Afghan Women's Struggle Continues
An Interview with RAWA's Sahar Saba
By Laila Kazmi
Sahar Saba is the spokesperson for the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), an organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. RAWA has been carrying out its struggle for Afghan women's rights for the last 26 years. When the Taliban banned education for women, RAWA members repeatedly risked their lives simply by teaching girls to read and write, an activity which they were forced to carry out in secrecy. Saba herself first came to RAWA as a student of age nine. Her father who was dedicated to having his daughter educated enrolled her in a RAWA school himself. Today, in her late twenties, Sahar Saba is a passionate voice for RAWA and the rights of Afghan women.
She recently toured the US speaking about the continued struggles of women and the US role in the current crisis in Afghanistan. The following interview was conducted after her lecture at the Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle, WA, on March 14th, 2004. We would like to thank the Afghan Iranian Women's Alliance and Elliot Bay Book Co for making this interview possible.
MWU!: You said during your lecture that you joined RAWA at the age of 9. Your parents had to make the difficult decision of sending you away from home at such a young age so you could get an education. Why did your parents decide to send you to the RAWA underground school which you said was very far from the camp?
Sahar Saba: There were no schools
in the camps. So in the beginning there was no question to have such access to education there. There were some Pakistani schools but just for boys and not for girls. Also, even if there [had] been some for girls, we couldn't afford to pay the fees. Where I was living in the camp, it was a tribal area. Even in the recent years, there are no schools for boys or for girls, no schools, no education.
MWU!: The women who were running the RAWA schools, who were they and where did they get their education?
Sahar Saba: They were RAWA members who got their education in Afghanistan before schools closed down. Today most of our members, like me, [are those who] studied in RAWA schools as children. There are also a number of those who have studied in other schools and then joined RAWA. Some started with the [adult] literacy classes and then became activists.
MWU!: When you were a child at the RAWA school, how many women were teaching there?
Sahar Saba: When I was in school, I just had two teachers. They were there all the times with us. They were our teachers, they were our mothers, they were our sisters, taking care of everything, our food, our sleep, our clothing. I remember we needed someone to give us baths and they did that. They were teaching us in the classroom and then they were making food and doing everything [else] for us.
MWU!: Among the families living in the refugee camps, was education considered a priority, especially for girls?
Sahar Saba: In the camp where I was living, there were a number of people who really wanted to have a school. In fact, my father was one of those who later on established a school for boys first then for girls. But since most of the camps were and still are controlled by the fundamentalists, there are restrictions like the ones which [were enforced by the] Taliban. These restrictions were there long before the Taliban, that mentality was there and still is.
You do not see a woman going even from one house to another without burqa [a full body veil]. Music is something which is banned in many [camps]. TV is not allowed. I know many many households who want to have TVs [but] they are not allowed by the counsel of the camp that controls everything in the camps. In fact, it controls people's lives, everything!
So these restrictions were there for years and years. Also, there was no encouragement, no support from the United Nations or from any other international agencies. Just in a few camps which are closer to the cities like Peshawar or Quetta (as opposed to rural areas), there were some minor educational projects. I know many camps where there is still really no access to education.
MWU!: The state of Afghan women was not always as it has been in the past couple of decades and still is today. Afghan women have seen better times when they were free to go out, to work, to attend schools, there weren't all these restrictions on their dress. How did Afghan women lose all these basic human rights?
Sahar Saba: It started with the Russian invasion. When we say this it is because first of all [when] Afghanistan was invaded everyone including women lost their freedom, everything. Secondly, the Russian invasion [provided] a big chance for the fundamentalists to become stronger [and gain] power because they got financial and military support. They were created, in fact, by the support they got from the United States [to fight the Russians]. That was a big opportunity for the fundamentalists because in the name of jihad [they took control] to fight the Russians which the United States wanted.
