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What next for the women of Afghanistan? An interview with Tahmeena Faryal. (The Humanist Interview) (Cover Story).

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is a high-profile political and social service organization in Afghanistan with a stated mission to work for peace, freedom, democracy, and women's rights. RAWA has been active for decades providing social services within Afghanistan and has built an impressive reputation as a political opposition movement, best known in the West as the source of the secretly filmed video footage of the execution by the Taliban of a woman in a burqa accused of adultery. Filmmaker Saraih Shah incorporated this material into her documentary Beneath the Veil. A good deal about the organization's inspiring and surprisingly effective work can be learned from its website

This past fall, Tahmeena Faryal was RAWA's envoy to the United States. Among her many activities, she testified before the House International Relations Committee and was interviewed while wearing her burqa by CNN's Larry King. Threats against her life and the lives of other RAWA activists prevented publication of her photograph and her real name. But she lectured to overflow audiences at numerous college campuses and, perhaps ironically, was named Glamour magazine's Woman of the Year for 2001. Most surprising to many during her visit were her forthright comments critical of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. For example, on November 28, the Institute for Public Accuracy quoted Faryal as saying:
 So many of those now involved in what has come to be called the Northern
 Alliance have the blood of our beloved people on their hands, as, of
 course, do the Taliban. Their sustained atrocities have been well
 documented by independent international human rights organizations, such as
 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and others. From 1992 to 1996
 in particular, these forces waged a brutal war against women, using rape,
 torture, abduction, and forced marriage as their weapons. Many women
 committed suicide during this period as their only escape. Any initiative
 to establish a broad-based government must exclude all Taliban and other
 jihadi factions unless and until a specific faction or person has been
 absolved of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Otherwise, the people
 will again be plunged into the living hell that engulfed our country from
 1992 to 1996--under elements now involved in the Northern Alliance--and
 continue to the present under the Taliban.

In this context, part of the reason the Taliban was able to secure power in the first place was because so many in Afghanistan wanted an end to the rampant violence perpetrated by the Northern Alliance. Furthermore, it was under the rule of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a notoriously fundamentalist Northern Alliance leader, that the first laws suppressing women were passed.

On behalf of the Humanist, I interviewed Tahmeena Faryal in person on November 24, 2001, and by e-mail in mid-March 2002. We discussed the developing political situation in Afghanistan, fears regarding the Northern Alliance, Afghan women and Islam, Islamist political movements, human rights, and the history and future of secularism in Afghanistan. I was fascinated to get a close look at this young woman at the center of the global struggle for women's rights and learn her perspective on the politics and culture of a country that continues to hold the world's attention.

THE HUMANIST: RAWA has long expressed great ambivalence about the Northern Alliance, which you believe is, to a large extent, made up of the same mujahideen fundamentalist rulers and soldiers whose misrule and lawlessness while in power during the early 1990s helped the Taliban gain support. Were the crimes of the Northern Alliance serious enough that it should be excluded from participating in a new government?

FARYAL: The Afghan people celebrated the departure of the Taliban but not the arrival of the Northern Alliance. But when we speak of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban as criminals, I think that we should be very clear that not each and every person involved in either is a criminal or necessarily has on his hands the blood of Afghanistan. More than 50,000 people fought with the Taliban or worked for the Taliban, and 60 to 70 percent of those were forced to fight. They fought with them because of the money; without the money they were not going to fight. The same is the case with the Northern Alliance soldiers. That is the only way for most of them to earn a living. I don't think the people of Afghanistan would consider them very responsible for all the death and destruction since 1976. So whenever we're talking about responsibility, we're talking only about the commanders as the criminals.

THE HUMANIST: What's the proper way to handle the situation? Does RAWA endorse the idea that a truth and reconciliation tribunal or an international court should be established to hold accused Taliban and mujahideen leaders responsible for their crimes and allow only those cleared to participate in the political process of a new representative government?

