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Interview with Maryam Rawi, Spokesperson for RAWA

Written by: RAWA on 31 December 2022


We dedicate the final day of the year to the women on the frontlines of struggle for peace and liberty.  They include the women of Ukraine, suffering for ten months following Russian imperialism’s invasion and continuing war of aggression. They include the heroic women of Afghanistan and Iran, fighting new repressions inflicted by misogynistic religious and political fundamentalists. In tribute to all these women, we publish below an interview with a spokeswoman of the Revolutionary Association on the Women of Afghanistan who was visiting Italy in November as a guest of an Italian support group.

November 13, 2022

On October 26, in Rome, at the International Women's House, there was a beautiful meeting organized by CISDA (Italian Coordination for the Support of Afghan Women), which brought Maryam Rawi to Italy, spokesperson for RAWA, an Afghan feminist revolutionary underground organization.

A long story about Afghanistan, intense and full of passion and suffering but also full of strength and courage on the part of this activist and her organization.

I interviewed Maryam Rawi, asking questions that concern us all.

Can you tell us about your RAWA organization?

RAWA continues to carry out various activities to support the population, such as organizing schools for girls and boys.

The story of RAWA begins in 1977 in Kabul among young students and intellectuals involved in politics.

From the beginning, RAWA has been committed to fighting for social justice against all successive governments. When RAWA was born there was a Soviet-backed government that invaded the country in 1979.

RAWA believes that it is essential to fight for democracy and secularism, which is why it is committed to fighting not only foreign occupation but also all fundamentalisms - in practice the fundamentalist groups and militias that already existed in the country since the late seventies.

Today, unfortunately, the political situation is determined by the objectives of the agenda of the CIA, which has always supported religious leaders who belong to different fundamentalist political formations and who refer to different ethnic groups present in the country.

And in all these years RAWA has continued to work to support women in their basic needs but also to support their empowerment and self-awareness and their political consciousness and has continued this work among refugees in Pakistan.

We believe that it is important in our country to work to increase the level of political and democratic awareness among the population.

In the years we have worked in Pakistan, we have been under attack by Pakistani intelligence services and related formations.

Mina, the founder of RAWA, was murdered in Pakistan in those years when we were active in the country.

Being a clandestine organization that works in secret still helps us to continue our action today.

Since 1997 RAWA has created its own website and this has allowed us to make the voice of RAWA activists and our organization known everywhere in the world and to create connections with other democratic and anti-fundamentalist feminist movements in the world.

RAWA has also played a very important role in counter-information both inside and outside the country.

In the first Taliban regime, when it was impossible for Western journalists to be in Afghanistan and document all human rights violations, women activists in RAWA carried out this task, hiding small cameras under the burqa filming executions and human rights violations and managed to take documentation and descriptions of what was happening outside the country.

How does RAWA view NATO's war and military occupation?

RAWA highlighted, as always, particularly after September 11, the role of the United States, which played on hypocritical and false propaganda based on three key words EXPORT OF DEMOCRACY, EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN and WAR ON TERROR; but we could see what happened 20 years ago when the United States intervened in our country, the Taliban were weaker, today they are very strong. That is what NATO's war has served.

What activity can RAWA do under the Taliban regime?

Building on the painstaking experience of the first Taliban regime with the clandestine schools we built for girls and girls, we are now able to organize clandestine school classes with subjects that are not taught in Taliban schools, such as English, mathematics and science subjects.

Today, Afghan women appear as the possible opposition to the Taliban regime, what about men?

Many male activists involved in non-governmental organizations and various social services have been targeted in attacks and killings and all this is done in a very subtle silent way and not in broad daylight.

It happens, and it does not emerge in the Western media, that many men were killed simply because they dared to listen to music. There are many restrictions reserved for men, for example they cannot cut their beards, they cannot wear jeans, they have to go five times a day to the mosque to pray.

Who is resisting in Afghanistan?

There is not only RAWA, there is a spontaneous resistance that has taken to the streets in all the provinces of Afghanistan to protest against the Taliban regime.

Fortunately, Afghan women are no longer the same as they were twenty years ago, they have learned the value of their rights, they have learned how much their freedom and their lives are worth. When the country was handed over by the US to the Taliban, they refused to do a whole series of things that are imposed by the regime, when the Taliban imposed the black hijab, in all the provinces, not only in the capital, several women rebelled.

