Feminism in Afghanistan has never looked quite like its Western counterpart — and has often suffered at the hands of those claiming to act in its name.
This is according to Mariam R., a long-time activist and member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. (Mariam’s full name is being withheld to protect her safety). Founded in 1977, RAWA members seek to create a secular, progressive movement independent of the imported ideologies of liberalism and Maoism on one hand, and the domestic strains of Islamism and nationalism on the other.
RAWA’s founder, 20-year-old law student Meena Keshwar Kamal, was inspired by socialist-feminist leader Nawal el Saadawi in Egypt, as well as anticolonial and feminist movements in places including Algeria and Iran. Kamal argued that equality for women was integral to any just society, and saw secularism as a necessary safeguard to extremism. With a group of fellow intellectuals, Kamal launched RAWA with the aim of “involv[ing] an increasing number of Afghan women in social and political activities” and establishing “women’s human rights” and “a government based on democratic and secular values.”
For these ambitions, RAWA members would pay a heavy price. Over the years, their members have faced vicious opposition on many fronts, from Soviet occupiers and Islamic fundamentalists to local warlords and even their own kin. Kamal herself was assassinated in Pakistan in 1987, an act RAWA attributes to the “KHAD (Afghanistan branch of KGB) and their fundamentalist accomplices.” Even so, the women of RAWA reject “rescue” via foreign intervention. “For us, fundamentalism and imperialism are two sides of the same coin.” This position stands in contrast to some of their opponents, according to Mariam, who receive direct or indirect aid from abroad.
RAWA is an embodied critique of the women’s rights narrative that the U.S. government and others touted to justify military intervention in Afghanistan. Just two months after the U.S. invasion in 2001, then-first lady Laura Bush announced, “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes… The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Throughout the 20-year occupation, the precarious status of Afghan women was used to argue for the enduring presence of troops, as well as hundreds of nonprofits tethered to a pro-U.S. agenda. President Barack Obama’s 2015 plan to draw down the U.S. military in Afghanistan prompted a slew of petitions and op-eds from American feminists arguing that the pullout would imperil Afghan women and girls.
Two administrations later, after a botched U.S. withdrawal and swift Taliban takeover, the “question” of Afghan women is once again a flashpoint for Western pundits and journalists. While many have focused on the horrors experienced by urban women over their loss of political and social rights, others have reported that their rural counterparts, weary after twenty years of fighting, were quite willing to accept Taliban rule as a condition of ceasefire. Many Western liberals condemned Taliban cruelty and the Biden administration’s inept withdrawal while largely avoiding the question of how twenty years and over two trillion dollars of “nation building” had collapsed in a matter of days.
Meanwhile, RAWA has continued to navigate the realities of feminist organizing in Afghanistan. The group maintains that only a “political revolution” — the overthrow of the current government and the establishment of a secular democratic society — will bring the long-deferred stability and freedom the Afghan people deserve. Yet from its earliest days, the group’s members have grappled with the practical challenges of political organizing across the numerous ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups that comprise the country’s 40 million residents.
Even as the group has expanded to include literacy programs, income-generation projects, and healthcare services, its original aim — to be a vehicle for political education and agitation — has endured. From the beginning, it has taken a decentralized, localized approach, adapting its political message to fit realities on the ground throughout Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where about 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees now reside.
Now, with the resurgence of the Taliban and the resumption of many draconian measures to limit the freedom of women to move, work, and learn in the country, RAWA must confront new-old challenges to realizing their revolutionary goals. In a conversation with Lux, Mariam discussed how she and her fellow members are coping with rapid changes on the ground, her life as a mother and activist, and her thoughts about her country’s future.
Mariam is 46-years-old and was born in Afghanistan. She spent part of her upbringing in Pakistan as a refugee, where she attended a RAWA-run school and began her political education. She became a full-fledged RAWA member in 1996, and has worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the years, has been involved in documenting human rights conditions, refugee relief work, grassroots education and political awareness campaigns, and representing RAWA at human rights conferences abroad.
The conversation was conducted over the phone, and has been edited for clarity.
Sarah Aziza First of all, how are you and your family doing? What has life been like for you, as a woman and as the mother of a young girl, during this time?
Mariam R. How does it feel to have a daughter? Terrible, especially terrible, right now. My daughter is 13. According to the Taliban standard she’s old enough for the burka — in their eyes, she’s not a child anymore. She is very energetic and social, but she’s not allowed to go to school or even to play with her friends in the neighborhood. This is not how I was raised. My father was killed when I was young, so my mother and grandmother made most of the decisions.
Now, I can’t even give my daughter the values of my mom or even my grandmother. It feels like we have gone decades backwards. They’ve closed or threatened all the media outlets. Music has been banned. Recently they announced that women are not allowed to travel even within the city on public transport if they are not completely covered and with a male companion.
Of course, we aren’t saying that the U.S. withdrawal was negative — we were glad to see them go. And we never had any faith in the puppet government they were setting up. But under the Taliban, women and girls have no human rights at all.
SA Yet the international community has done little to curb the Taliban, despite many years of using “women’s rights” to justify their intervention.
MR Exactly. At the end of the day, they will say the abuses are “cultural,” or that war is just “historical” in Afghanistan. But actually, Afghans, just like people all over the world, want a better life, and they know how to achieve it. Whatever “religious” and “cultural” issues we have are not as big of a factor as the foreign interventions, and the political systems they support. We have had progressive [Afghan] democratic activists working for human rights here for decades, but outside powers continue to support puppet regimes and fanatics who push us back.
At the end of the day, we believe the Taliban will probably be officially recognized by other governments, which will allow them to get financial support and strengthen their power. There have been some signs that China or Russia might want to get closer to Afghanistan, to have more influence here. We imagine that if that happens, the U.S. and the West will get worried, and try to jump in and establish strong ties with the Taliban too, despite their atrocities.