FARYAL: We believe--and the people of Afghanistan believe--that the accused leaders should be brought before an international court of law. Once they have cleaned up the crimes and they confess and receive the punishment of the international community, then those who have been absolved of crimes can be involved in the political process. Another issue is disarmament. We believe that this should happen first, because we cannot establish a peaceful and democratic process in Afghanistan as long as there are arms.

THE HUMANIST: What about after the war? What are the next steps? Would RAWA welcome an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan with troops from Turkey, Bangladesh, or other nations?

FARYAL: Yes. That's what RAWA has wanted for years, even before the events of the 11th of September 2001.

THE HUMANIST: And the U.S. troops? While they're hunting for Osama bin Laden or after that search is over, whether it's successful or not, does RAWA feel that U.S. troops should play a role as part of that international peacekeeping force? Or are the Afghan people likely to see a significant U.S. presence as an occupying force?

FARYAL: Yes, this is our fear. That's why we've been calling for the United Nations to take a stand and send peacekeeping forces from other countries, especially Muslim countries. That would be acceptable because that wouldn't be regarded as an occupation force in Afghanistan.

THE HUMANIST: Many critics of U.S. involvement in your country say this has been a "racist" war or that it is motivated largely or exclusively by a desire on the part of the United States to impose it's own culture, particularly it's capitalist economic system. Do you think that the Afghan population is distrustful of American motives?

FARYAL: Well, from the standpoint that the people of Afghanistan have been distrustful of the role of the United Nations or the international community in Afghanistan, I would say yes. And they have the right to be distrustful, given what they have experienced for more than two decades. Everyone in Afghanistan knows that the mujahideen, the fundamentalists, were funded, nurtured, and supported by the international community and the United States during the Cold War. And obviously everyone knows about the Soviet invasion. And everyone knows about the role of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and India in Afghanistan. They are normal human beings and because of all this they are distrustful and will be as long as there isn't a really representative government. We are hopeful about the efforts of the various countries, right now, to establish a broad-based, truly representative government in Afghanistan. We are hopeful that, this time, the steps that the international community will take will be able to contribute to that. The Afghan people want them to disarm the fundamentalists rather than create more and more terrorist incidents.

But I think that what the people of Afghanistan obviously want is a civil society based on peace, stability, security, and also democracy. Maybe not the word democracy. I'm sure that most of the population of Afghanistan aren't familiar with that word. They would want to know, "What is this?" The same is true of the word capitalism. Most aren't educated enough to know what these words are. But they do want a society where they can have peace, where they can express their beliefs, where they can dress any way they want, where they can have basic freedoms like the choice to not wear a beard or have their faces exposed.

That is what they want. And it can be with the help of a capitalist country or other countries as long as it isn't through invasion. I think it's clear to everyone that Afghanistan cannot be reconstructed and the infrastructure cannot be reestablished if it doesn't get help from its neighbors. We believe it should be unconditional help, which would be very different from an invasion. What the people of Afghanistan, the uneducated people of Afghanistan, really fear is an invasion. And that would cause them to have an uprising and take part in a resistance war.

THE HUMANIST: As the war is hopefully coming to a close, and everyone is looking toward the next steps, there is a great deal of discussion about a broad-based and representative government that would include all elements of Afghan society. That seems to me to fulfill all but the condition that democracy be established. Should democracy be established in Afghanistan?

FARYAL: People in Afghanistan are the same as people in the United States, in Europe, in any country in the world. Just as the people in the United States need democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, so do the people of Afghanistan. We don't see any reason why democracy in Afghanistan wouldn't be acceptable to the United States government or to the United Nations. But unfortunately what's being discussed isn't really democracy. Everybody talks about a "broad-based" government in Afghanistan, but only RAWA has been saying that this "broad-based" government should be based on democratic values. As long as it isn't based on democratic values it cannot last for very long, even if it's a representative government. We think that this is a point that the United States or any other country involved right now in Afghanistan should realize and should take very seriously in this situation. We believe that it is actually only in a democratic government that the combat against terrorism can be successful--which is an important point that so far, during the war, only RAWA and some other organizations have been emphasizing.

