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Afghan Women's Group Raises More Questions Than Answers
October 23, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

With fund-raising for Afghan relief running at a fever pitch, especially for the women and children deemed most at risk in the Taliban’s clutches, it behooves us to take a step back and ask where all this money is going.

Much of the money intended to help the women of Afghanistan has been steered toward a group called the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, which describes itself as an apolitical organization providing humanitarian services, primarily to refugees in Pakistan.

Eleanor Smeal — President of the left-wing Feminist Majority — testified before the U.S. Senate on October 11 that her group has formed more than 800 teams across America to help Afghan women.

“These teams — which include girl scout troops, community organizations, classrooms, and groups of family, friends, and co-workers — are organizing petition drives and raising funds to support schools and clinics run by Afghan women in Pakistan for refugees," she said.

Much of it, apparently, is going to RAWA.

RAWA has emerged as the most prominent anti-Taliban voice for women's rights. Its web site has rightfully horrified the public with compelling stories, photos, videos and audio documentation on the brutal oppression of women under the Taliban.

Two facts about RAWA emerge from its Web site.

First, that the agency has done heroic and much-needed work. For example, it established the Malalai hospital for refugee Afghan women and children in 1986 in Quetta, Pakistan. The hospital is now run by the Afghan Women's Mission.

Second, unlike relief organizations such as the Red Cross, RAWA is not, as it claims, apolitical. Politics, in fact, are at the root of RAWA. Its Web site describes it as "an independent political/social organization of Afghan women fighting for human rights and for social justice." During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, RAWA became active in the resistance movement and in 1981, the group’s founder and martyr, Meena, represented the resistance at the French Socialist Party Congress.

RAWA's stated goals include: the struggle against fundamentalists "and their foreign masters," "freedom, democracy, peace and women's rights in Afghanistan," and, "an elected secularist government based on democratic values."

The words seem simple enough, but in fact may mean something very different than what most Westerners would expect.

Some of RAWA's political goals are explicitly stated. UN forces, the group says, should disarm warring groups and occupy Afghanistan during a "transition" period after which a government "based on democratic values and comprised of neutral personalities" would be established.

Other political goals can be discerned from RAWA's activities. For example, at its 2000 celebration of International Women's Day, one of RAWA's featured speakers was Afzal Shah Khamosh, the heads of Pakistan’s openly Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party.

In the fast-moving world of Islamic politics, such a connection may mean little and might be easily explained. But few people are asking RAWA difficult or probing questions. Even professional skeptics — that is, journalists — have done only softball interviews and articles in venues ranging from New York Times Magazine to Court TV.

So RAWA remains something of a mystery, with only a Web site for a public face because of the group's understandable fear of retaliation from the Taliban. Its representatives commonly use false names, even when giving interviews in America. RAWA has no street address, only a P.O. Box in Pakistan to which donations can be sent. Such concealment may be prudent but it also is a barrier to accountability.

It is time for RAWA to become more open, for its own sake and for the sake of its donors. Its politics and any underlying ideology should be posted in a manner that eliminates oft-abused terms such as "democracy" or "revolutionary." The Web site should address specific questions posed by visitors.

For example, does RAWA favor the private ownership of guns for women in Afghanistan to defend themselves? What does RAWA mean when it says "women in our closed society...have their own sex preferences" and that it wants to publish magazines on "taboo subjects?" Which taboos will be discussed? And what safeguards of financial accountability exist for the donations pouring in? Can money be earmarked for hospitals or is it all going into one big pot to be used for magazines on “taboo subjects?”

RAWA's past accomplishments deserve applause but it needs to open up a little more, especially now that it is becoming part of American politics. On April 28th, it participated in a protest rally in front of the White House along with the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran. An organization that holds protest rallies while asking for American dollars should expect to answer some probing questions.

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