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Monday, November 26, 2001
Lead Article

Women used Web to fight veil & Taliban

by Raman Mohan

THE International coalition against terrorism may be the most formidable opponent of the Taliban in Afghanistan but very few know that the Taliban’s bravest opponents are the women organisations that had been fighting against fundamentalist rule in their country over the Internet for several years now. The most notable among these is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) whose Website www.rawa.org is one of the busiest on the Net. The traffic on the site is so heavy that surfers have to be redirected to several mirror sites. What makes these resistance groups unique is the fact that there are a few Afghan male resistance groups that have resisted the Taliban internationally in the manner these women’s organisations have.

Mobilising through Net

The Afghan women’s resistance groups have used the Net to raise funds, expose the Taliban atrocities and mobilise public opinion internationally. Today there are about a dozen such groups operating on the Net. The more famous among them besides RAWA are Woman’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan (www.wapha.org) The Afghan Women’s Mission (www.afghanwomenmission.org), www.afghan-web.com and www.helpafghanwomen.com. Most of the sites operate in close cooperation and coordination with RAWA.

RAWA was established in Kabul in 1977 as an independent political and social organisation of Afghan women fighting for human rights and social justice in Afghanistan. The founders were a number of Afghan woman intellectuals under the leadership of Meena who in 1987 was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan, by Afghan agents of the then KGB in connivance with fundamentalist band of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. RAWA’s objective was to involve an increasing number of Afghan women in social and political activities aimed at acquiring women’s human rights and contributing to the struggle for the establishment of a government based on democratic and secular values in Afghanistan. Before the Moscow-directed coup of April 1978, RAWA’s activities were confined to agitations for women’s rights and democracy. But after the coup and particularly after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979, RAWA became directly involved in the war of resistance. Since the Soviet-installed regime in 1992 was overthrown, the focus of RAWA’s political struggle has been against the fundamentalists’ and the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban.


Its founder Meena was born in Kabul. During her school days, students in Kabul and other Afghan cities were deeply engaged in social activism and rising mass movements. She left the university to devote herself to organising and educating women. In pursuit of her cause for gaining the right of freedom of expression and conducting political activities she started a campaign against the Russian forces and their puppet regime in 1979 and organised numerous processions and meetings in schools, colleges and the Kabul University to mobilise public opinion. She also launched a bilingual magazine, Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message) in 1981. Through this magazine RAWA has been projecting the cause of Afghan women boldly and effectively. Payam-e-Zan has constantly exposed the criminal nature of fundamentalist groups. Meena also established Watan Schools for refugee children, a hospital and handicraft centres for refugee women in Pakistan to support Afghan women financially. Her social work and effective advocacy against the views of the fundamentalists provoked the Russians and the fundamentalist forces alike. She was assassinated by agents of KHAD (Afghanistan branch of KGB) and their fundamentalist accomplices in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 4,1987. Meena continues to be the inspiration behind the RAWA even after her death.

Secret shots

The RAWA Website that came up after her death was the first to put up secretly shot video clips of Taliban atrocities against women in particular and the Afghanis in general. Most of the footage in the famous film, Beneath the Veil, was shot by one of the RAWA members through a hole in the burqa. The technique has worked well over the years despite the fact that Taliban treat RAWA members as their greatest enemy. These films though poor in video quality because of obvious reasons have made it to several international TV networks and stunned the world. It is believed that the RAWA Website has done more to build public opinion against the Taliban than any other medium. This was partly because Afghanistan remained a closed society under the Taliban and TV was banned in the country. The RAWA Website thus remained for years the only credible window to the war-ravaged country. RAWA members have mostly been operating from refugee camps in Pakistan entering Afghanistan surreptitiously to gather evidence and distribute their publications among women. RAWA activists often staged demonstrations in Pakistan and were attacked several times by security forces. The organisation used its Website to distribute reports and pictures of such demonstrations to the outside world. The site, www.rawa.org, has a special photo gallery depicting the horrific deeds of Taliban. The pictures and the movie clips are so disturbing that the site had to put up a cautionary note on its homepage warning visitors that the material they view would be very shocking.

Cyber donations

These organisations are heavily dependent on the Net for their funds. Most of their donations come from Net surfers all over the globe. These funds are used for running their Websites, schools, relief efforts for refugees and running handicraft centres for refugee women. The organisation has also set up a hospital but lack of funds has slowed the progress of the ambitious project.

Another Website www.wapha.org has done a commendable job in keeping the world informed of the human rights violations in Afghanistan. WAPHA is a non-partisan, non-profit and independent organisation founded by Dr Zieba Shorish-Shamley, Ph.D. Its main goal is to promote awareness of the tragic human rights situation in Afghanistan and to advocate for social, political, economic and civil rights of the Afghan women and girls in that country. Its Internet contacts include hundreds of organisations in the world. The site sends newsletters and keeps the persons of the world informed on the human rights violations in Afghanistan. The Website www.afghanwomenmission.org works very closely with RAWA. Though the site is new, it has already helped raise $ 57,000 over the past few months to fund RAWA projects. It is paying special attention to RAWA’s hospital project. The site not only accepts donations in the form of money, it encourages people to donate their time and effort to the RAWA projects. The financial details of the organisation are available for anyone to view on its Website.

As bad as Taliban

Activists of these organisations are now busy building public opinion for giving women their rightful place on the UN sponsored meetings to determine the future government of Afghanistan. Many of these Websites have put up petitions on their homepages. Visitors are encouraged to sign these electronically and mail to the US President George W. Bush and the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. These organisations are also opposed to the Northern Alliance. Fatima (a pseudonym used by www.rawa.org spokesperson) recently said: "The Northern Alliance are the second Taliban. They are hypocrites. They say they are for democracy and human rights, but we can’t forget the experience we had with them. Seventy-year-old grandmothers were raped during their rule, thousands of girls were raped, thousands were killed and tortured. They are the first government that started this tragedy in Afghanistan. We are ready to support the former king Zahir Shah. It doesn’t mean that the king is an ideal person. However, in comparison to the fundamentalist parties, we prefer him. The only condition we have for the king is that he must not cooperate with the Northern Alliance."

These Websites now direly need funds to keep themselves going. Their resources have been stretched to their limits by America-led war against terrorism. The influx of refugees especially women in the neighbouring countries has put additional burden on them. This has led to the closure of RAWA hospital. Funds are coming in but not in proportion to their needs. However, the sites are not deterred.

The women behind them are eagerly looking forward to the annihilation of Taliban hoping that the Afghan women would find their due place in the country and its future government. But they are a worried lot — still uncertain about future. That explains why they are now concentrating on mobilising the international community for equal participation of women in their country’s socio-political life. Most of these Websites champion democracy and equal rights for women in Afghanistan. These Websites are hoping to shift their bases to Afghanistan after it is liberated. The Net will then be used to educate fellow women.