The Afghan revolutionary who took on the Soviets and patriarchy | Women


Just one clip of Meena talking — flickering, pale, just some minutes lengthy — survives in the present day, and it feels like a prophecy. It’s 1981. She is 24, in a pale blue turtleneck and a darkish blue dotted pinafore, her wavy hair cropped quick.

Meena had simply delivered a speech in Valence, the place she was invited by the brand new French Socialist authorities to symbolize the Afghan resistance motion at a celebration congress. Her speech so angered the Soviet delegation — the USSR had invaded Afghanistan two years earlier, and she or he spoke forcefully towards the occupation — that they stalked out, glowering, as she raised a victory signal within the air.

Within the clip, a snippet from an interview with a Belgian information channel, she predicts — calmly, sombrely, pen in hand — the victory of anti-Soviet forces. However she additionally warns of its value: that the anti-democratic, misogynistic factions of the mujahideen being valorised by the West of their combat towards the Soviets would, in flip, devour Afghanistan.

Amid the clumsy binaries of struggle, Meena was treading a tough path.

Fixated on the inferior standing of girls

Meena was born in 1956, within the ultimate many years of Mohammed Zahir Shah’s reign. The modernist king had nudged alongside quite a lot of firsts for girls: feminine voices on Afghan radio, voluntary abolition of the chadar, and ratification of the structure by a Loya Jirga — a grand authorized meeting — that included ladies.

She attended considered one of Kabul’s finest colleges — the Lycee Malalai, named after a beloved people heroine who rallied flailing Afghan forces to victory towards the British in 1880 — however in her middle-class house, she noticed her father periodically beat her two moms.

Uncommonly alert to injustice — her relations’ informal mistreatment of Hazara servants, of the tutorial disparities between her architect father and her unlettered mom — teenage Meena grew to become more and more fixated on the inferior standing of girls.

How males noticed ladies and the way ladies noticed themselves — as people with their very own hopes and goals, fairly than in perpetual service to the household, the tribe, and the nation — wouldn’t be reworked by state mandates alone. These roles must be renegotiated, Meena knew, by Afghan ladies themselves, from inside essentially the most elementary unit of society, the household.

It’s 1976. Three years earlier, the previous king had been overthrown by his cousin, and the 225-year-old monarchy was changed with an autocratic one-party state. Kabul College, the place Meena is now finding out regulation, is a microcosm of the forces buffeting Afghanistan: Marxists and Maoists, monarchists and Islamic revivalists.

Meena, 20, is married to a physician 11 years older, the one man her household may discover who match her standards: no bride worth, no second spouse, no objection to high school or work. He’s the chief of a Maoist group. Meena additionally leans left, however she just isn’t fascinated about being relegated to the ladies’s wing of a political outfit. She seeks an organisation that centres the liberation of Afghan ladies.

There may be none, so she begins one herself. It’s known as the Revolutionary Affiliation of the Girls of Afghanistan (RAWA).

Western-dressed female students wait in front of Kabul University on October 17, 1986, during the Soviet-Afghan war. (Photo by Daniel JANIN / AFP)College students stand in entrance of Kabul College in 1986 throughout the Soviet-Afghan struggle. The earlier decade, Meena was a regulation scholar there and the campus was a microcosm of the forces buffeting Afghanistan: Marxists and Maoists, monarchists and Islamic revivalists [Daniel Janin/AFP]

A fist within the mouth of patriarchy

At first, there have been 5. A yr later, 11. They weren’t even all identified to one another and barely met all collectively. As soon as, after they did meet, they sat in a room partitioned by curtains so they might hear the remaining however couldn’t see greater than three others. Years earlier than the Taliban first took over Afghanistan, at a time when ladies had the suitable to training, had been such extraordinary measures mandatory?

RAWA was not plotting the downfall of the state. At first, it was organising grownup literacy lessons, a preliminary step — in Meena’s imaginative and prescient — in direction of serving to ladies from strict patriarchal households develop a way of self. However in a stubbornly gendered society, the place the one ladies with any actual energy tended to be mothers-in-law, the organisers knew their work can be perceived as a risk: it will, in Dari, be mushti dar dahan — a fist within the mouth — of patriarchy.

