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More Afghanistan Myth Busting. The Afghan Women's Movement on International Forces

afghanistan women conference civil rights taliban politicsThis is the second in a series on popular myths about Afghanistan. For Myth #1, read Popular Myths About Afghan Women, Myth #3 is The Myth That Afghans Don't Want Us There, for Myth #4, read Guest Myth-Buster Melissa Roddy's The Persistent Afghan Pipeline Conspiracy Theory, Myth #5 is Afghanistan is Backwards and Irreparable, and Myth #6 is Afghanistan has never been conquered by outside forces.

Myth #2: The Afghan women’s movement wants foreign troops to leave now.

The Truth: While all Afghans likely want foreign troops to leave their country eventually-- like when there is peace-- many activists and civil society organizations are anxious over what will become of them in the absence of an international security presence, as expressed by some of the women quoted here. Since the Taliban target and have murdered many prominent women including politicians, reporters, government workers and women activists, many women expect to be promptly killed should a Taliban government ever return to power. Many Afghans feel that the international community should wind down its role in Afghanistan when specific objectives have been achieved, rather than according to arbitrary dates or deadlines.

Najia Haneefi, a founder of the Women’s Political Participation Committee, and former executive director of the largest women’s organization in Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Education Centre, explains that “the Taliban and other extremists will be the only ones who will celebrate Canada's departure. Civil society, Afghan women and our young democracy will mourn Canada's departure”, adding that the Taliban will be in a position of strength should international forces withdraw. She further points out that,

A premature pullout by Canada will not only be negatively perceived by many, including Afghan people, NATO and Canadians who sacrificed a lot for Afghanistan, but also will undermine the great efforts made by Canadians. Afghans appreciated and respected Canada’s value-based, impartial diplomatic mission. Afghanistan is a joint Afghan and international mission. As such, we started together, we will have to leave together.

While the Afghan parliament demand and expect accountability from NATO forces in Afghanistan, and have legislated to this effect, and everyone wants to see civilians protected at all costs, many are more concerned over the lack of interest in Afghanistan by NATO member countries. The US, United Kingdom, Holland, Canada and others have all made statements demonstrating their eagerness for an exit strategy and are seeking to pin down a departure date as soon as possible; not exactly reassuring to Afghans, but very reassuring to the Taliban who can now mark their calendars to know how long to sit back and wait this thing out.

Further, the only strategic interest western countries have in Afghanistan is their own security. The conspiracy theories that they are there “for oil”, “for a pipeline” or for some other sinister purpose have been thoroughly debunked despite their persistence in the claims of anti-war groups. Watch for an upcoming post on this from Guest Myth Buster, Melissa Roddy. Steve Coll, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of the seminal Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, wrote in The New Republic in August 2010:

American and European commentators who advocate for troop withdrawal often seem to find it necessary to dehumanize Afghans to justify their own loss of will, or to blame Afghans for the international community’s own policy failures—i.e., saying the country is hopelessly corrupt, drug-addled, primitive, perpetually at war. Among its other flaws, this line of thinking misjudges Afghanistan, a pluralistic and very poor country that has repeatedly rejected Taliban-style ideology and retains a strong sense of national identity, one that produced a unified and mainly peaceful nation for much of the twentieth century, until a succession of outside invaders shattered its cohesion and independence.

There is one organization that has caused many in the west to believe that all Afghan women want troops to leave: the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA does not differentiate between the Taliban, Karzai’s administration, NATO or the US, opposing all as enemies of Afghanistan. It’s unclear precisely what RAWA thinks should happen in Afghanistan if US and NATO troops did indeed withdraw immediately, to protect civilians from the Taliban, though they have suggested that UN forces "occupy" Afghanistan during a "transition" period after which a government "based on democratic values and comprised of neutral personalities" would be established. Perhaps they missed the memo that ISAF is a UN-mandated force, that there has been a transitional administration, and several elections have now taken place.