When the Taliban began to prevent women from going to work, many of them went to the workplace anyway, and not only because they are widows and in situations of extreme need and the only source of income for their family, but also because they do not want to submit to these government dictates.

Sometimes we see that the Western media describes the Taliban as a changed reality compared to the first regime, more liberal towards women, but this is not the case and now the reality is coming to light, and non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International provide detailed reports on the arrests of women who opposed the rules of the Taliban regime who are captured and killed, but who are first tortured and raped.

In Iran there are important uprisings led by women, what connection do you feel with these girls?

It is true that you absolutely cannot compare the struggles and demonstrations that are taking place in Iran with those underway in Afghanistan, but certainly for us Afghan women the revolt of Iranian women is very inspiring.

The reason why we feel so close to Iranian women is that we have common points that are fundamental. First of all, we oppose extremism and religious fundamentalism of Islamic origin, we oppose the restrictions of sharia and we want to carry on a common struggle.

Although small, the demonstration in solidarity with Iranian women that RAWA managed to organize with the protest against the Iranian embassy in Kabul is significant.

We hope and work so that what is happening in Iran today will happen in the future in Afghanistan.

Can you tell us how, if the Taliban regime is not supported by the population, can this widespread opposition manifest itself? What are the risks?

Every time we talk about Afghanistan, we imagine a country devastated by war but we have to say that the majority of the Afghan population, of any ethnicity, does not give any support to the Taliban at this time.

The greatest message I bring from Afghanistan in my political mission to the West is that no one in Afghanistan, neither men nor women, want to be divided and divided by ethnicity or religion and everyone wants to carry forward the hope of an idea of a united people and nation.

Everything that is happening in Afghanistan affects the population in all its components, from an economic point of view, the loss of jobs, extreme poverty, the absolute lack of security.

It is true that Afghan society is basically conservative about the condition of women but things have changed and many men, especially those who have had the opportunity to study and live in the cities, have begun to support women's rights, especially the younger generations have become aware and support us.

Of course, I am an Afghan feminist woman underground and risk my life every day, but men also risk a great deal opposing the Taliban regime are destined to be persecuted and many lose their lives in suicide attacks and in the numerous explosions within many areas of the country.

There is no woman or man in my country who supports the Taliban regime.

If the Taliban are in power and are very strong, this strength and power is certainly not due to the support of the population but to the weapons they have in their hands and the international support they receive from the regional powers of Iran, China and Russia.

Is there a great desire to escape Afghanistan?

Today in Afghanistan everyone wants to leave. Certainly, for men it is easier, paying a high cost in money, to face the journey of hope to get out of the country, but there are those who remain and those who decide to fight and fight for justice and recognition of rights in the country, and make a huge sacrifice. Opposing the regime is often paid with life.

What are the sacrifices and what are the lives of activists like?

If I had to tell you what my life is and enter into the merits of this painful and tiring situation that concerns not only the struggle we carry out, but also daily life and everyday duties, and not only those concerning the right to education and work but also in everyday life of essential needs ... If we look at what has happened in our country in 40 years, we have had two foreign military occupations, the Soviet and the American, the civil war in between, and two Taliban regimes. And now our country is known to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world and to be one of the largest producers of heroin in the world, and today it is also considered, and it is, one of the most insecure countries in the world. And it is also the most unhappy country in the world.

Unfortunately, it has all the worst records, the saddest country, the worst country in which to be born a woman.

In Afghanistan it is a great challenge not only to be an activist fighting against the regime but also simply to be a human being.

When the Taliban took away women's right to study, many parents chose to send their daughters to private schools but this choice is a very dangerous choice because going from home to school is very risky.

Recently there was a suicide attack in a school that left 50 dead and more than 100 injured in the centre of Kabul. And these young women of 16/17 years old were killed only for their commitment to grow and train.

Even women workers in the health sector are under attack. We have dedicated our mobile health unit to Simi, who was a very young health worker who dealt with vaccinations. She was 19 years old, she had just graduated, and she was killed, it was a targeted murder.

And unfortunately, all the people who suffer these targeted suicide attacks, when they do not die and are injured, remain disabled for life and have absolutely no possibility of finding adequate treatment to overcome the injuries suffered.

What are the psychological repercussions on the population?