In 1978, on the heels of a violent coup, a brand new Soviet-backed authorities started rolling out reforms throughout Afghanistan. Land was redistributed, the tricolour flag turned a strong communist pink, bride costs diminished, and marriage earlier than the age of 18 outlawed. Afghan society bristled at these adjustments — significantly, students have since famous, the adjustments regarding ladies. RAWA baulked, too: if the combat for his or her rights grew to become related to imperial energy, it was Afghan ladies who would bear the brunt of the backlash. And so, it expanded its mandate, turning into, in Meena’s phrases, “an organisation of girls struggling for the liberation of Afghanistan and of girls”. One couldn’t be achieved with out the opposite.

Anti-Soviet resistance mounted throughout Afghanistan, first percolating within the countryside, then spreading to the cities. The crackdown by the Soviet-backed authorities additionally intensified. Political prisoners in Afghan jails — tribal leaders, clergy, public intellectuals, college students — tripled inside six months. Executions had been a every day incidence. Many others vanished into skinny air. Meena started visiting the households of the jailed and the disappeared, asking after them.

That is what number of ladies joined RAWA. They had been struck by the truth that Meena cared. Bereft of male safety — but in addition male authority — for the primary time, they heeded her name to channel their rage and despair right into a disciplined resistance.

Fighters inspect a captured Soviet tank in 1979In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Afghan fighters examine a Soviet tank captured just a few days after the invasion [Steve McCurry/AP Photo]

The Soviet occupation

In December 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. RAWA members took half in common demonstrations, surreptitiously distributing political pamphlets (shabnameh, actually translating to nighttime missives, circulated beneath cowl of darkish), began Payam-e-Zan (Girls’s Message), a polemical journal that they assembled by hand, and supported secular factions of the mujahideen on the struggle entrance, the place they disbursed medical help and discovered to make use of and clear weapons.

Melody Ermachild Chavis, writer of a RAWA-authorised biography of Meena, recollects story after story of Meena’s doggedness: disguised in an previous burqa, she would go to ladies from daybreak to nightfall, speaking for hours, returning each week.

That’s the closest to a critique of Meena that Chavis — who channelled 20 years of expertise as a non-public investigator making ready death-row appeals in California into reconstructing Meena’s life — heard from RAWA members. “A number of the older ladies would inform her, you’ve received to relaxation, you’ve received to guard your self extra. They advised me how she’d periodically collapse: from dehydration, exhaustion, malnourishment, typically being pregnant,” she says.

And typically from grief. As soon as, hundreds of girls went to satisfy jailed members of the family being launched beneath a normal amnesty — when solely 120 had been launched, the ladies stormed the jail and located piles of useless our bodies.

Meena, returning house from considered one of her jail visits, collapsed, unable to course of what she had witnessed — the screams of a mom whose son was killed in jail. That evening, she shook in her sleep.

Afghan pupils sitting around their teacher (C) raise their hands to answer a question during a class in a tented school October 10, 1996Throughout Soviet occupation within the Nineteen Eighties, thousands and thousands of Afghans in search of refuge from struggle crossed the border into Pakistan, lots of them settling within the now-closed Nasir Bagh refugee camp (pictured right here in 1996) in Peshawar. As a political activist opposing the occupation, Meena was additionally compelled to flee [Reuters]

‘The lady who has awoken’

The primary situation of Payam-e-Zan, revealed in 1981, shortly earlier than Meena’s journey to Europe, options an unsigned poem.

The midnight screams of bereaved moms nonetheless resonate in my ears

I’ve seen barefoot, wandering and homeless kids,

I’ve seen large henna-handed brides with mourning garments,

I’ve seen the enormous partitions of prisons swallow freedom of their ravenous abdomen,

… I’m the girl who has awoken,

I’ve discovered my path and can by no means flip again

The poem was penned by Meena. By the point she returned from Europe, quite a lot of RAWA members and supporters had been imprisoned. Her husband, after being jailed and tortured, had fled to Pakistan. As a political activist opposing the Soviet occupation who had garnered worldwide consideration, Meena’s images had been being circulated at checkpoints throughout Kabul, so she too crossed the border, alongside thousands and thousands of different Afghans in search of refuge from struggle.

In the end, she arrange a base within the Pakistani metropolis of Quetta, the place RAWA started opening colleges, clinics and orphanages for fellow refugees.

In 1986, Meena’s husband was murdered in Peshawar by mujahideen chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin — an armed group mentioned to have acquired extra CIA funding than another mujahideen group throughout the Soviet struggle.

