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Saving RAWA


Saving RAWA

Exclusive for the Daily Outlook Afghanistan

According to Doug McAdam, political opportunity is essential for the formation of any social movement or organization (51, 1982). The emergence of political freedom during 1963 and 1973, known as the Decade of Democracy in Afghanistan, allowed several political and social movements, including various women's organizations, and communist political groups to begin and flourish. In 1973, Dawood Khan took power after a coup d'état, declared the country a republic and legalized the formation of political parties (Ahmed-Ghosh 1, 2003). As an outcome of this new political opportunity, political and social organizations started public activism. However political opportunity was not the only factor that contributed to the formation of social movement organizations in Afghanistan.

According to John D. McCarthy and Mayer Zald, authors of Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: a Practical Theory, social organizations depend on the mobilization of resources, such as money, certain figures, volunteers, ideas, etc, and "upon external support" (1213, 1977). An example of these resources is the availability of common places, such as universities and union offices. Similar to McCarthy and Zald, in their article, Mobilizing the Jobless, Frances Fox Piven argues meeting places are necessary for the formation of social movements. Such resources allow actors to gather together, partake in social and political organizations, and give birth to movements (Piven 2, 2011). This requirement for emergence of social movements was applicable to many social and political organizations in Afghanistan. For example, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, People's Democratic Party, and the Parcham and Khalq, started as student organizations in universities or work places.

Inspired by the activism of her generation and supported by relative increase in political freedom and resources, in 1977, a young woman named Meena Kamal Keshwar left Kabul University to form a social movement organization called RAWA, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (Benard 10, 2002). Political opportunities, such as the legalization of political parties, as well as resources allowed RAWA to flourish. Many resources, including university students, money donations by other political groups and individuals, and media, were mobilized to assist RAWA in promoting its campaign and increasing the impact of its repertoire.

For example, with the academic and financial support of other women, Ms. Keshwar established the first women's magazine in Afghanistan called Payame Zan, which translates into "Woman's Message," in 1981 in Pakistan. The magazine was dedicated to introducing RAWA's goals, announcing its activities, and giving voice to RAWA's struggles for Afghanistan's independence from the Soviet rule and women's independence from a patriarchal system. In addition to being a tool for public awareness, Payame Zan served as a means for RAWA to recruit members and attract donations, which led to further resource mobilization.

According to social theorist, Charles Tilly, any social movement organization must have the following characteristics: a campaign, a repertoire and display of, Worthiness, Unity, Number and Commitment (WUNC) (Tilly and Wood 128, 2009). RAWA's campaign was to "involve Afghan women in social and political activities aimed at acquiring women's human rights and contributing to the struggle for the establishment of a government based on democratic and secular values in Afghanistan." In addition to being an advocacy organization for women's rights, according to Shahnaz Khan, in her article "Between Here and There: Feminist Solidarity and Afghan Women", RAWA was one of the most active voices against the occupation of the country by Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1980s and promoted the ideal of establishing an independent Afghan government. According to RAWA website, the repertoire of the association included mobilizing large numbers of women to engage "distributing anti-Soviet and anti-puppets leaflets, staging demonstrations and strikes in schools and universities," which allowed the organization a sufficient display of WUNC.

After twelve years of struggle and advocacy, Ms. Keshwar was assassinated in 1987 in Quetta, Pakistan. RAWA continued its activism. Right now, this organization funds many schools and clinics for women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Skaine 79, 2002). In addition to providing aid through literacy projects, clinics, food, housing and business opportunities, RAWA's repertoire is dedicated to promoting political and social values and the organization is, therefore, known as one of the biggest propaganda groups in the country. RAWA, a movement formed by one young woman, is now a controversial organization working as the forefront for advocacy against the warlords' political power and foreign troops' presence in Afghanistan.

This social movement organization has changed tremendously over time. RAWA has switched priorities over time and is no longer the organization that was envisioned by Ms. Keshwar. It is apparent from the writings of Ms. Keshwar, like the one below published in Payam-e-Zan, that initially RAWA's focus was on women's issues. This no longer remains the case.
"I'm the woman who has awoken
I've arisen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burnt children
I've arisen from 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,
I'm the woman who has awoken…" (Keshwar, 1981)

A women's rights advocacy movement in 1970s, now RAWA has changed into a political propaganda group that dedicates most of its campaign to attacking the foreign troops in Afghanistan. As one of the only women's organizations from Afghanistan that has world-wide audience, RAWA is responsible for representing Afghan women and promoting their rights and welfare. The organization fails at fulfilling both of those responsibilities.

