During a radio transmission on 17/11/2001, Laura Bush famously stated:
“Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet, the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries, and they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
This quote clearly shows the link between the USA intervention in Afghanistan and women’s liberation. How much of this narration was truthful and how much was propaganda remains a matter of debate, as well as the effectiveness of it.
On the one hand, under American control, Afghanistan passed the Elimination of Violence against Women Law (2009), and (at least formally) women did enjoy more rights in the years between 2001 and 2021, (when the USA troops withdrew, and the Taliban seized power again).
On the other hand, however, the Western view on the matter and the attempts of Western feminism have been criticized as a form of saviourism, relegating Afghan women to the role of oppressed victims in need of assistance and overlooking their fight and their standpoint.
The risk of using Western values as the sole paradigm is being caught in a simplistic interpretation of the Afghan reality, forgetting to acknowledge the specifics of it. It also means arrogantly dismissing the cultural and political conscience of Afghan women, feminists and activists, and the role they play and have played in their own emancipation.
In 2021 LSE scholar Ruhi Khan addressed this issue in an article titled “Afghanistan and the colonial project of feminism: dismantling the binary lens”, in which she wrote against “the binary of the ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (as scholar Gayatri Spivak eloquently puts it)”.
In her words, this narrative “erases the history of feminisms within the global south”. Khan brings attention also to the autochthony of a movement for women’s rights in the region, making the example of the reforms promulgated in the 1920s by Queen Soraya Tarzi and King Amānullāh Khān.
With these premises in mind we should read the story of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) as a great example of the dynamism of Afghan feminist activity.
RAWA was founded in 1977 by Meena Keshwar Kamal, with the mission to advocate for women’s rights.
In 1979, during the Soviet invasion, the association worked to bring healthcare and education to refugee camps and to organize protests against the occupation. Its democratic and secular values have been met with hatred and violence from the mujahideen.
Since 1981 RAWA has also published the bilingual journal Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message). Since 1982 it has operated mostly from Pakistan, but it continued its activity underground during the Taliban rule of 1996-2001, reemerging more vocally after the American intervention. After the comeback of the Taliban in 2021 it has continued its fight with great difficulties.
One of the last posts on the site of RAWA is dated February 2023 and is about the commemoration of the thirty-sixth anniversary of the foundress’s martyrdom. Meena Keshwar Kamal was assassinated by hitmen in 1987 in Quetta, Pakistan. Her husband, Faiz Ahmad, had been killed the previous year. She was thirty years old and had three children whom she had entrusted to her friends.
In the more than ten years that had passed since she founded RAWA, while a student at Kabul University, she had grown to become an inspirational activist and a poet, in the wake of the great literary tradition of Afghanistan.
One of her most famous poems is “I’ll never return”, a hymn to the liberation of her country and of women, which ends with the words:
“ To break all these sufferings all these fetters of slavery,
Oh compatriot, Oh brother, I’m not what I was
I’m the woman who has awoken
I’ve found my path and will never return.”