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Correspondent Monday, 8 April, 2002, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Silent scream
Execution of an Afghan woman
Justice was brutal
The war in Afghanistan has been a man's war. Women have been absent and silent. This is the story of the Afghan women and the impact of 23 years of war on them. Correspondent gives voice to their covert resistance and their struggle to survive.



'Danish' of Rawa
"An Afghan woman is like a dead body "

'Danish' of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) describes what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan.

"An Afghan woman is not a human being in Afghanistan. She's the woman who has lost everything, then become prostitutes or widows or beggars on the streets and in Afghanistan that means that, you are nothing. So for me, Afghan woman is not alive. She is like a dead body."


I was walking with short sleeves and mini skirts. I can't describe the happiness, the joy that we felt at the time.

Sara
But Afghan women were not always so down-trodden. While the world celebrated the millennium in 2000, Afghan women were stuck in the Middle Ages. The irony is that Afghan women got the vote at the same time as their western counterparts in the early part of the 20th century. They entered the last century with great promise.

RAWA, was established in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1977 as an independent organization of Afghan women fighting for human rights and for social justice in the country.

The founders were a number of Afghan woman intellectuals under the leadership of Meena who in 1987 was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan.

Life before war - Kabul in the 60s

In 1964 the constitution guaranteed them equal rights and women were found in all professions - media, law, politics and government - 70% of teachers and 40% of doctors were women. The veil was optional and life for women like Sara in Kabul's swinging middle class was fun.

Sara
Life in the 60s was fun

Sara: "As teenagers we were walking the streets at night and we were going to movie theatres. I mean there was no question about being Muslim. However, there was freedom with that and people had the freedom of choice, whether to wear the burqua in the rural areas or wear a scarf without anything, like I was walking with short sleeves and mini skirts. I can't describe the happiness, the joy that we felt at the time."

When the Russians invaded, Sara was in America, visiting her husband. A month's holiday became a lifetime in exile. The children of the 60s were the first generation of the dispersed nation. Those left behind were armed by America and mounted resistance against the Soviets.

First came the Russian invaders

The story of women in the cold war era has not been told. Most were battling to keep their families together as their men went to war. It was during this period that the Mujahideen became holy warriors and heroes. Some women joined the Mujahideen on the battlefields.


I was with my sons in the fields carrying guns on my shoulders. I was cooking for 250 people three times a day. I was working for my people, my homeland... To win this fight, I lost my sons.

Bibi Ayisha
Bibi Ayisha describes her contribution and sacrifice to this war: "When the Russians invaded Afghanistan I was with my sons in the fields carrying guns on my shoulders. I was cooking for 250 people three times a day. I was working for my people, my homeland. My sons' way is my way. To win this fight, I lost my sons. All my sons were martyred. I lost six sons, not one or two or three but six of them. I feel my ship is drowned."

It was at this time that the RAWA network emerged on to the global scene.

Then the mujahideen took control

A million Afghans died before the Soviets withdrew, defeated by the Mujahideen who were hailed as heroes. Armed by the West, these predecessors of today's Northern Alliance took Kabul and wreaked havoc in a spree of rape and killing.

This was the beginning of gender apartheid.

'Tahmeena', a member of RAWA, recalls: "They were the first people who imposed a veil on women before the Taleban. To experience them for a month was enough for the people of Afghanistan to know who they were and that they were going through a more horrible period than the domination of the Soviets. People realised they are not heroes anymore."

Dr Shamsila Anwari
Dr Anwari was in the frontline of help for oppressed women

Four years of war, 50,000 Afghans dead and many more disillusioned under the control of the Mujahideen. For women these were the suicide years.

Dr Shamsila Anwari is a surgeon in Kabul Hospital: "In Kabul ordinary women were being raped because they were accused of being Pashtun by one group and Farsi by another.

"You may not be familiar with the culture of the people of Afghanistan. One's honour and chastity stands above everything else. That's why many women were not even prepared to say that they were victims of rape. They felt so ashamed they wanted to commit suicide."