THE HUMANIST: RAWA has expressed great concern about the history and affiliations of some of the members of the current interim government led by Hamid Karzai. Can you elaborate on those concerns, perhaps identify some of the ministers who particularly concern you and why?

FARYAL: The concern of the people of Afghanistan is the major involvement of the Northern Alliance in the current interim government as interior, foreign, and defense ministers and other important seats. With them in positions of power, Afghanistan is once again being dragged toward warlordism. There already have been enough reports of their recent crimes and atrocities, especially in northern Afghanistan. On March 3, 2002, Human Rights Watch reported:
 Armed political factions in northern Afghanistan are subjecting ethnic
 Pashtuns to murder, beating, sexual violence, abductions, looting, and
 extortion. The factions clearly can stop the abuses by their local troops
 when they choose to but, given their past record, it would be foolhardy to
 rely on them to restore security and protect human rights.

The place of the leaders of the Northern Alliance is beside war criminals at the Hague court, not in the seat of government in Afghanistan.

One way RAWA is responding is through the Basque protocol, which was just signed by RAWA and Basque government officials to aid in the prosecution of jihadi war criminals. Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, Ahmed Shah Masood, Sayyaf, Dostum, Mullah Omar, and Khalili are all among those who we charge have criminally destroyed our country and people. And Rabbani, Dostum, and Khalili are now part of the government again.

THE HUMANIST: In this connection, many Americans are concerned about the warlords who currently exercise political power throughout the country because they still control armies and bands of armed men. Karzai recently told the BBC that any legitimate future Afghan government will have it's legitimacy rest "on serious work against `warlordism.'" What would RAWA have the international community, especially the U.S. government, do to help Karzai wrest power from the hands of the warlords and put it in the hands of the Afghan people?

FARYAL: As I've said, Karzai is strongly surrounded by leaders and commanders of the Northern Alliance. So how is "serious work against warlordism" possible when, in his own administration, most of the important seats are given to the warlords? If the international community truly wants to help the people of Afghanistan and to liberate women it must stop political, military, and monetary support to the Northern Alliance fundamentalists. And more UN peacekeeping forces must be deployed in many other parts of Afghanistan, not just Kabul, to disarm the Northern Alliance soldiers and pave the way for an election where the people of Afghanistan can decide about their government and future without a gun at their heads.

THE HUMANIST: Let me move to a more general subject. Americans typically know only those images of Afghan women in their burqas and the stories of torture and abuse of the sort that RAWA has become known for filming in secret. So tell us more about Afghan society and the role of women in that society.

FARYAL: Women in Afghanistan have never had a really satisfactory situation. But, truly, their situation began to improve in the early twentieth century. That was mainly with the ascension of the king, Amanollah Khan, who took the throne in 1919. It was during his reign that the first schools for women were established. And he really wanted to give women rights and liberate them in many ways. This continued with subsequent kings and governments. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, in some of the major cities, 40 percent of doctors were female, 60 percent of teachers were female, and more than half the university students at Kabul University were women. We had women as government ministers. And in the Loya Jirga [grand council] of 1964 and in 1977, women took part. With the constitution of 1964 there were equal rights given to women.

THE HUMANIST: Did women have the vote?

FARYAL: You mean like in an election? We've never had an election in Afghanistan. But in the Loya Jirga women took part. The Loya Jirga system isn't like voting. In the Loya Jirga, representatives from different parts of Afghanistan come together--those who can represent the people in their community. They are appointed by the people as their representatives. And they are the ones who decide what the constitution should be.

