Braving the Taliban's guns

n July 14, 2001, the Taliban banned the use of the Internet in war-torn Afghanistan to stop access to "vulgar", "immoral" and "anti-Islamic" material. Undeterred by the diktat, a group of incognito women constituting the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan continue to imperil heir lives to expose and chronicle the oppression unleashed by the misogynist Taliban regime. The Peshawar-based RAWA site is, perhaps, the sole source of inside information on the plight of Afghani women, forced into psychologically- destructive isolation by a fundamentalist regime's (mis) interpretation of Islamic purity. Although the organisation is 20-years old, it was only in 1997 that RAWA decided to launch its web site and use it as a potent weapon to garner world opinion against the oppressive military regime of the Taliban.

The onerous nature of the undertaken by RAWA members at the cost of enormous personal risk becomes clear from the list of activities forbidden by the Afghanistan regime. The Taliban has banned women's education, work or any activity outside the home unless accompanied by a mahram (close male relative such as a father, brother or husband). The repressive edicts require women to wear a burqa, which covers them from head to toe; to cover their ankles or invite public whipping; to not wear fared (wide) pant-legs, even under a burqa; to wear flat shoes (a man must not hear the click of a woman's heels); to refrain from laughing aloud (no stranger should hear a woman's voice); to not paint nails; women must not wear bright clothes (these are seen as sexually attractive for men); women must not appear on the balconies of their apartments or houses.

Translation of a poem by Meena

I'm the woman who has awoken
I've arisen and become a tempest
through the ashes of my burnt children
I've arisen form the rivulets of
my brother's blood
My nation's wrath has empowered me
My ruined and burnt villages fill me with
hatred against the enemy
Oh compatriot, no longer regard me
weak and incapable,
My voice has mingled with thousands
of arisen women
My fists are clenched with fists of
thousands compatriots
To break all these sufferings all
these fetters of slavery.
I'm the woman who has awoken,
I've found my path and will never return.

Any resistance to these draconian injunctions invites instant punishment. Many women with painted nails have had their fingers cut off. Women have been publicly flogged, stoned, burned or imprisoned for the slightest transgression. The web site contains pictures of gruesome scenes of the cruel rites characteristic of the fundamentalist regime: photos of men triumphantly hoisting the amputated hands of a thief; a video of a woman avenging her son's death by hacking off the head of the alleged killer, pictures of women who have been burnt and are reduced to begging. The site apologises for its graphic portrayal of violence: "this is the reality of life in Afghanistan"

In these arduous circumstances, RAWA workers continue their underground work of clandestinely educating women, training them to support themselves by raising poultry or weaving rugs raise funds to help destitute women made destitute by the Taliban and chronicle the most tragic period in Afghan history. The activists have to be extremely careful. If caught it would mean certain death. On Feburary 4, 1987, their founder Meena was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan by a jittery regime. Other members get routine threats from Taliban supporters and even In Pakistan where the organisation is helping refugee Afghanis, the members are not safe and have been forced underground. RAWA activists do not reveal their names or ages and refer to themselves at Rawa@rawa.org. The few journalists, who met and spoke to RAWA members, admit that they did not know who their hosts really were.

Pitted against a repressive environment, Rawa members are effectively making use of technology to fight the bigoted regime. The burqa, the symbol of women's repression, has ironically come to their rescue, and is used to conceal digital cameras and notebooks needed to chronicle the reign of terror from the ever-suspicious and watchful eyes of the authoritarian regime. The group needs donations of miniature digital cameras and camcorders, which are easier to conceal and add the convenience of allowing the webmaster to directly upload images to the site. RAWA also plans on distributing the electronic devices among members throughout. In addition, the web site not only helps them to sensitise the international audience to the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan, but also helped the group to raise funds through sale of T-shirts and attracted donations for their work. Rawa has a vast list of donors in Europe and North America. But the nature of their work and the magnitude of their mission embodied in the slogan: "Long live freedom and democracy! Down with fundamentalism! Women's rights are human rights! " means that funds must flow constantly for the cause. If these strong-willed women succeed, it would be heart-warming for techies that technology often derided for being confined to labs played an instrumental role to counter the happy gun-trotting soldiers of the Taliban regime.

 

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