Then came the Taleban - the student warriors

When the Taleban arrived in the mid 90s - the fresh faced young students from the madrassas, the religious schools of Pakistan - they were hailed as saviours. They promised law and order and a return to traditional Islamic values. But the women they pledged to protect were left orphaned and widowed.


We would prefer to be killed than be taken by the Taleban.

Widow Zeban
This was the period of gender cleansing.

Widow Zeban: "When Najib (husband) was taken by the Taleban, he told me to wear old and dirty clothes because he thought the Taleban might take the pretty girls and women with them. We would prefer to be killed than be taken by the Taleban. One woman offered the Koran to the Taleban not to kill her child in front of her, but he replied with a bullet and killed her child in front of her. There were 19 widows, all of our men were dead."

The Taleban's power was absolute, they controlled most of Afghanistan. Entire villages were wiped out. Those in their way who would not be conscripted were killed.

At this time the RAWA network widened as they found their secret deadly weapon, the internet. The risks were high. The internet and television, for the Taleban, were considered tools of Satan and the penalty for using them was death. V-Day, a US based organisation fighting violence against women found out about RAWA via the website and made contact.

Then came the American bombing

Leaflets after American air drops
American leaflets were graphic
The Americans dropped flyers as they bombed Afghanistan - they showed women being beaten - the pictures had been taken by RAWA and posted on their website. The women's issue became a weapon in the propaganda war against the Taleban.

US playwright and founder of V-Day, Eve Ensler: "I was devastated by Afghanistan and all the reasons are incredible. The incredible, expedient and selfish foreign policy we have, where we support anyone who serves our current interests regardless of their policies and regardless of how they behave in the world.

Eve Ensler
Eve feels shame as an American

"We created Bin Laden, we created those people, we supported those regimes and then we're surprised and need to ask how did it happen? When we've abandoned people after we've promised them everything. So I felt shame as an American. I felt enormous guilt. I felt how is it possible we are living here with all this and there are people in the world who are living like that and why aren't we awake to it?"

Bonn talks


We need the help of the west but please do not speak for us. We are there. We can speak for ourselves.

Sima Wali
Two Afghan women attended the Bonn talks to determine the future of Afghanistan. One is Sima Wali who was arrested by the Soviets before fleeing Afghanistan in 1980: "My concern and my interest is that we need to ensure we have enough women representing women's issues and societal issues and are playing a very key role in the future of Afghanistan."

Sima Wali also says "We need the help of the west but please do not speak for us. We are there. We can speak for ourselves."

Kabul today

Kabul is now tentatively tasting peace. The women remain veiled but walk unchaperoned. And a beauty parlour which operated covertly for years has come out in the open.


Women have got used to the veil and men in Afghanistan...are wild, so women are worried. If I see other women take it off I will do so...I wait for the brave women

Sanam Norzai
Sanam Norzai, a hairdresser: "Women have got used to the veil and men in Afghanistan are not the same as in other countries. They are wild, so women are worried. If I see other women take it off I will do so - we wait for each other. I do not have the confidence. I wait for the brave women."

The future

The west has promised help with 2bn in aid to rebuild Afghanistan - a token of friendship. But the money is tied to women and their re-integration into Afghan life. For now, the western conscience is assuaged. But each new invader throughout the 23 years of war here promised freedom and protection to the women of Afghanistan. Each time the promise was betrayed. Afghan women remain on the fringes and watch warily, observers not participants in their destiny.

Silent scream: Sunday 7 April 2002 on BBC Two at 1915GMT

Narrator: Olenka Frenkiel
Producer/Director: Zab Chughtai
Deputy Editor: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Afghan justice
Women are executed in public in Afghanistan
Eve Ensler
Afghan women have been let down
Meryl Streep
"We all should enjoy human rights"
Sima Wali
There are challenges ahead
See also:

15 Feb 02 | Country profiles
06 Dec 01 | South Asia
23 Nov 01 | South Asia
03 Nov 01 | South Asia
25 Oct 01 | South Asia
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
27 Jun 01 | South Asia
Links to more Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.


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