Women straddle two
ways of being and have had an 'other' experience, from our species herstory
as well as our present history, of being concerned for other people: of
nurturing rather than destroying. I think it is vital for us to lead,
to take a new path to develop those capacities and shape new ways of living.
Certainly the feminism that I adhere to is of that sort.
A good example of
this is the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA).
It is an amazing organization. It is an example of exactly how women can
create a different paradigm.
RAWA is unique. Their
model is something that could well be taken up in other societies for
the better - for everybody's betterment - not just women's betterment,
but for everybody's.
RAWA started in 1977.
It started with one woman, Meena, who was on all accounts, very charismatic
and visionary. She devoted her life to the pursuit of women's human rights
in Afghanistan. This was at a time when championing feminist ideas was
within a culture that was not just fifty years or a hundred years behind
in such ways of thinking, as was feminism here in the 1970's, but centuries
- light years behind.
But here was a woman
speaking out, demanding that women be granted their human rights, knowing
that the population as a whole would be better off if women had this recognition.
She had a group of women who linked up with her to have this movement
start and an extraordinary organization was born.
RAWA is strongly
political but also active in assisting the most needy, especially women
and children and runs many lifesaving programmes: health care, orphanages,
small business programmes for widows and prostitutes and the like.
They support women,
personally empowering them and leading them to become politically minded
and active to bring about social change.
Education is a key
part of RAWA. Their educational philosophy is not just about having everybody
reach their potential, but about encouraging women to be politically minded,
plus being concerned for others, and linking with others, and supporting
It is about including
everybody - not having ethnic differences, financial background differences,
but having everybody working together.
It is about respect
and educates males to think differently about women and themselves. The
revolution they want is through pen and paper - having women educated
so they have the capacity to be able to bring about change in the community.
RAWA's leader, Meena
was assassinated ten years after she started for being so politically
outspoken. She was a threat: a threat to the fundamentalist/conservative
elements, so they got rid of her. They would have presumed that this was
going to be the end of these threatening, ratbag women but it worked in
the opposite way.
Those who were working
with RAWA just changed how they organized themselves and RAWA, the unique
organisation, was developed.
They went underground
and created an organisational structure that protected their security.
They abandoned the
role of leader, and introduced a flatter and more widely distributed form
of decision making with members working in semi-autonomous committees.
This was done for security reasons, mainly, but it has been a useful way
to empower more who are in the group and to give a greater number responsibility.
Within RAWA there
are a lot of women who have had extremely traumatic experiences and who
need a lot of emotional support, who are illiterate, who have had family
members (particularly male family members) killed, so they don't have
any capacity to earn an income.
These women are all
taken in and supported. Everybody has a part within the organization,
which is one where all teach and help those who are less able, and are
then taught and helped by those who are more able.
Even if you send
the organization an email, the response is warm, so even an outside stranger
can notice the difference in how interaction takes place.The emotional
attachment to the organisation is very strong as a consequence.
All members see themselves
as 'RAWA', not individuals, and RAWA is the collective whole. The commitment
the women in RAWA have to the organization is extraordinary.
RAWA is 2,000 strong
at the moment. It has at least as many male supporters who are quite happy
to go along with this group of women taking the lead. Some of them are
husbands, some are fathers and brothers or other relatives, some are friends.
They also risk their
life in being a supporter. This is extraordinary. Here is a group of women
who are extremely competent - they run a refugee camp in Pakistan and
their own hospital. They run mobile health care, orphanages, primary and
secondary schools, handicraft programs for widows and women who need assistance,
small business projects and make all the decisions. And men follow.
Where else does this
happen? They also work with prostitutes. Many women are forced into prostitution
because of a husband being killed. In Afghanistan this is ostracized:
anyone who is a prostitute is treated as a leper. Any who work with prostitutes
are also treated as lepers, but they do it.
So this group of
women are doing culturally revolutionary things: they make the decisions
and they have male supporters. But they are not just working in community
support areas. They are outspoken for women publicly and politically.
For example, their
website: it a public statement. It has been fantastic in getting human
rights abuses against women in the public eye.