RAWA's initial campaign was to increase the participation of women in the political and social arena of life in Afghanistan and promote and establish respect for women's rights in the society. The organization's current repertoire, which is mainly focused on arranging speeches against the so-called occupation of Afghanistan, not only causes its campaign of gender equality to lose significance, but it also leads to the delegitimization of the organization and is counter-productive towards achieving its initial aims. In addition to that, the language used by RAWA members during their repertoire is offensive, inaccurate and biased and contributes to the organization's delegitimization. This paper will discuss criticisms of the current repertoire and language of RAWA and suggests potential policy changes to re-legitimize the organization.

Criticism of Repertoire:
Similar to Ms. Keshwar, who voiced a struggle against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, today, RAWA's repertoire advocates against the so-called occupation of Afghanistan by international troops headed by the United States of America. Even though at the superficial level these two approaches might seem the same, there is tremendous difference between the current Afghanistan from that at the end of the Soviet rule.

On RAWA's website's homepage, several passionate slogans are presented boldly. One reads, "Emancipation of Afghan women not attainable as long as the occupation, Taliban and "National Front" criminals are not sacked!" According to RAWA website, On October 7, 2010 at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, Zoya, a member of RAWA, spoke to an audience of students and professors and urged them to take action against the occupation of Afghanistan by their governments. Based on Caltech Y Social Activism Speaker Series, Tahmeena Faryal, another member of RAWA, had a tour of California on April 5-11, 2010, to promote the same kind of activism.

RAWA's current repertoire, focused on advocacy against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government, has raised the association's popularity outside Afghanistan among several governments and peace advocacy groups and organizations. Some governments engaged in the war in Afghanistan, i.e. Canada, embrace RAWA's advocacy for ending the intervention in Afghanistan due to the severe economical and political pressures existent in their countries.

According to a survey done by BBC, ABC News and Washington Post, in Afghanistan in December of 2010, 63 percent of Afghans backed the presence of American forces and 54 percent supported NATO and ISAF. Given that the majority of Afghans still supports the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and believes it essential to the process of democracy in Afghanistan, RAWA's advocacy has caused the organization's popularity in Afghanistan to decrease. This causes the organization to lose efficiency in its activism because it fails in providing a united fore-front for women's rights advocacy in Afghanistan by its exclusion to members who oppose the presence of troops in Afghanistan.

Unlike RAWA's advocacy against the foreign military involvement in Afghanistan, the war against the Afghan government supported by USSR in late 1980s had wide public support. (Reisman 906-909, 1987) The majority of Afghan men took up arms and fought against the occupation of the country in 1988. Today, according to Alpaslan Özerdem's article, titled "Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Former combatants in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned from a Cross-Cultural Perspective" in the Third World Quarterly, the insurgency against the intervention in the country is limited to approximately "40, 000 members of the Taliban, 10000 of them being non- Afghan 'jihadist' fighters who were mainly Arabs, Pakistanis and Central Asians."

The fight against the Soviet rule over Afghanistan was one for liberty and independence because the government was a puppet government. In addition to speaking critical of the American Government, the NATO and the ISAF, on more than one occasion, the Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, has vocalized the political sovereignty of his government and stated that he has committed himself to doing what is in the best interest of Afghanistan. As published on the Irish Times, the President's famous speech on January 25, 2010, during the inauguration of the Afghan Parliament is an example of this approach. Afghanistan today is legally a politically sovereign government and a revolution aiming for independence is more likely to become delegitimized than gaining public support.

The people of Afghanistan experienced an era of oppression, conflict and civil war after the USSR left the country in 1989. Given the ethnic and regional tensions that are still vibrant in the country, the outcome of another movement for independence, which RAWA advocates for, will not be very different. It will make the country less stable and safe and more prone to becoming a card at the hands of the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan, which have long envisioned a pan-Persian or pan-Pashtun regime in the region. Given the experiences that followed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the lack of alternatives, the majority of people in Afghanistan have not joined in a war against the presence of foreign troops in the country and only a minority, an extremist minority, is fighting against the intervention in Afghanistan.

Another major difference between Afghanistan in 1980s and today is that during that era several strong political parties, including the Northern Alliance, and an independent and powerful Afghan army, with one million soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds, were presented as alternatives to the occupation of the country by USSR (Jalali). Today, according to Transparency International, the central government is the fifth most corrupt government in the world. And according to NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, only 14% of the 30,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) members are literate. Neither the government, nor the army is able to maintain control over many parts of the country and there are no strong political parties, except for the Taliban, to gain power if the country is free of foreign troops.

