One of the themes sounded by proponents of the current war in Afghanistan happens to be largely true. The Taliban regime really does oppress women in the name of a strict and somewhat dubious interpretation of the tenets of Islam. Women, who had been teachers, doctors and professional people in Afghanistan to a significant degree before the turmoil that ensued when the Soviets were tossed out, are not allowed on the street without a male family member, are not allowed to receive education beyond a minimal level, and of course are required to be completely covered when not in the home.
Thus the shaving of beards and the doffing of burqas in the wake of the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul were freighted with cultural and political significance. Perhaps many women prefer to be veiled – and seeing how attractive many Afghan women are to this particular Westerner, maybe I can see some remote justification. But following such practices should be a matter of religious conviction and/or respect for tradition rather than a decree from the government.
Laura Bush talked about the deplorable condition of women under Taliban rule when she took over the weekly presidential broadcast. Odd that she didn't mention the administration's valiant if sometimes reluctant ally, Saudi Arabia, which treats women similarly.
DOES BOMBING HELP? While the treatment of women and most other people by the Taliban was unquestionably deplorable, one should be permitted to wonder whether bombing the countryside and supporting the Northern Alliance was the most effective way to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan. To get insight, I talked this week with a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a group that has been getting a fair amount of media attention lately, but apparently doesn't yet have a seat at the table in Germany that is supposed to determine the political future of Afghanistan.
Tahmeena Faryal, who works in the foreign affairs and publications department in RAWA's office in Pakistan, has been on a speaking tour in the United States that was planned before 9/11. She told me she was moved to Pakistan as a child and has been involved for years in the struggle to gain attention for the issues of women's rights and human rights in Afghanistan.
RAWA was founded in 1977, before the Soviet occupation. Its founding leader, "martyred Meena" as she is described on the RAWA website (www.rawa.org), quickly became active in the anti-Soviet opposition. In 1981, the year RAWA began a bilingual magazine called Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message), she represented the Afghan resistance movement at a French Socialist Party congress. She helped RAWA start schools, a hospital and handicraft centers in Pakistan before she was assassinated, reportedly by agents of KHAD (the Afghan branch of the KGB) in 1987.
RAWA outlived its founder's death and has stayed together even as most civil and political Afghan organizations have disappeared or been melded into larger armed factions. So it at least has whatever credibility comes with relative longevity as an organization.
WOMEN AGAINST BOMBING One might have imagined, as firmly as RAWA has opposed the Taliban regime during virtually its entire time in power, that it might have welcomed U.S. efforts to oust the vicious regime. But RAWA has consistently opposed the US bombing campaign. And it has warned, most recently in a statement issued November 16, that the Northern Alliance is not likely to be much of an improvement.
"You must remember," Tahmeena Farwal told me, "that the elements that make up the Northern Alliance held power in Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. Human Rights Watch and the US State Department were among many organizations that documented the systematic abuse of human rights, and especially of women, when these people ruled Afghanistan. The chaos they created was so pervasive that some people actually welcomed the Taliban in 1996."
Tahmeena is dubious that the Northern Alliance has changed its character significantly while out of power. "Despite soothing statements to the international press, I would expect the pattern to reestablish itself if they take even a dominant position of power. We'll see looting, abductions and even killings. I don't think they have changed. They are the same people who made Afghanistan almost unlivable from 1992 to 1996."
USELESS BANTER IN BONN Ms. Farwal was also skeptical about the meetings taking place this week in Bonn among various factions (mostly heavily armed) in Afghan political life. "It could have been a source if hope if they had invited or relied on more democratic groups," she told me. "But the Northern Alliance, the most dominant military group, is still a bunch of criminals with a fundamentalist agenda."
RAWA wasn't invited to participate, of course. Tahmeena doubts if its members would have agreed to sit at the same table with people from either the Northern Alliance or the Taliban. "These are the people who created Afghanistan's recent problems," she told me. "The likelihood that they will do anything for the people rather than simply serving their own narrow causes is very small."
