Women in Comparative Societies
Veiled Courage:  Inside the Afghan Women’s Resistance
by Cheryl Benard

Chpt. 1
Benard tells of her first impressions of Afghan society in Pakistan refugee camps
“men, boys, and dust”
afghan boys and destroyed school

horrifying rates of maternal and infant mortality, staggering rates of domestic violence, women dying because they were not taken for medical attention

told not to interfere; “it’s their culture”
asks:  aren’t women part of the national “they”? don’t they have opinions?

in response, she’s given a lot of pat answers such as, “they don’t question their lot,” or “they feel safe within the family,” or “they don’t know any other way”

Benard was transformed by her visit to a women’s hospital; their stories.

14-year old girl in a catatonic state after being married of to a man in his seventies; he beat her for resisting his sexual advances, then returned her to her family when this didn’t work;  they turned her over to a mullah who tried to “exorcise the demon” causing her to resist; when this didn’t work, the family brought her to be treated for insanity.  In the end, the hospital will prescribe her tranquilizers to prevent her further resistance.

In another bed, a healthy woman and her newborn who’s husband and family refused to bring them back home because the baby was a girl.  They were frightening her into thinking she was abandoned so that she’d “try harder” next time to have a boy.

In another bed, a young woman worn out, emaciated after her 6th or 7th miscarriage in a short spate of time.  The doctor tried to explain to her husband that her body needed time to recuperate, to no avail.  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.”

Another woman had lost her mind when her eight-year old son was taken away to be a “freedom fighter”

Others had been deprived of light and air and movement so long that their skin and muscles were damaged.

Still others, widows or rejected by husbands with no where else to go.

“These are the lucky ones.” The doctor says. “The ones whose families allow medical treatment.  Have you hear the Afghan saying: a woman should only leave her house twice:  once at her wedding, to go to her husband, and once when she dies, to be taken to the graveyard.

While at the hospital, a woman whispers in her ear that there is a school for girls, organized by RAWA.

Chpt. 2 The Petal and the Rock:  Meena


Meena: legendary founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

Born in 1957
Studied at the Shariat University in Kabul
At 19 she married a leftist organizer who supported her political activism

Founded RAWA to be  “a genuinely democratic movement” committed to non-violence;  an independent women’s organization.

Meena as RAWA’s martyr; a charismatic, energetic, humble and brave heroine whose spirit is remembered by all who met her.

RAWA began in the early ‘70s
as in West, college campuses were roiling with youth anxious to change their societies and the world

1970s a time of freedom and contact with the world for Afghanistanis. 
People traveled; women were sent to Turkey to study to be nurses;
Western movies played in big cities.

Afghanistan still a monarchy then. 
Somewhat sympathetic to calls for modernization, greater freedom and literacy for women, but like the ruling elites of many developing countries they “preferred the spas of Europe to the depressing conditions at home.”

Soviet invasion
15 years of Communist regime, Soviet occupation.

Then, more civil war as US supported “freedom fighters” mujahadin drive out the Soviets. 

Eventually, the Taliban win over the Northern Alliance and establish a totalitarian regime that exerts an unprecedented  level of repression against women.

During the Soviet occupation, Meena and most of RAWA forced into refugee camps in Pakistan.

The Work of RAWA

Strategy and make-up:
As in S. America, Israel, the Balkans, the Soviet Union, women used their commitment to non-violence and their moral authority as mothers to chastise soldiers, power mongers (21).

RAWA exhibits many characteristics of New Social Movements found in the West in its goals, organizational structure, tactics.

to be a force for democratic, non-violent change; to be an independent organized force to rebuild Afghan CIVIL SOCIETY; to support Afghani women in any way they need; to be an example of what is possible for women - living as if.

fairly informal, ad hoc. 
No sense having rules about quorums and such since it is very difficult for women to get out (under the Taliban especially) to make it to meetings. 
So whoever is present participates. 
Has some 2,000 formal members who PLEDGE NOT TO EMIGRATE but also a diffuse network of supporters, both women and men, who make their activities possible in small but important ways:  serving as lookouts, safe houses, informing the women if police are lurking nearby, men serving as mahram, i.e., escorts for the women when they go on their missions.