Furthermore, the ethnic divide between the Taliban and the ANA is likely to give birth to events similar to those in the Civil War between ethnic groups in Afghanistan, if there is no military force to balance the power dynamics. RAWA, an organization at the forefront of opposition against the current government and the NATO and ISAF in Afghanistan, fails in offering an alternative to their rule. This has not only caused the de-legitimization of RAWA and Afghans to lose interest in their propaganda.

RAWA's advocacy is self-contradictory because it offers no alternatives to the current government, in case of an urgent withdrawal of the foreign troops. Given the weakness of the central government and the ANA, it is clear that power will lend itself to either the same powers, Taliban or the Mujaheden warlords, which RAWA is advocating against, or a coalition of both after the foreign troops exit the country. Both the Taliban and Afghan warlords have proved their lack of tolerance towards women's rights during their regimes. Therefore, RAWA should succeed in the aims of its advocacy, the rights of Afghan women will be in greater danger than now, which is counter-productive to the organization's campaign.

RAWA's stance on the issue of foreign military involvement in Afghanistan also has caused and continues to cause the organization to lose political opportunities, such as involvement in the government or public involvement in Afghanistan, to promote women's rights. It has also caused RAWA to be restricted in terms of cooperation with other organizations that advocate women's rights. RAWA's repertoire has caused the organization to face a self-imposed ostracism from the public political and social activism in Afghanistan that has led to its inefficiency and de-legitimization.

The inconsistency between RAWA's campaign and repertoire has led to the organization's de-legitimization and Afghan people's mistrust towards it, which prevents it from an efficient display of WUNC in the country. The majority of RAWA's repertoire happens outside the country, in USA, Pakistan and many European countries, which decreases the organization's efficiency in promoting and defending of women's rights inside the country.

Criticism of Repertoire Language:
One of the many aspects of RAWA's repertoire that has led to the de-legitimization and lack of support of the organization in Afghanistan is the offensive language that it employs to deliver its points. For example, in an article titled "American Military Bases: the Refuge and Pillow of Sold-out Politicians and 'Specialists,' published on the online version of Payam-e-Zan, the organization names specific talk show hosts and guests in Radio Free Europe and engages in offensive name-calling and stamping them.

Words like "intellectual prostitutes," "prostitutes of America," and "Satanist," are used with liberty against guests of a talk show that discusses the potential establishment of permanent American military bases in Afghanistan. In addition to the fact, that using the word "prostitute" in this context, as an insult, is highly condescending towards prostitutes by profession, the usage of this literature leads to decrease in Payam-e-Zan's credibility as a professional magazine and RAWA's respect among public. Name-calling with such liberty causes the article to lose its value and become a rant, instead of a coherent argument against the establishment of American military bases in the country. For RAWA to be active and efficient in Afghanistan, the organization must avoid anything that would further delegitimize it.

The language used by RAWA members, during their rallies, protests and in speeches, is victimizing of Afghan women, the population the organization claims to be serving, and blind to their hard-fought-for achievements. The vast majority of reports, on RAWA's news webpage are dedicated to news on Afghan women, focus on their miseries. RAWA's articles uses words such as "victims," "miserable," and "ill-fated," to describe the women of Afghanistan. The majority of pictures of Afghan women on RAWA's website are brutal images of women's self-immolation, violence against women and women's murders.

While broadcasting these realities of the lives of Afghan women is necessary and awakening, ignoring women who are currently working in Afghanistan and fighting for equality is neither fair nor serving of RAWA's campaign. This victimizing portrayal of Afghan women promoted by RAWA is a cold slap on the face of active Afghan women, especially the 43 percent of Afghan girls in schools, the women who make 30 percent of university students, 29 percent of the teachers, 28 percent of the National Assembly, and the hundreds of women in shelters and those who work at civil services organizations, as recorded by the Human Rights Council of United Nation, are not represented by RAWA (Human Rights Council).

This representation of Afghan women is not costly only to women, but also to RAWA because it causes the de-legitimization and dis-credibility of RAWA as an un-biased source of news, a truthful representation of Afghan women, and as the forefront that claims to unite Afghan women and fight for them.

