Fourteen months ago, two young representatives of the underground Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan appeared at the New World Resource Center on Fullerton to speak about life under the Taliban to a crowd of about 50. Two weeks ago, 600 New Yorkers packed a Manhattan church to listen to another RAWA member and bought up the organization's entire supply of literature. Last year, says Peter Hudis, a representative of News and Letters, which organized both appearances, the subject "didn't exactly excite mass interest. But since September 11 people really are thirsty for information."
Founded in 1977 as a secular women's rights organization, RAWA mobilized after the 1979 Soviet invasion to fight first against the puppet pro-Soviet government, then against the mujahideen and later the increasingly repressive Taliban. Inside their impoverished country--where women are forbidden to work or go to school, or leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative and shrouded from head to toe in a shapeless burqa--the 2,000 members of RAWA run secret home schools for girls, provide medical care and first-aid training to women and children in the war-ravaged provinces, and seed microenterprise projects in carpet weaving, knitting, beekeeping, and other income-generating activities for housebound women. In the refugee camps in Pakistan they run schools and orphanages, literacy classes, mobile health care clinics, and a host of other projects.
One of the group's greatest strengths has been its ability to use modern technology to get information out to the West. Using digital video cameras smuggled under their burqas--a benefit of the garment perhaps unappreciated by the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice--RAWA members have risked death to document public executions, amputations, floggings, and other atrocities committed by the Taliban. Some of this footage was seen in British-Afghan filmmaker Saira Shah's recent documentary Beneath the Veil, which CNN broadcast in endless rotation in the weeks following September 11. They also run a multilingual Web site (www.rawa.org) packed with photos, MP3s, video clips, and merchandise.
RAWA advocates a mass populist uprising as the only solution to the Afghan crisis. "We hear the U.S. talking about bringing the Northern Alliance into a post-Taliban government," says Hudis, "even bringing in so-called moderate elements of the Taliban. Nobody mentions bringing RAWA into the new government."
Tahmeena Faryal (not her real name), who's in her 20s, was a child during the Soviet occupation and fled to Pakistan with her family in the early 80s. She was educated by RAWA in the camps and has worked as a teacher and human rights activist; she's now a member of the group's foreign committee and has been traveling around the U.S. for several weeks giving talks and fund-raising. Like other RAWA members, she has received death threats.
Faryal will make several appearances in Chicago this weekend. Hudis, who helped organize two of them, says there were two compelling reasons to bring her here: "One is for those who are horrified--and rightly--by the disasters of September 11 to see that there is an alternative way to fight terrorism, rather than supporting U.S. military intervention." The second is that it's been a challenge for those who oppose the war in Afghanistan to critique both U.S. foreign policies and Islamic fundamentalism simultaneously. "RAWA allows both sides of the issue to be addressed at once."
On Friday, November 9, at 9 AM, Faryal will speak along with Anne Brodsky--an activist just back from Pakistan--as part of Oakton Community College's Women's Day Conference. It's at 1600 E. Golf in Des Plaines (847-635-1745); same-day registration is $40. At 6 PM that night she'll appear on her own at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo (312-362-9707). There's a $3 suggested donation, which will go to fund further U.S. appearances. On Saturday, November 10, at 2 PM, Faryal will appear at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, seventh floor (312-747-4600), as part of a free panel discussion on "The Struggle for Women's Emancipation in the Middle East and South Asia." Other panelists will include Purdue history professor Janet Afary and feminist author Madhuri Deshmukh; space is limited. No still or video cameras or audio recording will be permitted at any of the events.