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Book shows Afghan women's covert struggle

Subhuman treatment spawned group whose founder was assassinated

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The first time Anne Brodsky traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, to see for herself how an underground women's movement was changing lives, she was nervous.

Anne Brodsky, author of "With All Our Strength," talks with Tahmeena Faryal, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, before a presentation last week at La Roche College. Faryal did not want her face shown for fear of retribution she might encounter in her homeland. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

She had met several members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan when they traveled to the United States, but none of them happened to be in the refugee camps she visited in the summer of 2001. She had no idea who would meet her at the airport. How she would find the camps. Where she would stay when she arrived. After all, this movement puts its activists in such danger that they never use their real names.

To Brodsky's astonishment, she didn't have to worry about any of that because all of the women she encountered already knew who she was. They knew her through her e-mails, even though there were no computers in the camp. Someone had printed them and distributed them, so the women could study English grammar in class. (Grammar class? she wondered. In a refugee camp?)

To her further amazement, everyone identified her as "the woman who's going to write a book." Brodsky, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, had thought she might write a research paper. But never a book.

By the end of her two-week stay, however, the women had talked her into it. Said Brodsky, a 1983 graduate of Shaler Area High School, "They have not survived as an underground organization for 25 years without being quite persuasive."

Her next problem was finding a publisher. Although women were confined by law under burkas, forbidden to leave their homes unaccompanied, banned from schools and the workplace and, generally, treated as if they were subhuman, no one was particularly interested in the subject.

Until Sept. 11.

Brodsky's book, "With All Our Strength," which tells the story of RAWA from its beginning, will be published in April. It will acknowledge that progress has been made; since the overthrow of the Taliban, for instance, women are no longer required to wear burkas. But it will make clear, too, that 18 months after the United States and its allies removed the Taliban from power, Afghan women are not yet full members of a functioning society.

"This is the image -- the tragedy of the Afghan woman has been confined to the burka," said Tahmeena Faryal, a RAWA member who joined Brodsky last week as a speaker during a program at La Roche College. "It goes further than that."

Many women, Faryal said, still wear burkas; without them, they feel unsafe. RAWA still hears about women who commit suicide because they see no hope for the future. And she knows there are still toddlers who think they are perfectly within their rights to tell their mothers, "You can't leave the house. I'm a boy, and you must listen to me."

Progress comes slowly, especially because Afghanistan is recovering not only from the Taliban era, which started in 1996. For the five years prior, Afghans lived under such a repressive fundamentalist regime that they expected the Taliban to be an improvement. And since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded, the country has been devastated by war.

"All of that tragedy can't ... be fixed in a year," Faryal said.

Brodsky agreed. But on her three visits to Pakistan, where RAWA operates slightly openly in refugee camps, and Afghanistan, where it is completely underground, she has seen examples of great hope.

She met children living in refugee camps who are fluent in four languages, thanks in part to RAWA's schools. She has watched female RAWA teachers leading classes that include boys, not only teaching them history and math, but showing them that women are capable. She has spoken with a woman who believed there was no reason to go on after her husband was killed by the Soviets but has since transformed herself from an illiterate to a woman who teaches three reading classes a day.

"Change will come like it did for the woman in that story," Brodsky said. "She'll make a small difference in her personal life that will impact her daughters, sons, granddaughters."

RAWA began facilitating those small changes in 1977. At the time, women needed some assistance, but society was not closed to them. In Kabul, for instance, 50 percent of government workers, 70 percent of schoolteachers and 40 percent of doctors were women.

With war came repression. RAWA's founder, Meena, turned the organization into a political one, which has made it controversial.

RAWA tried to warn the world that the fundamentalists and Taliban were a growing danger; no one paid attention until after Sept. 11. RAWA is finding itself equally frustrated now, saying that many of the leaders in the current government are just as bad as the ones who preceded them.

RAWA wants the international community to stop funding groups "with the blood of the people on their hands," which includes the Northern Alliance, and to disarm the country. Only with those reforms, Faryal said, can the elections scheduled for next year be truly valid.

"Sometimes RAWA's critics will accuse them of being not representative of Afghan women, Western-influenced," Brodsky said. "Who says that the West gets to own the value of women's basic rights? Who makes secular democracy Western?" RAWA is seeking universal rights, not Western ones, she said.

The group's mission became increasingly dangerous. Meena was assassinated in 1987. Many of the group's projects -- schools, for instance, or relief stations where refugees can get food or blankets -- do not carry RAWA's name. Recently, a bookstore owner in Kabul was beaten up for distributing RAWA's magazine, Women's Message.

Brodsky has devoted her academic career to studying risk and resilience, predominantly in urban populations in the United States. Her dissertation focused on resilient single mothers raising daughters in risky neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

"I wanted to see what they were doing, how it worked and what we could learn from them," she said. "They're the experts."

She got involved with RAWA as an activist about three years ago, never intending to incorporate Afghan women into her research. "Then, all of the sudden, it dawned on me," she said. "This is what I do professionally."

She has found similarities in the way struggling women cope, whether they are American or Afghan. She has discovered, too, that Afghan society at large is beginning, slowly, to support its women.

"The men are now saying, 'I see what ignorance breeds in this society. No one is going to tell me I can't have the women in my family educated,' " Brodsky said. "More people are being educated as a way of striking back and voicing their opposition."


Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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