non-violent protest/demonstrations;
a conscious decision to be active in politics; distribution of leaflets;
publication and distribution of the periodical Payam-e-Zan;
educating girls, women first but also boys and men;
organizing secret schools in homes and more organized ones as well;
creating opportunities for consciousness raising, independent thought. e.g, one they do this is through personal correspondence with people who come across their magazine and write to them. 
Aid and support to women who need it. 
Personal attention, social services;
work against violence

self-generating income - grassroots efforts, make and sell things like carpets, raise chickens, sewing little mirrors onto ornamental cushions.  As news of RAWA’s activities spread to the West, it began to receive occassional funding from Western sponsors as well as contributions in-kind, e.g., long underwear from Austrian grandmas.

From a RAWA brochure:

    To the Fundamentalists:
    You can dim the light of the candles whose glow warms my eyes
    You can freeze the kisses on my lips
    You can fill the air with curses
    Or with the terrible silence of my grief
    You can steal my sister’s smile
    You can put up a thousand walls
    You can do all that
    And I, I can fight.

Benard on RAWA
Benard asserts that RAWA is the first group of women willing to risk their lives for women’s rights. Is this true?

Perhaps, but that’s not to say women haven’t risked their lives for many causes not to mention the women who risk their lives every day by staying in violent relationships to protect people they love, sell their bodies to feed them, etc..

She speaks rather dismissivel of women’s political activism in the West, of women chaining themselves to the gates of Parliament to get the vote.

Is this fair?  What about all the women who risked their lives hiding Jews from the Nazis or helping slaves escape?

True that we just don’t know as much about the heroic actions of women because they are overshadowed in the history books by the men.

Chpt 4 and
Gives profiles of a few RAWA members and a few male supporters

What kinds of experiences drew women into RAWA?

Chpt 7
Gives some profiles of men who support RAWA

Why do they support it?

What surprised you about their stories, their beliefs and opinions?

More Recent Developments
Although initially ignored, women did participate in the loya jirga to draft the new Afghan constitution
Afghan women at loya jirga

The new constitution (adcopted January 4, 2005)

guarantees all Afghans right to vote at 18

Article 44  [Education for Women and Nomads, Illiteracy]
The state shall devise and implement effective programs for balancing and promoting of education for women, improving of education of nomads and elimination of illiteracy in the country.

Article 53  [Handicapped]
(1) The state takes necessary measures for regulating medical services and financial support to descendants of those who were martyred or are missing, to disabled or handicapped, and their active participation and re-integration into society in accordance with the law.
(2) The state guarantees the rights and privileges of pensioners and disabled and handicapped individuals and as well renders necessary assistance to needy elders, women without caretakers, and needy orphans in accordance with the law.

Article 54  [Family]
(1) Family is a fundamental unit of society and is supported by the state.
(2) The state adopts necessary measures to ensure physical and psychological well being of family, especially of child and mother, upbringing of children and the elimination of traditions contrary to the principles of sacred religion of Islam.

Article 84  [Senate]
(1) Members of the Senate [Meshrano Jirga] are elected and appointed as follows:
(2) From among the members of each provincial council, the respective council elects one person for a period of four years.
(3) From among the district councils of each province, the respective councils elect one person for a period of three years.
(4) The President from among experts and experienced personalities -- including two representatives from the disabled and impaired and two representatives from the Kochis -- appoints the remaining one-third of the members for a period of five years.
(5) The president appoints 50% of these people from among women.

Women will now hold at least 64 out of 250 seats in the lower house of the Afghan parliament, more than 25 percent, which is higher than in most Western democracies.

There is an Afghan Ministry for Women's Affairs headed by a woman

In March 2005, a woman was appointed to be governor of an Afghan state for the first time

There is a new government campaign to encourage girls to be enrolled in school
afghan girls in school

There is a new law making it illegal to force girls into marriage

Site on Women in Afghanistan

PBS Wide Angle Story on Afghanistan

Afghanistan Unveiled