Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post by Saadia Faruqi. Saadia is an interfaith activist, blogger for Tikkun Daily and The Islamic Monthly, and a speaker on American Muslim issues. She lives in Houston, Texas and is currently writing a collection of short stories set in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi
Strong and Faithful Muslimahs: The Afghanistan Resistance
What happens when women raise their voices for equality? Who benefits when women refuse to bow down to men using religion for oppression and hate mongering? Their lives transform, and not just their lives but the lives of entire generations. Women are an important aspect of any country’s progress, and for Muslim women it is no different. In this first post for Women’s History Month, I will write about the silent Muslimah resistance, Afghanistan’s freedom fighters we never hear about. The women who changed, and are still changing, their own society for the better.
This week, I’m reading Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women’s Resistance by Cheryl Benard – an eye opening account of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). For those who are unaware, RAWA is a political movement begun in the 1970s as a resistance to the harmful and dangerous policies of first the Afghan monarchy, then the Russian regime, then the freedom fighters or mujahideen, and finally the Taliban. What began as a struggle for democracy in the 1970s quickly became a banner for women’s rights in one of the most war-torn and oppressive regions of the world. What started as a feminist movement with abstract ideals transformed into a practical, grassroots organization successfully helping thousands of Afghan women and girls become more educated and empowered. RAWA managed to do in decades what many other similar organizations have not achieved in centuries, and it did so based on Muslim women’s intellect, courage and loyalty.
RAWA was started by Meena Kamal, a young woman who because of her bravery and popularity quickly became a much-loved personality among Afghani women. I wrote about Meena on the occasion of Women’s History Month in 2013, and explained that certainly this charismatic woman spearheaded in her short life an amazingly cohesive and well-functioning organization. But RAWA was much more than Meena. Veiled Courage takes the reader into the lives of countless Muslim women who stood up and demanded their rights, first through protests and demonstrations, and then under Taliban rule through secret resistance. They created an underground struggle not unlike the slave resistance movement in the United States, with secret girls’ schools, refugee smuggling across the border to Pakistan, clandestine hospitals and much more. The women of RAWA were not just idealists or protesters, they put their faith into action when doing so was not only frowned down upon but could lead to loss of life as well.
“In sharp contrast to the work RAWA conducted publicly among refugees in Pakistan was the clandestine work that brought them into daily mortal danger. Smuggling endangered families to safety. Getting the survivors of massacres out of the killing zone and onto neutral ground. Secretly photographing Taliban beatings, torture and executions to provide documentation and evidence and persuade the outside world to finally act… These were the reasons why the Taliban put RAWA’s members on their death list.” Veiled Courage, p 69
This book is a recommended read for anyone, Muslim or otherwise, who wants to know about the real lives of Afghan women as owners of their own destinies and keepers of their faith and traditions. It is the story of 24-year old Roya, who received a public lashing when she lifted the corner of her burqa to gain relief from the scalding heat of the Afghan summer, and became motivated to save other women from the same humiliation and violence. It is the story of Sohaila, whose mother’s death from a rocket attack left her in charge of six younger siblings, and a personal tragedy changed into activism as a form of therapy. It is the story of Mahbooba, who became so deeply affected by a single three-line poem that she joined the resistance movement in a heartbeat:
“If I rise up,
If you rise up,
Everyone will rise up.”
It is no secret that the Taliban rule was a horrific period of time for all Afghanis, men and as well as women. Their harsh brand of Islam is a constant reminder of the dangers of fundamentalism and extremism, mixed with an unhealthy doze of illiteracy and misogyny. The more one learns of Islam the more one recognizes that the Taliban are as far removed from its principles and teachings as a group could ever be. Without a doubt, Afghani women were the biggest losers in a society of extremist overlords. What RAWA believes as the path to enlightenment, progress and freedom is in reality thei Islamic beliefs put into practice in the harshest of conditions:
“Meena believed that women – educated women – were the first and most natural opponents of fundamentalism. They had the most to lose, and their values were the most naturally inimical to this brand of extremism. The key was to increase their numbers. And the path to that was education. Women or men who had some understanding of the broader world would not fall prey so easily to the fundamentalists’ narrow, ignorant vision. Education was essential.” Veiled Courage, p 32
Afghanistan’s courageous women were not alone, however. Their success could not have been so complete without the contribution of two important yet often uncredited sources. As news of RAWA trickled into the international community, countless westerners became financial and political supporters. RAWA may not have been able to continue the extensive work its members do in Afghanistan and Pakistan without that financial and political support. But most importantly, it was the men of Afghanistan who supported Afghani women. Veiled Courage gives accounts of husbands, fathers and brothers who agreed with RAWA’s mission and gave its members not only permission but also assistance as they navigated the treacherous waters of the misogynistic regimes of that country. We read about Sabera, whose husband introduced her to RAWA and encouraged her to take part in its activities. We read about Sanobar, who was first encouraged by her father against her family’s wishes and then her husband and mother-in-law to continue her activism. We read about Shahla, who met her husband during her studies and found him to be her most ardent supporter. Many men were also introduced to RAWA through their wives or sister’s activities, and they continue to help the organization and improve the lives of Afghani women everywhere despite the fact that they cannot be an official part of it.
Perhaps the role of Muslimahs not just in Afghanistan’s RAWA but all over the world can be summed up in the words of a woman who gained a new lease for life after multiple deaths in her family at the hands of the mujahideen and the Taliban:
“My daughter, now instead of my tears for the death of my son and brother and husband, I will work with you. If I die, I will not be concerned because I will know that you, my daughters, will continue the struggle…” Veiled Courage, p 95
Muslim women are brave, and very conscious of their duties towards not just their families but their societies. In RAWA’s members, we see evidence that women want certain things for themselves, including the right to an education, and security for their families. But they are not passive onlookers as their fate is decided by those who oppress them. They are passionate about shaping their destinies and taking an active role in their futures, as well as the futures of their daughters. What a great, very Islamic, example for us all to emulate!