There are a couple of important points to note about RAWA. Firstly, they are not based in Afghanistan, but out of Quetta in Pakistan. Further, because of their secretive behaviour, the reach and impact of their projects, such as orphanages and girls’ schools, is unclear, as compared to organizations that are operating openly. As far back as 2001 and 2002, Wendy McElroy was raising important questions about where a significant amount of donation money was going when it was sent to RAWA, pointing out that

RAWA remains something of a mystery, with only a Web site for a public face because of the group's understandable fear of retaliation from the Taliban. Its representatives commonly use false names, even when giving interviews in America. RAWA has no street address, only a P.O. Box in Pakistan to which donations can be sent. Such concealment may be prudent but it also is a barrier to accountability.

The significance of their role as a player in the Afghan women’s movement is dubious. RAWA behaves in an isolationist fashion, and does not collaborate with other women’s organizations, of which there may be as many as 800 or more in Afghanistan. Within the women's movement, key reforms have succeeded because organizations united together, putting aside their differences to ensure there was a statement of gender equality in the Afghan Constitution of 2004, to fight against the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law in 2009, to lobby for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law more recently, and to resist negotiations with the Taliban that would compromise women's rights. Several networks of organizations are active, such as the Women’s Political Participation Committee and the Afghan Women’s Network. In these forums, Afghan women’s organizations and individual activists exchange information, plan priorities, and coordinate their advocacy work so everyone can be more effective by working together. RAWA has opted out of these activities, essentially boycotting everything; and limiting their advocacy activities to rants on their website. In a 2002 article called "What Do Afghan Women Want?", journalist Noy Thrupkaew writes that,

Afghan women's nongovernmental organizations and Afghan feminist expatriates have expressed concern about a radical, lone-wolf organization garnering so much Western attention. In Afghanistan's slow, painful shift from war to nation building, they say, perhaps the country needs stronger support for voices of coalition building rather than for those advocating solitary revolution

RAWA frequently resorts to a militant tone of drama, confrontation and revolution, mocking and condemning their critics, and offering little in the way of constructive ideas or initiatives for moving forward and achieving peace. RAWA has also led several smear campaigns against prominent women activists and feminist organizations, including one particularly well known campaign against Dr. Sima Samar, the chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Thrupkaew documented

a persistent habit of RAWA attacking Afghan women with absurd charges. In each case the real crime committed by the women is that they have risen to a prominence that RAWA apparently feels threatened by.

Concerns have also been raised about RAWA’s ties to Pakistan’s Communist Party and to Pakistani intelligence, and speculation has long persisted that they are a Maoist organization, with RAWA itself exclaiming, “If an irreconcilable fight against the Taliban and their Jihadi brethren reflects a ‘Maoist’ stand, then yes, RAWA is more Maoist than the Maoists!”

Despite these concerns, should one Google 'Afghan women's organization', RAWA is usually found among the first few search results. Large, active grassroots organizations actually based in Afghanistan, whose work has benefitted tens of thousands of women and girls, such as the Afghan Women's Resource Centre or the Afghan Women's Education Centre, are not household names among North Americans, while RAWA has made an appearance on Oprah and earned the devotion of Eve Ensler.

It's critical that there begin to be better media and information savvy on the part of outsiders looking in, when making assessments of what Afghans think and want for the future of their country. We have to do a better job of resisting sound bites and sensationalist assertions like those made by Malalai Joya, and rather, consult the evidence that is available to us such as the findings of opinion polls. The Afghan women's movement is large, diverse and dynamic. It faces one of the world's most challenging realities of gender inequality. Its track record is impressive, and the courage of the many women's rights defenders who have stayed in Afghanistan despite the challenges deserves our recognition. Learning about their work, and their views on the current foreign engagement in their country, may demand looking further than the first few hits of a Google search; and it may require some questioning of an Afghan dissident so closely aligned to western "anti-war" organizations. Understanding the orientation of a movement is a more accurate barometer into the sentiment of local progressives than the stance of a single organization or a single individual.

Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist

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