“They feel save being invisible” ——— Lam Li
The image of Afghan women which laid the strongest impression among Indonesians, and maybe also other nations in the world, is women hiding in blue burqa, the veil covering the whole head, including hairs, necks, face, and even eyes, makes the body under it completely anonymous. A friend of mine described burqa / burka as invisible blanket, just like the fantasies in those Japanese animations. Whoever wears this blanket will be invisible. Nobody will recognize. No recognition, no attention. “They feel save being invisible,” said Lam Li.
Lam Li made her impression after staying quite a while in Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly Peshawar and Kandahar, among the most conservative places of the two countries. In previous occassion I met her in Peshawar, she describes her inability to understand why the woman always lived under fear, hiding under the purdah. But after more than two months in Kandahar – the heartland of the Pashtuns, after long time interaction with some Kandahar female friends, she started feeling that burka is not a complete symbol of orpession (but she still cannot accept to be forced to wear one), as burqa also provides safety to the bearer. Being invisible under burqa makes the woman safe. But still, the deep reason of this safety feeling is another surpression. Why it is safe when they are hiding, if there is no fear of something, to make them hide, to make them feel safe?
For the men, it is the matter of honour. According to the Pashtun tradition, a woman’s name should not be mentioned in front of unrelated mens. “Give my greetings to your wife, mother, and daughters,” for example, is more appropriate than saying, “give my greetings to Anisa and Samira”. In wedding invitations, depending of how conservative the family is, in many ocassions, the bride’s name is not mentioned. Instead, it is written “the daughter of Mr. … (the bride’s father’s name). Burka is also part of this tradition of honour, to protect the women – the flowers of the house, not to be seen by wild eyes of other men.
But do all women accepted this tradition? Old women usually yes, and conservative community like in Kandahar also claimed the majority of supporters. But “rebellions” are always there. Lam Li said, “you should see those high heels, saris, perfurmes…, the high heels…, oh my god.” She has attended a wedding party recently in Kandahar, and as a female guest herself, she was placed in the woman quarter (zenana) together with all other female guests. The guests all came under burka, but they took off the veil when they were in zenana, where no men were allowed to sneak in. The atmosphere then turned to be quite similar to beauty contest, where all women dressed in their most beautiful clothes, with the most attractive cosmetics and accessories, plus imported fragrant parfumes. Some younger girls wear sari and high heel shoes, that for Lam Li, is the example of the rebellions against the tradition, against the the common value of conservative community in Kandahar.
Lam Li herself is rebellious. She got very bored in the woman quarter, so she decided to walk around to the male quarter. As a foreign woman, she got a special “sexual identity” in Afghanistan. She can han around and chat with Afghan women, she is also permited to talk freely with the Afghan men – something that is restricted to the Afghan women. She didnt feel disturbed by the stares of the male guests, and she continued walking around the male quarter, watching how the party went on and the Atan wedding dance being performed, until the host came and asked her to go back to the zenana, as she has disturbed the male guests. Her existence in the male world has disturbed the males there.
Talking about the woman movement in Afghanistan, one could not forget the legendary, revolutionary underground movement of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Woman in Afghanistan, www.rawa.org). The organization was founded in 1977, just a year before the Russian occupation, and always maintains underground, secret status inside the country. It doesnt have office in Kabul, and its members dont know each other personally. The underground characteristics may remind us to the revolutionary PRD (Partai Revolusioner Demokrasi, Democratic Revolutionary Party), the underground student party against Suharto tyran government in Indonesia.
Panveen, a university student in Kabul, is one among 2000 RAWA revolutionary members. She was very careful when I interviewd her, and we should find a place for talking freely about the movement without any fear of being spied. And it was her friend’s house, north of the city, outskirt of Kabul. RAWA is still banned in Afghanistan, but it has gained quite remarkable international support worldwide, through its website, its publication by international journalists, and through the immortalized legend of its murdered leader, Meena.
RAWA is actually one among numerous NGOs working on women in Afghanistan. While NGOs mushroomed in Afghanistan, and especially topics of woman repression always attract attentions of millions of Western donors, RAWA still chooses to be underground. The woman topic has been quite exploited to get attention and financial support for many of the NGOs (and many staff and social workers enjoy the flourished atmosphere), RAWA is still hiding. It is not unheard. It is not untangible. In fact in Afghanistan it’s among the most popular woman NGO. But just nobody knows the physical feature of the organization. I remembered how Soeharto described PRD, the underground organization in Indonesia, as “setan gundul (baldy ghost).” RAWA might be another ghost for the Afghan government.