One statistic shows that more than 90% of the Afghan population suffers from depression and stress. Try to think also of those who have a son or, like me, a daughter, if I send her to school, I never know if she comes home and I myself when I leave for these campaigns to assist the distribution of food to the population, I never know if my husband and I will return home alive.

Many young Afghans who go to Pakistan to work end up in the construction sector and are subjected to brutal exploitation and therefore very often begin to take drugs.

So, the daily life of the normal population is at great risk and it is stressful to live in this way and therefore you can add all the additional risk that people who carry out political and social activism against the regime run.

The greatest danger activists face is targeted personal attacks, arrests, missing kidnappings and killings.

There is no judicial system to turn to, but the law imposed by the regime applies.

And executions with stoning still continue in our country.

One can therefore imagine how tiring and difficult the life of those who oppose it is and RAWA has managed to survive for 40 years thanks to the activities carried out in hiding.

Afghanistan is a tormented country but also very beautiful, what are the beauties you can still think of?

The beauty of my country lies in the fact that despite all the suffering, people resist by continuing for example to let their daughters and sons study.

Even in the most peripheral villages I happened to see elderly men accompany the girls to school with all the risks that this entails even for long journeys on foot.

People in Afghanistan know very well that the only way to change things is to allow their sons and daughters to study, and this in a country whose economy is mainly based on agriculture.

Another beautiful thing about my country is the friendship that people experience despite ethnic and religious differences, and this happens not only between women and intellectuals but also in rural areas.

We know that we are a very poor country but we also know that our country has enormous resources that actually make it very rich.

We have suffered all the wars because we are a country rich in resources, we have a lot of water, a reason for future wars.

And art? Is creative activity still possible?

Artists must hide their activity because it is forbidden to produce art. They must camouflage themselves because they are at risk of targeted killings and repression and therefore it is almost impossible to produce art but it is still produced clandestinely.

At the level of international public opinion there is a lot of sensitivity on Afghan events, how important it is to disavow the Taliban regime and therefore interrupt commercial relations with the regime?

It's very important. There is a disconnect between what civil society wants and international politics, your Western governments continue to trade with Afghanistan precisely for its raw materials such as lithium used to build mobile phones and the action of civil society must be to pressure your governments to block these relations with the Taliban regime and completely disavow the current fundamentalist government, as RAWA asks.

What does it mean to be a political organization that opposes the Taliban regime?

Being a political organization for us means first of all starting from the essential needs of the population that is in a condition of great poverty with high mortality from hunger spread throughout the country. RAWA has never been a non-governmental organization, it has never registered in government offices, it has always been an illegal organization, it has always been a grassroots organization that fortunately has developed relationships with other organizations internationally, especially with progressive feminist organizations that have started and continue to support us.

In Italy we have the support of CISDA and it is very important, as are the missions that CISDA has carried out from Italy to Afghanistan and vice versa from Afghanistan to Italy as the latter brought me here to Italy.

What concrete help can we give you?

Of course, to continue operating we need funds, fundraising becomes very difficult when media attention is low, and therefore we need to revitalize this fundraising that for anti-government activists is vital.

All our humanitarian activity is never done in the name of RAWA for security reasons.

If we compare what we are able to do with the enormous needs of the Afghan people, our action is a small drop.

But the difference between our fundraising and other fundraising is that every fund we raise immediately reaches the country and the Afghan people. And of course, both we in Afghanistan and CISDA in Italy do a completely voluntary activity. There are no salaries.

It is also important to join the international campaigns in our support, in Italy proposed by CISDA and continue to talk about Afghanistan to keep international attention alive.

Does your departure from Afghanistan and your return involve considerable risks?

For twenty years there have been delegations between Italy and Afghanistan and how I managed to arrive today would be a long story to tell. The last visit to Italy by RAWA was in 2017 and the last visit by Italy to Afghanistan organized by CISDA was in 2019 and since then there have been a number of problems and restrictions for travel related to the granting of visas, but Covid has also made these visits difficult. The big problem for us Afghan women is also to arrive only at the border, it is very difficult because we cannot travel alone but we have to be escorted by men and therefore getting here is very complicated also because it often requires staying in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran for months before being able to obtain the OK of the visa to allow entry into the Schengen area. This is why I ask you not to take pictures of me and if you make them cover my face precisely because I have to return to my country and I run a great risk, I must not be recognized, I am illegal.



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