Three months later, Meena went lacking in Quetta. In August 1987, her physique was unearthed from the compound of an deserted home, identifiable solely by her marriage ceremony band. She had been strangled to demise, betrayed by a male RAWA supporter. Initially arrested for driving a truck stuffed with explosives into Pakistan, the 2 males who confessed to her homicide had ties to KHAD, the Afghan secret police allied with the Soviets. In 2002, 15 years after her demise, they had been hurriedly executed by the Pakistani state. Afterwards, RAWA launched an announcement reiterating its opposition to capital punishment.

Afghan women protest anti-Taliban slogans in 1997 is IslamabadAfghan refugees chant anti-Taliban slogans at a protest organised by RAWA in Islamabad in 1997. A male protestor holds up an image of Meena [Tanveer Mughal/AFP)

‘A living presence’

More than 10 years after Meena’s assassination, scholar Anne E Brodsky recounts viewing that clip of Meena alongside young RAWA members in Pakistan. Watching their martyred leader predict a future they had lived through but one she did not live to see, the young women were moved to tears. “Most of them had never met her,” Brodsky writes in With All Our Strength (2003), her book-length account of RAWA, “but they had heard the stories and they felt that the only reason they were where they were — educated, safe, and with a deep purpose in life and a community of love and caring to support their struggle — was the efforts of this woman”.

Brodsky, a community psychologist, interviewed more than 100 RAWA members and supporters in the early 2000s. Time and again, women spoke of how RAWA gave them meaning amid the chaos of war. “They chanted the slogans that were stuck in my throat; they spoke the words that I didn’t dare speak,” one member told Brodsky. Another, a premed student forced to stay home when the Taliban came to power in 1996, was able to claw her way out of depression through involvement with RAWA: “I even forgot I didn’t have rights and couldn’t continue my studies because I was always busy.”

RAWA’s response to Meena’s murder had been to double down on her life’s work. On both sides of the Durand Line — the British-drawn boundary between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan — RAWA established schools and orphanages for Afghan boys and girls, literacy programmes for older women, health clinics and income-generating programmes.

In Afghanistan, then as now, most of these operations remained underground. In areas of Pakistan where it was relatively safer to operate for RAWA, many people remember Meena’s visage having pride of place. Jennifer L Fluri, a feminist political geographer at the University of Colorado, recalls in the early 2000s nearly every room in an openly RAWA-run school or orphanage in Pakistan featuring Meena’s portrait. “She was very much a living presence,” she says.

Afghan women hold a banner as they shout anti Afghan government slogans during a demonstration in Islamabad in 2005. In 2005, Afghan women hold the RAWA banner at a protest in Islamabad to demand peace in their country. In the mid-2000s, RAWA had an estimated 2,000 members living in Afghanistan and Pakistan [Faisal Mahmood/Reuters]

An nameless organisation

Meena remained the face of RAWA for one more purpose, too: after her assassination, the organisation grew to become totally nameless, working as a single, undifferentiated entrance. On the similar time, it grew to become much more decentralised, a set of committees unfold throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan that exchanged info on a need-to-know foundation.

Chavis estimates that there have been roughly 2,000 members within the mid-2000s — membership is restricted to Afghan ladies residing in Afghanistan or Pakistan, whereas males and different ladies can be a part of as supporters — however there was no possible way of ascertaining the precise quantity. For safety causes, RAWA didn’t preserve a consolidated listing.

In 1997, a yr into Taliban rule, they launched an internet site, serving to them discover worldwide supporters and donors. It exists in the present day, too, caught in a 90s design warp, an ode to Meena in addition to meticulous documentation of the circumstances of Afghan ladies at massive. Set off warnings abound, adopted by an unapologetic reminder: that is the truth for a lot of.

Along with their social work, RAWA additionally started documenting Taliban atrocities at a time when Afghanistan had been largely forgotten by the world. In 1999, members smuggled a digital camera right into a soccer stadium in Kabul to movie the general public execution of Zarmina, a mom of seven accused of killing her husband. When RAWA approached Western media shops with the video, most declined to air it — it was too surprising, they mentioned, for his or her viewers.