So we usually say that the tragedy with the Afghan women began with the Russian invasion. Before that, the fundamentalists really had no place in Afghanistan; they were hated by the Afghan people. They didn't have any popularity. But suddenly they were imposed on us and they made themselves accepted [by the people] by force. They were there and people couldn't do anything. That certainly made life more terrible for Afghan women.
MWU!: You talked about the history of criminal acts and human and women's rights violations carried out by the Northern Alliance group, including murders, rapes, and tortures. They are rivals of the Taliban and are now allied with the US. Aren't members of the Northern Alliance part of the current US backed Afghan government?
Sahar Saba: Yes, they are the main allies of the US. In fact, the Northern Alliance has the upper hand in the government of President [Hamid] Karzai. For example, the most powerful ministries are in the hands of the Northern Alliance; the defense ministry which rules everything, the foreign ministry, and the used to have the interior ministry but now they have changed that. Few others like educational and some other ministries are in the hands of the Northern Alliance. The most dangerous [of these] is the defense ministry which rules over everything. The intelligence services are in their hands, the army, all decisions in fact are [made] by NA, and they are the best allies of the United States.
MWU!: Why do you feel the United States is using the Northern Alliance as their main allies? It's not a secret what the Northern Alliance did to the Afghan people, or do you think the US is unaware of their history?
Sahar Saba: Of course they are aware but the United States doesn't really care about what happens to the Afghan people. What was important is their own interest, their pipeline issue, their bases in the region [so they can] control it. That's only possible by giving support to such fundamentalists. Because in the presence of a truly independent, democratic government there is no way for the United States to have military bases in Afghanistan or to build a pipeline which really doesn't have any benefit to Afghanistan. (Pipeline from Tajikistan, through Afghanistan, to Pakistan).
MWU!: So how do the people of Afghanistan see the United States today?
Sahar Saba: Well, in the beginning there was different kind of reaction. People were deceived because they were really tired of the Taliban and all the miseries, the restrictions, the terrible life they had under the Taliban. So people thought maybe there will be change with the US intervention in Afghanistan but now after these two years they saw that United States has failed in all its claims and promises and nothing has really changed. The reaction of people now is really more and more against the United States. The reaction is of course different from that of the Iraqis. [In Afghanistan] what people really [care about] today is how to survive, how to feed their families. If you talk to people, they say we don't care if there is US or someone else because we want food, we want shelter, we want our children not to die of very simple diseases.
So as long as the United States remains in Afghanistan and there are all these failures, [they are] not fulfilling the promises that they made to the Afghan people, there will certainly be a different kind of reaction because Afghans have a history of opposing foreigners and not really accept them. [If the Afghans] see them as occupiers or invaders than there will be no way for the United States to continue [to control Afghanistan's future].
MWU!: Pakistan has its own share of problems with religious fundamentalism, especially in the Northern areas where RAWA has been working. How much support do you have from the government or the grassroots organizations in Pakistan?
Sahar Saba: We have good relations with the people in Pakistan in different areas, some NGOs, some women's groups, but unfortunately, I would say that their support has been very very little. RAWA has been working there longer than the last 20 years but there was very little voice or support of RAWA by the Pakistani women's groups or other human rights activists. Just in the last few years some of them, like Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani and a few others have started supporting RAWA and voicing their support. But generally we faced lots of problems in Pakistan too with security issues and financial issues.
MWU!: Why do you think there was such a lack of support until recently, especially since women in Pakistan have themselves been fighting for their rights for so long?
Sahar Saba: The reasons most of them give us are just some excuses because they must have known that RAWA is there and RAWA has had demonstrations [in Pakistan]. We really don't know why [they didn't support us], maybe they were afraid for their own security, fundamentalists, their own government which really doesn't [help]. We really don't get any kind of support from [Pakistani] government. Also, I think there is a lack of information because many of these women's groups are really not trying to know more about the problems of other countries, especially Afghanistan as a neighbor and an organization like RAWA.