THE HUMANIST: Some critics in the United States argue that Afghanistan isn't ready to accept women's rights and that particularly the nonurban, the so-called tribal, groups would be very resistant to a-Western-style civil society recognizing women's rights and civil rights for all. Even in the United States we have resistance from religious conservatives; some 27 percent of the population are fundamentalists, and many of them are women. Our own women's rights movement has met with great resistance. How does RAWA see that process developing in Afghanistan?

FARYAL: The situation of women in Afghanistan was never, ever something one could be satisfied with. That was the main reason that RAWA was established. At the time the Soviets invaded, women didn't have equal status. Women enjoyed most of the basic rights: to be educated, to work, to dress in whatever way they wanted, to be in the government, to get higher education: But that was the case with only about 15 percent of the population, which was the percentage that was urban at the time, so that means 7 or 8 percent of the women. The rest of the female population, in the rural areas, suffered a great deal, especially from domestic violence.

Remember, Afghanistan has always been a very male-dominated and conservative society. Women, because of some traditional or cultural or religious chains, never had the right to express themselves in many ways. Most of the women in rural areas never even had the opportunity to get out of their own little house, little village, little province. They really didn't know that another world existed--and this is still the case for many women in rural areas. I should make it clear that they are all poor as well. There was always a very big gap between the rural and urban areas in Afghanistan. If someone would have flown from Kabul to a rural area, they would have thought that they had flown from one country to another. The urban areas were really more civilized in many ways, especially in women's rights.

THE HUMANIST: So how do you address that?

FARYAL: We think that education is the key, and that is why RAWA, from the very beginning, has been trying to educate women. At first it was very basic education; we were starting from the illiteracy level. It was only through reading, through writing, through talking that we could tell them how useful they are. We could tell them, "You are a human being. That because women have this or that contribution to make, you can change your family, your environment, your society, the world."

THE HUMANIST: Now for a really tough issue: Islam. It's very often said in the Western press, in Western debate, that Islam by its very nature discourages the development of civil society, that it's stuck in a medieval mindset that discourages progress. Does it strike you as ironic that this would be a justification for Western countries to not commit to the reconstruction of Afghanistan?

FARYAL: I think people need to distinguish between the Islam that people in Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim countries have in their hearts and the Islam that is politicized, that is used as a tool to implement political goals, agendas, and objectives. As long as people don't make this distinction they are definitely going to make major mistakes about the culture. The people in Afghanistan have been Muslim for centuries. But this is the first time in that history that--in the name of the same religion, in the name of the same culture and tradition--the people, especially women, had to go through such horrible experiences.

The people of Afghanistan say that this doesn't have anything to do with their religion. Because they were Muslims in the past they will continue to be Muslims. But they don't want to be Taliban. They say, "We know our own religion. We know how to pray in our religion." The Taliban and other fundamentalists tried to teach people how to pray, tried to teach a man in his sixties or seventies how to pray. Obviously he prayed. During most of his life he prayed. He knew how to do it. But it is very clear that the Taliban had their own interpretation of Islam and that's what they wanted to teach the people. They misused religion as a tool. They didn't have any other acceptable ideology for Muslims that could convince them or that would enable the Taliban to rule the country. In addition to the military and financial support they had from other countries, the Taliban also needed a moral tool to suppress the people. And religion has been the best. How long would the Taliban--or any other fundamentalists in other countries--last without it? This can be true of Christian, Jewish, or Hindu fundamentalists.

THE HUMANIST: So you see all fundamentalists as the same: repressive of human rights?

FARYAL: Yes, especially in their treatment toward women. We believe that they are all misogynist.

But another point that I want to make clear is the separation of state and clergy--RAWA has always been very clear about this issue. It became even more clear about it after 1982 when Islam was used as a tool. Before that it was a bit difficult to talk about a secular government in Afghanistan. But nowadays that's what the people of Afghanistan want. They cannot trust any other Islamic government. We believe that it is only in a secular government that religion can be protected.

THE HUMANIST: Even the people in the provinces? Are they prepared to accept a government that doesn't establish Islam as the official religion?