RAWA and Ms. Farwal believe – however anomalous this might be from an organization with "revolutionary" in its name – that Afghanistan's former king has the best chance of mediating something close to a tolerable settlement. "Twenty-five to 30 years ago," she told me, "family life was fairly normal, there were no dress codes, women participated in government and in the professions, especially teaching. Women were encouraged to become educated, not forbidden. All this coincided with the king's rule." He might have shortcomings, and he is not exactly a spring chicken, but the king could be Afghanistan's best hope just now. Tahmeena thinks he has good people around him.
DEMOCRATIC SENTIMENT SURVIVES Tahmeena Farwal told me that sentiment for democratic policies is stronger in Afghanistan than most outsiders understand, but it has been sublimated and repressed for so long it is difficult to know how effective even a majority could be. During the last two decades of civil war and outside invasion, "most people have not only lost most of their material possessions but have compromised their moral values," she told me. It will be difficult to convince most Afghans that a better day is even possible. "We need a period of stability and peace, under a government that's not ruled by criminals," she said.
RAWA also believes that the best bet for a temporary outside peacekeeping – or peace-building – force would be under the auspices of the United Nations. "If only US troops were stationed in Afghanistan many people would regard it as simply another invasion," she said. "People look at the UN differently."
I pointed out that the UN doesn't exactly have a sterling record of successful nation-building in Somalia, Rwanda or even Bosnia. She replied that the organization has had some success in East Timor and its guardianship of Cambodia seems to have worked reasonably well. But even if the UN is imperfect and makes mistakes, she says, at this point it looks like the best Afghanistan can do in a bad situation.
TALIBAN REALLY REELING? Ms. Farwal told me that from her sources and what she can tell from news reports, the Taliban seem to be genuinely disorganized right now. Most of the news of defections among Taliban troops seems accurate to her. That fits with the way she has assessed the regime's legitimate popular support for some time. "If the Taliban hadn't had military support from other countries [mainly Pakistan but Saudi Arabia also, or at least some of the rich residents] it wouldn't have been able to rule for so long. The people opposed them but the regime was too powerful and ruthless."
But she soon returns to the theme that the Northern Alliance – or any organization that is essentially fundamentalist in character – is unlikely to be much of an improvement. And even if a reasonably democratic coalition could be cobbled together and earn the support of the people, it would face daunting problems. Schools, offices, hospitals, embassies and factories have been reduced to rubble by decades of war. The resources to rebuild from within will be almost impossible to come by. "We need humanitarian aid from outside, at least for a while," she said. Her organization also sees some potential in the building of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, as long as some of the revenues trickle down or otherwise benefit the ordinary people of Afghanistan.
CENTRAL COMPLICATIONS Tahmeena also noted that putting together a central government that is strong enough to hang together but not dominated by one ethnic group and not strong enough to oppress minorities will be a problem. She took some hope from history, however. "For hundreds of years the various tribes and linguistic groups lived together with little conflict, and even banded together to fight against Genghis Khan, the British, the Russians and other outside powers. After the experience of the last 20 years most Afghans rightly fear a repressive central government. But under the king we didn't fear that kind of repression," she said.
RAWA might never be as politically influential as one might hope in a reconstituted Afghanistan. But if Tahmeena Farwal is representative of the group (and I recognize that they probably knew they were sending somebody who would be effective and sound rational to Westerners) it would not be out of line to hope that it will at least get a respectful hearing.
Before the Soviet invasion there were hundreds of political and social groups grouped roughly around the idea of more democracy, more human rights and more liberty in Afghanistan. Only RAWA has survived from those long-ago days. Its members seem to have learned about effectiveness and the real enemies over the years.
FUTURE CLOUDY Most importantly, they have decided that Islamic fundamentalists will almost always prove themselves eventually to be hostile to the kinds of rights and freedoms they believe women in Afghanistan and everywhere should possess.
I asked Tahmeena Farwal if she was any more optimistic than she was a few weeks ago, now that the Taliban seem to be on the run. "If the future means dominance by the Northern Alliance, I'm afraid not," she told me. "I hope the international community will recognize the danger that such dominance would pose to the people of Afghanistan who yearn for basic freedom and human rights."