MWU!: Current and previous Pakistani governments have been known to support or co-operate with the Taliban. Do you think that has completely changed now? Do you feel that President Musharraf's government is supporting the cause of the Afghan people and groups like RAWA?
Sahar Saba: Not really, there is no change in this sense. Now, they of course don't talk in defense of Taliban like they were doing before. President Musharraf has said many times that they don't want to support fundamentalists and terrorists and all those groups, but on the other hand they really cannot quit with the Taliban because they need to have involvement in Afghanistan and they don't have good relations with Northern Alliance. They try to make it look like the two countries have good relations but in reality they really don't like Northern Alliance.
MWU!: Now that supposedly the Afghan people are free, are schools open? Are the young people in Afghanistan, girls and boys, getting an education?
Sahar Saba: Well, it is different [now]. There are no restrictions on paper, not like [there were] during the Taliban. So education is allowed. There should be schools for both girls and boys but in reality that's only limited to Kabul and just few other cities. In villages, you can hardly find any schools. People really want [education]. People have tried their best to establish schools. They have had classes in destroyed places, houses, and tents, under trees, wherever possible they've tried to establish schools and educate themselves. But the fundamentalists really don't like that and a number of schools have been destroyed or burned by 'unknown people' but everyone knows who these unknown people are.
Also, the biggest challenge for education in Afghanistan especially for girls is the security issue. Even if there is a school, many parents really don't trust sending their daughters to school because they are not sure what might happen to them. There are many cases of women being kidnapped, the young girls, if they are seen by a commander or a Northern Alliance men, the parents are often forced to marry their daughters to any of them. If they don't [comply] then the families are in big trouble, they can be killed. So security is still a big obstacle to education.
In Kabul and in some other places, the schools are open. You can see students going to school. But from the inside, they are destroyed schools. They don't have chairs, they don't have proper textbooks, teachers are not paid salaries, or very low salaries so they have to find another work. They are too tired to teach in a proper way. There are no proper equipments to teach. So these are the problems really. When we talk about education, its not only just to have [it in] name. Just to say that schools are open but what is inside the schools?
Many of the students are so depressed mentally, psychologically. They have very bad economic problems in the family, many of them have lost one of their family members or their parents. So they really cannot while sitting in the class like we have literacy classes but we have heard from our teachers that they are there apparently in the class but when you talk to them they are really not there. They are thinking about what to have for dinner, or a family member who is sick, how to take care of them. All these are the issues that must be really considered and then its not only about Kabul when we talk about Afghanistan. In Kabul the situation is really different, in terms of the school conditions. What about the other cities, what about the 32 provinces of Afghanistan, all the villages and all the people who live in the rural areas who have really nothing. There are areas that people have just grass to eat, no food. How you can really think of education there?
MWU!: On your tour here in the US, so far, what type of reaction have you received from people? Do you think that Americans understand the current situation in Afghanistan today and the US role there?
Sahar Saba: The reaction I got [has been] what I expected because the media really doesn't talk about the reality. So people somehow were a little surprised when I talked about what is the true situation in Afghanistan. There were questions. They wanted to know more and get some explanation, some justification and reasons [for] what I have said. Which is somehow a little difficult because, as I always say, 'If you want to really know the reasons, the best way is to really see it. Otherwise you have to really believe us.' And I hope that they will because the reality is what not only I have said on behalf of RAWA but other human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International [have also said it]. People who were in these meetings (Saba's lectures), they were interested but the numbers [of people] who were there were very few, small numbers. So I can see that there is not really that much interest [in the subject] as there was before.
MWU!: Sahar, what is your main message for Americans before you return to Afghanistan?
Sahar Saba: The most important thing is that Afghanistan shouldn't be forgotten. It is still a tragedy. Unfortunately, it can still be a dangerous example for others and it can still have a Taliban. [Americans] must keep an eye on Afghanistan and be aware [of] what their government is doing in their name in Afghanistan. At the same time, realize the importance of the long and hard struggle of Afghan women in bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan