Getting a Grip 

The Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan

By Michael I. Niman

             There’s a stadium in Kabul that doubles as a soccer facility, a remnant of Afghanistan’s attempts at a cosmopolitan past, and as an arena for public executions, a reminder of Afghanistan’s present medieval reality.  Often the two functions merge, as is the case when the Taliban interrupt soccer games for an execution break. 

Afghanistan Trumps Texas

            George Bush’s Texas might have taken the trophy as the United States’ execution capital, recently outraging international human rights groups with the execution of a mentally retarded man, but Afghanistan is going for the World Cup.  Recent victims have ranged from Islamic scholars who point out that the Taliban’s murderous policies are contrary to Islamic law, to a woman who had taken enough abuse from her husband and beat him to death.

            It was this last execution, that of the faceless woman clad in the compulsory head to toe burqa and shot in the back of the head with a Kalashnikov rifle that shocked the world.  It shocked us because we saw it.  And we saw it because women from the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) risked their lives to document it with a hidden video camera.

Horror On-Line

            Today, the horrors of everyday life in Afghanistan are documented and available for all to see at the RAWA website (  Other RAWA activists are traveling the globe, telling first hand accounts of atrocities at the hands of the Taliban.  There’s stories of women beaten with clubs, sometimes to death, by Taliban morality officers who caught them dressing “immodestly,” which in Taliban controlled sections of Afghanistan, could mean peering out from behind a veil, allowing one’s eyes to be seen by a man.  There are stories of men, summarily executed for failing to paint their windowpanes and properly hide their wives and daughters.

RAWA also remind the world that Afghani women are banned from schools and are prohibited to see male doctors.  Of course, since women are banned from schools, female health practitioners are in short supply and women are dying by the score for lack of medical care.  The list of Taliban human rights violations documented by these brave women is long – and it’s sickening.

            To ease the Suffering of Afghani women, RAWA volunteers have returned to Afghanistan and have organized underground schools for girls.  RAWA is also working in Afghani refuge camps in Pakistan, where they are providing food, health care and schooling.  They are also working to foster democratic institutions of governance in the refugee camps, creating a model of what a liberated Afghanistan may look like.  Such work is not without its risks, as Taliban supporters in Pakistan pose an ever-present threat to RAWA women.

Equal Opportunity Resistance

            Since their formation in 1979, RAWA resisted the Soviet backed Afghani government, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA backed Mujahideen fighters, the Northern Alliance occupation of Kabul, and finally, the Taliban.  Lately, they’ve been traveling the world, actively opposing the US air strikes on Afghanistan.   With the same horrific eloquence they used to describe the Taliban’s “medievalist” scourge, they’re now penning testimony about the death and destruction of civilian homes in the wake of US air strikes.

            They’re also frightened of the prospect of the Northern Alliance retaking Afghanistan’s population centers, repeating the holocaust of rape and murder they reined upon Kabul during their occupation of that city from 1992 through 1996.  This week they decried the US support of the Alliance, arguing that it has “plunged our people into a horrific concern and anxiety in fear of re-experiencing the dreadful happenings” suffered under Northern Alliance rule.

            Their fears are certainly not without cause.  The Alliance is an unsavory crowd with a pretty dismal record on women’s rights, which began when they took control of Kabul and banned women from media and government jobs.  Within two years they forced women from all jobs, throwing many into dire poverty.  It was the Alliance, during this period, and not the Taliban, who first required women to wear full-length burqas, covering themselves from head to toe.  Women who didn’t comply were beaten, murdered or raped. 

Alliance Style Gendercide

Things are no better with the Alliance today.  Their “Deputy Premier,” Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, reportedly has taken the Taliban perversion of Islamic laws regarding women to a new level, arguing that men should not even “speak” with women.  Their recently assassinated commander, Ahmed Shah Massood, now canonized in the American Media, led organized rampages with his fighters systematically raping women belonging to the rival Hazara ethnic group.             

            Put simply, the women of RAWA have reason to be concerned.  While the US has politically capitalized on the plight of Afghani women, using their torment as evidence of the brutality of the Taliban regime, they have made no effort to include RAWA or any other Afghani women’ group in planning for a post-Taliban Afghani society. 

            Today the name Taliban is synonymous with misogyny and the oppression of women.  Industrialized western democracies, despite their own horrific rates of domestic violence and rape, self-righteously define their opposition to the Taliban as a human rights imperative.  The Taliban is evil and we represent righteousness.  For the US, this revisionism omits our role in creating the Mujahideen and the Taliban, and in effect, causing the current cataclysmic oppression of women in Afghanistan.  It also ignores the fact that as recently as July, we still attempted to curry political favor with the Taliban.  Had they turned over bin Laden, in fact, we might never have opposed them.  Our sudden feminism is shallow and reeking of hypocrisy.

            If our little war puts the Northern Alliance back into power, our complicity in the decade old war against Afghani women will be unforgivable.  We can’t let this happen.  Our botched policies in Afghanistan have caused enough suffering for Afghani women.  Now that we’re back on the Afghani political landscape we shouldn’t repeat our mistakes.  The women of Afghanistan and groups such as RAWA must be consulted as this war continues and must be included as major players in any post-war Afghani government.


Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous articles about “The War on Terror” are available online at


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