They have conscientiously
documented and photographed instances of abuse and put them into the public
arena. They are well known, even though they are under cover.
They put out many
political publications. They have their 'Payam-e-Zan' or Women's Message'
magazine which is a very strong political analysis of what is happening
and a clear statement of the direction they want for the future of Afghanistan.
They are very strongly
outspoken against the Taliban and fundamentalist warlords who have been
responsible for the enormous amount of violence against women and men.
They regularly organise
political demonstrations in Pakistan, despite the risk. In Afghanistan
it would be much too dangerous: a women's only organisation, a publicly
outspoken one at that, is completely outrageous in a conservative environment
They don't use their
own names - they don't even know the names of other members, for security
reasons. If anyone is caught they can't give information about anyone
else. They have no headquarters and no landline phone.
They have been extremely
competent in adapting following what that happened to Meena. They had
to find a different model to function, and this is how they have chosen
to do it. Amazing!
Here, we are a bit
shy about thinking of a group of women as a legitimate entity. We are
a bit embarrassed that we are just women. We don't stand up with the confidence,
for example, of a male football club and feel that what we say and what
we do has validity.
In RAWA they don't
find this is a problem at all. They have no problem in being an organization
made up of women, and being quite strong about it.
This is why I find
RAWA such an extraordinary organization that we can learn much from.
Mariam Rawi, the
RAWA member who was here in Melbourne quite recently, gave the annual
human rights oration of the Mornington Peninsular Shire.
The CEO was standing
in front of the audience, introducing the opening address in a very neat,
well-tailored suit, with bow tie and expensive glasses: obviously on a
good salary. I am not meaning to knock him but he looked conspicuously
different compared to Mariam.
She was standing
beside him in borrowed clothes with her coat, a community coat from RAWA,
her jeans from a secondhand shop and her second hand shoes really ready
to be throw out, she told me. They were not holding together well because
they were mice eaten.
What Mariam receives
for her work is food and board: a very modest sum. Here is a woman who
is a key figure in an organization of 2,000 members, 2,000 local supporters
and an extensive international network of support and she gets close to
She works all night
because she is a married woman with a child and night is the best time
for her work, and the electricity stays on all night (if they are lucky)
so the internet works best then.
During the day it
doesn't function too well at all. They work in the night but when things
are functioning, in the day as well . The amount of time she works and
the amount of effort she puts in, like all RAWA members it seems, is extraordinary.
The work she does
has a major effect on many, many women who are in extreme, often life
and death, situations.
I was acutely aware
of the stark contrast as to how we value lives and how we value work from
one side of the globe to the other: where you are located, counts. Someone
in Afghanistan, particularly a woman, is not given the same value in spite
of her amazing efforts.
It is really quite
moving when you think about it. I gave Mariam her Australian tour timetable
and asked if it was too much, but she said "Whatever you give me, I will
do". For a whole month she worked 'full speed ahead' with never a request
for a breathing space.
Her passion and commitment
left me spellbound. Actually her audiences were spellbound, too. After
the presentation at Toorak College, from just one person who heard her
speak, a cheque for $10,000 was put into the RAWA account.
Talking about her
experiences, the commitment of RAWA and the future they want for women
and Afghanistan, just knocked people out of their socks. They really are
quite extraordinary women.
People really wanted
to get behind what they are doing at RAWA and to be supportive. They could
see the great significance of these women's work. And this is what I am
hopeful will happen here in Australia as well: that we will have a rejuvenation
of women actively following women's wisdom (you can call it that), looking
for new directions and building new social alternatives rather than trying
to change the male paradigm. That doesn't work .
And we can do better
than a mould an ocean of Margaret Thatchers. I think we can learn a lot
from RAWA - that women have the capacity; that we can take a different
direction which is outside the male model; that we should have the confidence
in what we are and who we are; that we matter and that we should be taken
notice of. RAWA has arisen out of adversity and whether this always has
to be the case to stimulate new thought and action, I don't know.
Perhaps the more
comfortable we are, the less likely we are to create something as effective
and 'revolutionary' as RAWA, but hopefully we can learn from it.
RAWA strongly acknowledges
its herstory, and Meena and her contribution are a constant part of RAWA's