that in this ward. This was more like Gulag Archipelago, like visiting the political prisoners of a merciless military dictatorship. It was one thing to realize abstractly that these women’s lives were sad, telling myself that they weren’t really like me and didn’t expect anything different and therefore didn’t really mind. It was another to come face-to-face with an entire roomful of their helpless, hopeless misery. And if these thirty women minded, perhaps they all did.
These women were not resigned, they hadn’t grown indifferent to the deaths of their children, they didn’t accept loveless arranged marriages as a given, they didn’t feel secure in the arms of an extended family, they weren’t content in deep traditionalism. It was obvious that I had fallen prey to a comfortable deception. “These are the lucky ones,” the doctor remarked. “Their families are modern enough to allow them medical treatment.
Have you heard the Afghan saying? A woman should only leave her house twice: once at her wedding, to go to the household of her husband, and once when she dies, to be taken to the graveyard.”
This new and awful knowledge left me with nowhere to go, with no discernible assignment. The international organizations were not going to rock the boat just for the sake of Afghan women. They had no champion, and they themselves were in no position to fight. Was the doctor’s approach the best one could hope for? Did we need to mobi-lize the pharmaceutical companies and organize a giant shipment of Xanax to be dropped over Afghanistan like food packets, to anesthetize Afghan women to their lot?
“There’s this school . . . ,” a young Afghan woman whispered to me timidly, having heard from the doctor that these matters were of interest to me. Another scooter taxi, this time into a lower-middle-class residential area. A glance to the right and to the left, then a quick dash inside. No, it wasn’t illegal here in Pakistan, but still, a girls’ school–that was a very controversial thing, and it was better not to attract notice. I found myself inside a normal home. In the shaded courtyard, surrounded by plants and vines, twenty girls sat in rows, their eyes bright and lively and darkened with kohl, their books open before them. A motherly, businesslike teacher turned to greet me.
That was how I found RAWA.
I didn’t know, at that moment, exactly what it was that I had found, or what it would come to mean to me. I didn’t know yet that besides running schools and clinics, RAWA was also a political movement, determined to offer Afghan women more than sedatives to palliate the injustices of their lives. I didn’t know that the Taliban would come and estab-lish a reign of terror far worse than that of the fundamentalists who currently held sway, or that RAWA would become the only group, male or female, to organize an underground resistance against them. And I certainly did not anticipate the grip RAWA would claim on my heart, the painful disillusionment I would suffer on their behalf as world politics showed its worst and most cynical face, the long-standing partnership that would extend from fundraising events in Vienna to conference halls in Bonn to interviews conducted practically under the rain of American bombs falling on Kabul. And I did not know that, for the small help I was able to give them, a determination to carry on under all and any odds would be their gift to me.
From the Hardcover edition.