Then 9/11 occurred. RAWA’s footage of Zarmina’s execution, regardless of being two years previous, started enjoying on a loop on CNN. Earlier than dropping bombs on Afghanistan, US warplanes first dropped flyers over the nation making the case for navy motion. A number of the pamphlets featured photos of Taliban crimes plucked from RAWA’s web site. “RAWA was appalled,” says Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Girls’s Mission, a US-based non-profit established in 2000 by RAWA supporters. “To them, it was such a betrayal and an enormous hazard to be inadvertently related to a US invasion that they staunchly opposed. The US by no means requested for his or her permission to make use of these photos.”

Women walk past a university in Kabul in 2022In Afghanistan in the present day, RAWA’s work continues however stays underground [Reuters]

Meena’s legacy of independence

In her position as a RAWA ally, facilitating its advocacy work overseas, Kolhatkar had a front-row seat to Western liberal feminism’s encounter with RAWA.

Previous to 9/11, some members got here to the US for the primary time on a talking tour sponsored by a outstanding ladies’s organisation. “The organisation offered these little pins with squares of mesh material on them, much like what you’d discover on a burqa,” Kolhatkar recounted. “And one situation of the invitation was that at each occasion that includes RAWA, they’d first must play a five-minute video, produced by the organisation, highlighting the plight of Afghan ladies …  and after 9/11, they [RAWA] had been dismissed by Western feminists as being too Western. This, to me, was essentially the most infuriating half: to have their work co-opted and their legacy questioned by Western feminists.”

The activists who got here to the US, writes Brodsky, had been additionally pissed off by Western makes an attempt to individualise them, needling them for his or her private tales, fairly than partaking with RAWA’s institutional message.

When a RAWA consultant defined her position on RAWA’s overseas affairs committee to the Western ladies within the room, Brodsky recollects the assembly room lapsing into baffled silence. “The opposite ladies within the room appeared to pressure to combine this piece of data into their psychological image of this younger girl and her grassroots group,” she writes in With All Our Power. “Lastly somebody responded, ‘A International Affairs Committee, isn’t that organized of you?!’”

For RAWA, these experiences overseas had been a vindication of Meena’s fierce dedication to independence and her refusal to let the organisation’s mission be subsumed right into a broader political mission, whether or not at house or overseas. “Her legacy stays actually central to RAWA, particularly with regard to independence, secular democracy, and the entire rejection of overseas intervention — besides relating to people-to-people solidarity,” says Kolhatkar.

Fluri, as a geographer, was significantly fascinated about inspecting how RAWA negotiated energy nearer to house in Pakistan. She recollects spending time in a refugee camp in Peshawar within the early 2000s, the place RAWA wielded nice affect — a lot in order that when a girl complained of her husband regularly hitting her, they labored with male allies to have the person kicked out of the camp. “It was nearly like they’d their very own mini nation there,” says Fluri. The camp was a microcosm of their imaginative and prescient of Afghanistan — feminist, multiethnic, she says. “I keep in mind considering, oh wow, they are surely sort of creating this there.”

Lots of the main refugee camps in Pakistan had been disbanded within the mid-2000s. As Afghan women and men returned to their homeland — usually involuntarily, hounded out by an more and more hostile host nation — RAWA’s actions in Pakistan started to dissipate. In Afghanistan, its work continues however stays underground: a mixture of home-based colleges and feminist research circles, rural well being providers, and income-generating initiatives for girls, akin to poultry farms.

RAWA didn’t reply to requests for an interview.

A lot of RAWA’s work in the present day is determined by donations from worldwide supporters and is subsequently particularly inclined to the fleeting consideration span of the West. “The state of affairs proper now inside Afghanistan is worse than it was final summer time [when US forces withdrew]. However there’s much less consideration being paid, and so it’s more durable to boost funds — and getting the cash to RAWA has additionally grow to be almost unimaginable due to US banking sanctions,” says Kolhatkar.

Nonetheless, RAWA troopers on. Final December, they marked Worldwide Human Rights Day with a protest towards the Taliban, concealing their identities by sporting masks of slain Afghan activists. “Within the absence of freedom and democracy,” their placards proclaimed, “human rights haven’t any which means!”

Meena’s legacy extends past RAWA, too. Years after that refugee camp in Peshawar was shut down, not too far-off, one other younger Pashtun would grow to be well-known for demanding her proper to training — so well-known that she too can be identified by her first title alone. In 2014, requested about her childhood recollections of studying, Malala responded: “One of many first books I learn is named Meena, a couple of woman who stood up for girls’s rights in Afghanistan.”

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