Tilly argues that in order for a social movement organization to have efficient campaign, they must have claimants, or activities that make claims and there claimants must be supported by a standing, an example of another movement that has fought for the same thing (Tilly and Wood 129, 2009). While RAWA's campaign behind the anti-"occupation" advocacy is independence, RAWA's unpopular view, expressed radically with hateful language, causes the organization not to have any other organization to use as standing or build networks with, which impacts the organization's support in Afghanistan negatively leading to less display of WUNC in the country. In order to gain standing and support from other organizations in Afghanistan, RAWA must focus on its campaign of promoting equal rights in Afghanistan.

In order for RAWA to become more legitimate in Afghanistan, the organization must focus, not just its campaign, but also its repertoire, on women's issues and the promotion of their rights, rather than advocacy against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. This will allow the organization to make the aid projects that it runs part of its public repertoire, involve more Afghan women in the organization to guarantee better display of WUNC, mobilize political opportunities and resources, work with stronger presence in Afghanistan, partake in the policy-making of the country and hence promote women's political activism, and provide constructive alternatives to the current system.

Based on its website, RAWA runs several welfare projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan for Afghan refugees.  The organization continues to provide underground literacy programs for women, mobile health teams and financial supports to Afghans with extreme needs. For example, in addition to mobilizing eight mobile health services in rural areas of Afghanistan, RAWA has established "primary and secondary schools for refugee girls and boys and many literacy courses for women in Pakistan". Speeches and articles by RAWA members do not promote this part of the organization's association, even though promoting it could lead to the organization's more legitimization. If RAWA emphasizes more on the empowerment of women through education and promoting its educational and welfare work, it will gain public support, which will allow it to function openly in Afghanistan, which will lead to the impacts of the organization's repertoire.

Tilly argues that for a characteristic that distinguishes a social movement organization from a political contentious gathering is the fact that, in addition to having a campaign, a repertoire and a sufficient display of WUNC, its campaign is supported by a program, an aim to change a specific policy, and a specific object, or target (Tilly and Wood 129, 2009). RAWA's repertoires lack both of these essentials. Even though, RAWA criticizes all the current powers in Afghanistan, it does not have a specific target and does not address the object with a specific program and strategy. On its website and in speeches, RAWA members are unable to layout a specific policy change or plan on how they will achieve their goals and the organization does not actively partake in the country's politics to take steps against misogynistic politics and policies while targeting the Afghan government. RAWA's repertoire is restricted to criticism. However, RAWA's focus on the promotion of women's rights through public awareness raising and equality-based policies and politics, it will lead to the organization gaining the support of more women in Afghanistan, which will lead to a stronger show of WUNC that will target the government with specific programs. One example of this is apparent in the need for a strong women's movement to increase women's partaking in law-making. By focusing its repertoire on women's rights, RAWA could propose a program to increase the percentage of female representatives in the parliament.

According to McAdam, an essential part of social movement organization is reaching cognitive awareness, the believe that one is not the cause of one's own misery and the ability to look at one-self as factors of change, rather than victims (McAdam 48, 1982). This usage of demeaning language towards Afghan women by a women's organization creates an obstacle on the way of cognitive liberation and is an example of how self-victimization is promoted by social movement organizations, because it is most concerned with its own survival. In other words, RAWA promotes Afghan women as merely victims to give legitimacy to its activities. In order to truly serve its campaign of promoting women's rights and participation in Afghanistan, RAWA must provide the world and Afghan women with positive role models of women, a representation of women as powerful factors for movements, and a picture that does not demean Afghan women to merely victims, but survivors and fighters. RAWA must engage in cognitive liberation.

Despite being highly delegitimized and mistrusted in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan still has the chance to bring policy changes that would increase its popularity, effectiveness and legitimacy. Through basing its repertoire on its campaign of women's rights, RAWA will be able to involve more women in the process of change in Afghanistan and create a revolutionary and strong fore-front for women's rights' activism in Afghanistan. By focusing on cognitive liberation and grassroots involvement, as it claims to do, instead of lobbying for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, RAWA will be able to speak more credibly as a representative organization for the women of Afghanistan, use the political resources available to it and participate in the system to bring policy changes that will influence the lives of women in Afghanistan positively. A more vocal stand on women's rights, and renouncement of its current advocacy against NATO and ISAF, will allow RAWA not only to work openly in Afghanistan but also gain legitimacy as the truly revolutionary and grassroots movement of women in Afghanistan.

Noorjahan Akbar is a young Afghan writer and women-rights activist. She can be reached at akbarnoorjahan@gmail.com

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