FARYAL: We had such a government in the past. During the government of Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan [1973-1978], the first president of Afghanistan, Afghanistan wasn't called the "Islamic State of Afghanistan." It was the Republic of Afghanistan. And the government never said to women and men to have long hair, to wear the burqa, and to pray five times a day at the mosque. This was never, ever official in Afghanistan.

THE HUMANIST: Because this interview will be read largely by an explicitly secular American audience, let me take this further. You said RAWA believes a secular government is possible in Afghanistan and that religious freedom should be established for all. Tell us this: would the majority of Afghans be accepting of the idea of nonbelief?

FARYAL: Nonbelief?

THE HUMANIST: In God. I'm referring to people who don't believe in God: atheists, agnostics, freethinkers.

FARYAL: Well, that can be a big concern in all Muslim societies --not just. in Afghanistan. But that's what we mean by a secular government: that it shouldn't say to people what to believe in or whether to believe in something or not. We maintain that people in a democratic society should have the freedom to express their belief, including religious belief. It may take a very long time to reach such a society--as, for example, in the United States, where people aren't killed because they don't believe in God and don't believe in Mohammed or any other prophet. That's what we hope we'll see in Afghanistan. But probably it will take decades or centuries to have that kind of freedom there.

THE HUMANIST: Speaking of nonbelief and secularism, was secularism discredited in Afghanistan by the communist government and the Soviets?

FARYAL: To some extent, definitely. I can say that, at the start of the civil war in 1979, regarding the two parties that took power in a bloody coup-d'etat, most of them were not believers. And they actually tried to make people not believe, and that was also one of the reasons why the people in Afghanistan didn't like them. The Soviets and their puppets to some extent tried to do the opposite of what the fundamentalists, and especially the Taliban, did. Both were extreme--which, in the end, they came to realize was a mistake.

THE HUMANIST: One final issue: Islamism--the politicized Islam that you spoke of when talking about the Taliban--seems to be a potent political force in many countries, including nations bordering Afghanistan. Are you concerned about an Islamist revival and movements in neighboring and other Muslim countries?

FARYAL: Yes, that's what RAWA has been warning about. In all the countries bordering Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, the fundamentalists aren't going to be dangerous for Afghanistan only but for the whole region--especially the countries that supported and continue to support them--and also for the world. In fact, RAWA had anticipated that something like what happened on the 11th of September would happen. And in Pakistan we see that the government is in a very difficult situation right now in terms of all the demonstrations and uprisings by the fundamentalists. It doesn't mean that they have the public support, however. The fundamentalists in Pakistan have quite a strong movement, yes, which is supported by other fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, and elsewhere. But they don't have the support of the people. With the experience in neighboring Afghanistan, the Pakistani people know well what will happen to them if the fundamentalists in Pakistan gain power.

THE HUMANIST: Some say that the best strategy to keep the fundamentalists from spreading their message is to co-opt them with democracy, get them into a parliament to blunt their extremism. We have leaders in the United States' government who could be considered fundamentalists. Would the Taliban, as a political party, and other fundamentalists be acceptable to RAWA as part of a democratically elected government in Afghanistan?

FARYAL: As long as they were acceptable to the people. They could only come to parliament with the support of the people, as part of a democracy. But that wouldn't actually happen. The fundamentalists have been supported militarily and financially by other countries. They were imposed. Just like in Pakistan, they would never come to power through support of the people. And we hope that the international community, experiencing the terrorism of the 11th of September, will understand that and work toward democracy. We believe this is the way to campaign against terrorism.

THE HUMANIST: So, to reiterate the question: is democracy the solution to fundamentalism and terrorism?

FARYAL: Yes, absolutely yes.

Daniel Consolatore works for the U.S. Department of Energy in the District of Columbia; will soon be a graduate student in international relations,' and is a freelance writer, an informal adviser to RAWA in its lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and an active member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.
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Author:Consolatore, Daniel
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:May 1, 2002
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