Tahmeena Faryal was 10 years old when the Soviet invasion forced her family from Afghanistan to a Pakistani refugee camp. Her mother was an early member and her father a supporter of RAWA. Educated in RAWA schools in Pakistan, Faryal became committed to working for human rights and women's rights. Faryal cannot use her real name or be photographed as RAWA activists have become special targets of the Taliban and fundamentalists around the world.
RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was formed in 1977 to promote women's rights through non-violent action. Based inside Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, this underground organization evolved in defiance of the Taliban and other Fundamentalists and at great risk to its members.
RAWA runs clandestine schools, health clinics, orphanages, self-help classes and provides emergency relief in refugee camps. The recent critically acclaimed CNN documentary "Behind The Veil", by British filmmaker Saira Shah, was made with the help of brave RAWA workers who escorted Shah in Afghanistan.
At a Khaiwa refugee camp in Pakistan, a 45-year-old woman just learning to read told her RAWA teacher how happy she is to be able to read letters from her relatives..."I now know the pleasure of my eyes."
While on a secret journey into Afghanistan to check on home-based schools for girls, Faryal encountered the Taliban secret police in a crowded marketplace. Fully covered and gasping for breath, the mesh cloth covering her eyes, Faryal felt ill.
"I couldn't breathe," she said. "So I lifted the front part of the burka for air." Suddenly, a woman nearby hissed, warning her that the stick-wielding Taliban were approaching. She quickly dropped her covering and regained her anonymity beneath the burkah.
Tahmeena Faryal is a member of RAWA's Foreign Committee. Ethereal and fragile in appearance, her presence is large, committed and from the heart. She can hold an audience captive, as she recently showed the Hollywood crowd at Track 16's RAWA fundraiser to reopen the Malalai Hospital.
My Hero: "When news came that the Taliban were in retreat and the Northern Alliance was poised to take back Kabul, many people thought that a victory, but sadly we now realize that the Northern Alliance may be just as bad as the Taliban. Who do you trust?"
Faryal: "I trust RAWA. Women will never have a life in Afghanistan if fundamentalists have the power. Fundamentalists are misogynists by nature. If any of them are allowed to run the country we will be in the same position as for the last 20 years. Nothing will change."
Faryal says that Jehadi fundamentalist cliques are violently misusing Islam, interpreting the Koran according to their own personal whims and political interests, and using religion as a cover to hide their heinous crimes.
"The abuses against women don't have anything to do with our culture or religion or tradition," she said. "We have had the same culture and religion and tradition for centuries, but this is the first time that people in Afghanistan--and women in particular--have endured these terrible experiences in the name of the culture of Afghanistan."
Faryal has traveled in the U.S. to rally support for RAWA and urge U.S. policymakers to include Afghan women in any initiatives affecting that country's future. She has met with officials of the United Nations in New York and the State Department in Washington.
"Not just the U.S., but the United Nations and the international community should make sure that women are part of any future government of Afghanistan," Faryal said. "Our society cannot function without women's participation."
WHO ARE THE TALIBAN?
Since 1996, members of the Taliban have ruled Afghanistan. During this time they have all but eliminated women's rights. President George W. Bush recently declared, "The Taliban is the most repressive, backward group of people we have seen on the face of the earth in a long period of time." According to the U.S. State Department, Afghan women once comprised 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students and 40% of doctors. The Taliban closed schools saying they were "gateways to hell," and made it illegal for women to work.
Under the Taliban, girls could not attend school and women could only leave the house in the company of a male relative and wearing the head-to-toe burkah. They could be beaten for speaking above a whisper, showing any skin or making a noise while walking.
The Taliban regime cruelly reduced women and girls to poverty. "Animals have more rights than women in Afghanistan," says Faryal. "Women in Afghanistan used to take part very actively in the society. They had decent lives, hopes for their future and the future of their children. "
THE NORTHERN ALLIANCE
From 1992-1996, warring fundamentalist factions vied for control of Afghanistan. They fought among themselves and, according to Faryal, "destroyed 70 to 80 percent of Kabul. They looted museums and hospitals and schools and sold what they found. They committed atrocities on women and children. Possibly they committed the worst crimes in Afghan history." These groups have now banded together against the Taliban, calling themselves the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance has learned how to pose as democratic and even as supporters of women's rights. In fact, they have not changed. RAWA believes that if the Northern Alliance comes to power, they will reprise the former period of instability and infighting.
WHAT RAWA WANTS
"We want a society that respects freedom of speech and beliefs," Faryal says. "We want a secular democracy that respects women's rights and human rights. We have spoken with the U.S. State Department and Congress, but we think the United Nations is most important."
RAWA members believe that the majority of Afghans support the former King Zahir Shah (deposed in 1973). They maintain that while he was in power, Afghanistan was a completely different country, and that he could set up a transitional government which, with the help of an international peace-keeping force, would restore stability to the country and allow for free and fair elections within the period of a year.
RAWA's official position is that the UN should withdraw its recognition to the so-called Islamic government headed by Rabbani and help the establishment of a broad-based government based on democratic values.
The people of Afghanistan have been Muslims for the past several centuries and will not allow gangs of rapists, murderers and traitors to teach them their faith with a stick once again.
Read a MY HERO exclusive interview with Tahmeena Faryal!
"I'm the woman who has awoken, I've found my path and will never return."
These words from a poem by RAWA'S martyred leader Meena (1957-1987), seem to be more urgent for the women of Afghanistan today than they were when she wrote them.
Has the condition of Afghan women changed after the Taliban lost power? Not much, according to reports from RAWA. Although there is a female presidential candidate, Massouda Jalal, women in post-Taliban Afghanistan are still wearing burkahs out of fear for their safety, and they are still being dragged to prison for the same "crimes" that the Taliban used to arrest them for. While fundamentalism remains strong, the violence against women continues. Still, the chaos has created a small space for women to squeeze through for a breath of fresh air, and many of them (especially the young women) are optimistic about the future.
What are the results of the United States' invasion of Afghanistan?
"Unfortunately, the news that people hear about the new government is that Afghanistan is a liberated country now. That's not the reality. Women are not liberated: there really hasn’t been much change in the situation. Human Rights Watch reported on one province where the warlord doesn’t care about the central government. They concluded that the situation isn’t any different than before: murder, explosion, an assassination attempt on the president of the country. In another Northwest Province recently there was a clash between warlords. Thirty-seven civilians were killed and 3 women raped in the Northern Provinces. Two warlords were fighting. They really smashed the dream of people for peace; they thought September 11 would be a window of opportunity for peace. Before the Taliban, the Northern Alliance killed, raped women and also forced women into marriage. About 50,000 people were killed in fighting, people welcomed the Taliban."