SA What kinds of direct action and protest have you been able to accomplish so far under the Taliban? How is morale among your comrades?
MR In the beginning, it was much stronger. Women didn’t care that the Taliban told them to stay home. They gathered to protest here and there, even just inside their own homes and offices. Some used social media to run campaigns. They thought, at least we aren’t keeping silent. But there have been harsh crackdowns, and now it’s very hard. Women are feeling a lot of disappointment and hopelessness. The younger generation is completely terrified, they’ve never experienced the Taliban.
Also, many people are too worried about economic pressures and hunger to protest. Most people are exhausted. They are tired of war, insecurity, and mostly poverty and hunger.
SA In a way, this reflects many other periods that RAWA has experienced — including moments when it was too dangerous for many of your members to protest openly. How do you see your political work moving inside these constraints?
MR We are used to facing danger for our work: The Soviets hunted us, the mujahadeen opposed us, and now we have the Taliban and ISIS, among others. Foreign empires have always interfered with us, through their armies and lackeys on the ground. In this way, our experience is very different than feminists in Western countries, and we have to use different tactics. For example, in many regions of Afghanistan women would be afraid to participate in political activities, but are very open to income-generating or literacy programs. So, we try to adapt our political education efforts around what a local community can accept.
SA So even your most humanitarian projects have a political goal — they serve as a means to plant seeds of long-term change?
MR Yes, exactly. We try to be responsive to people’s needs, and we provide some services that look like they could be NGO programs, but we are very different from an NGO. Even in the orphanages and clinics we run, we try to present women — and men and children — with a different vision and set of values. We want them to see that RAWA serves all ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups equally. Any legitimate government in the future will have to unite all these groups, so we try to practice that now, and to be an example of the democratic society we want to achieve. It takes lots of work and lots of energy to shape people’s minds to be ready for that future. We don’t believe, for example, that teaching women to read will change everything.
SA That sounds like a critique of some of the foreign NGOs?
MR Yes. From a political point of view, we are very critical of NGOs. We believe most of the Western NGOs, especially after 9/11, have been deeply involved in corruption. They brought in millions of dollars, paid large salaries to a small number of Afghans, and deepened the divide between rich and poor.
If they talk about politics at all, it’s only about superficial reforms and very immediate changes, perhaps some legal reforms. But we believe they are mainly advancing imperial influence in poor countries, and in the end play a negative role. But when the need is so great, like it is in Afghanistan, people accept them and they are able to operate without scrutiny.
SA Could you tell us more about RAWA’s political vision? What does the “revolution” you call for look like, in practical terms?
MR We believe there is a need for very deep political change in Afghanistan. That means getting rid of the current system entirely. Our ideal society would be based on equality and democracy, and it would guarantee rights for all people living in Afghanistan, regardless of religion or ethnicity or language. That is why, first and foremost, we oppose fundamentalism and imperialism.
SA How does RAWA’s philosophy interact with ideologies such as socialism and political Islam?
MR From an ideological point of view, we believe we are closest to a socialist feminist position. Socialism, for us, means a society where there is no oppression or exploitation, and of course all the means of production are counted as national assets that belong to all people. Socialist values include many things beyond economic change, but we believe the economy is key to changing culture, traditions, beliefs and mentalities.
At the same time, we don’t insist everyone take the same political stance. We want to be inclusive, and we have different believers in our group, including Marxists, democrats, socialists, and nationalists. We also have some members who have religious faith, and also believe in human equality and social justice, and oppose fundamentalism. Regarding Islam, we cannot deny that religion plays a huge role in everyday life, in politics, in the economy, etc. That’s why secularism is very important to us — we need to have separation between religion and the state, or there can never be unity.
SA I have to ask about funding: Where do you get your financial support?
MR That is a very difficult subject. We never registered as an NGO, so we are not eligible for aid from most of the big international organizations. We mainly rely on donations from our friends and support networks abroad. For example, we have a network of Afghan women in the U.S. who collect funds for us. We have a group in Italy that has been supporting us for 20 years. This is where most of our aid comes from: from women standing for equality and the anti-war cause. We are proud to be funded this way — even the small amounts they send have deep meaning for us.
SA That was my next question, actually. I would love to know what you see as useful forms of solidarity abroad, as opposed to the repetitive media coverage of “oppressed women” in your country.
MR This is important to us. Before, we were able to travel and present our voice in the international arena, but this is not possible now. But it is important to mention that although we have always been very critical of the U.S. policies and the CIA, we really appreciate the support we’ve gotten from feminist and anti-war organizations in the U.S. They have been helpful in raising their voices in defense of Afghan women, even just through social media, friends and contacts. When we see that they truly appreciate our feelings and views — that helps a lot. I would say we definitely wish more people in the West didn’t listen to just the mainstream media, though. We wish they would seek out Afghan voices.
SA RAWA’s founders were inspired by feminist movements in Africa and Asia, such as those in Algeria, Egypt, and Iran. Do your members have any models that they look to today?
MR Yes and no. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is totally unique in the types of interventions and struggles it has faced in the modern era. But at the same time, there are lots of movements we could draw from. The women’s resistance in Iran is still a big inspiration for us. Also, the Kurdish people inspire us a lot, and we have been in contact with some of them. Pakistani women also have a long, proud history of fighting against religious fascism and dictators in their country. These things give us hope that, although it will not be easy and it will not be soon, Afghan women will achieve their rights and freedom.
SA Thank you so much. All the best to you, and stay safe.
MR Thank you very much.
Sarah Aziza’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, and The Intercept, among others. She splits her time between New York City and the Middle East, and is currently working on a book.
Original images and captions courtesy of RAWA. Images interpreted by Latifa Zafar Attaii