Why RAWA is banned in Afghanistan? It is not merely a social organization for woman welfare, but it is also political. It has a clear agenda, and that’s anti government. As it is banned, RAWA must change its face when performing its social works. It provides literacy groups for education of women, but it has to change its name and feature as other organizations. Panveen said, “as long as we can serve the women, under what name is not important at all.”
It is the political goal of RAWA which made it different from other woman NGO. No other NGOs are political, because it is not allowed. RAWA has secret and limited publication in Farsi, named Peygham e Zan (The Woman Message), which delivers its political ideas to the Afghan women. It also arranged some demonstration abroad (notably in Pakistan) to protest the Afghan government.
And why this anti government stuff? RAWA has been anti government since its founding. It was anti Russia, despite the fact that under communist government, women education and social position was guaranteed. “We are anti communist, because they invaded our country,” said Panveen, “and it was only in the bigh cities that education was high.” I have read some articles about the life under communist government (at that time Afghanistan flag was also red, typical of communist countries like People’s Republic of China, Viet Nam, and Soviet Union). The hejab and burqa was banned, boys and girls were forced to go to schools to boost education, and women with uncovered hair and sleeveless shirts were everywhere on Kabul street. But it was not RAWA’s goal. It has other ideas of how Afghan life should be.
For sure, RAWA was anti Taliban, which is for them, the most woman repressive regime in Afghan history. Before Taliban burqa was not common at all in Kabul, but Taliban made it compulsory by law, that all women should wear burqa and not allowed to go outside without the company (thus, protection) of at least a relative man. This limited woman movement. Even the girl schools were closed. Education in Afghanistan sinked to the lowest point. Most of the Taliban leaders were not educated, most of them were merely graduates of Pakistan medressas, where nothing but religion related knowledge were thought. And for Taliban, those men-with-beard and women-under-burka are obvious sign of being believers.
Panveen has her own version of experience with Taliban regime. She and her other 4 members of RAWA went to the stadium to watch the “punishment day” for the thieves. The punishment for those who stole was hand amputation for all, as it was the most just of all justice. One of the RAWA members took pictures with her pocket camera. Photography was another big restriction of Taliban, as only passport ID card photo was allowed to be taken. And for sure, taking photos of the amputation ceremony was a great sin under Taliban regime. The car in which these five girls were seated was stopped by Taliban, and the male passengers were all body searched. It was indeed their lucky day, that Taliban didnt touch the women. The camera was safe under the burqa. But Panveen was almost scared to death.
Of course the new government now is better, with all of the freedom given to the women as Afghansitan has been pressed by the international community after its bad reputation of bad treatment towards women under the fundamentalist governments. But for RAWA everything which was now achieved, which look better physically than before, is not the reality. “They are still fundamentalists, but they just act democratic to gain international support.” Panveen named some parliament members who are fundamentalists, in her sight.
“Women are still poor, and violence against women are still rampant.” Violence against women mainly came from husbands, sometimes also from the fundamentalist warlords, or religious leaders. Panveen said that women in deep villages may receive threatens from the warlords if they send the girls to the schools. In Kunduz, a 14 year old girl was raped by a gang of adult males, but the case just evaporated. In Afghanistan, there is a Sharia law article which saying a rape case requires four male witnesses (same as Hudod Ordnance of Zia-ul-Haq regime in Pakistan). But how can a rape involves so many witnesses, as most cases are done without existance of other souls? And even if there were really witnesses, the witnesses may also received threats from the warlords, and again the case will be evaporated to the empty air. Amina in Badakshan was stoned to death by the mullahs, due to extramarital sexual relation. She was condemned prostitue. While her boyfriend was free. This kind of unjustice treatment towards women, said Panveen, is what RAWA now struggling about.
Asadullah Nuri from another woman NGO, HAWCA, told me that it was a problem that the parliament, the government of the country, is full of fundamentalist people, the warlords, who dont really know how to manage the country towards the modern future. Unlike RAWA, HAWCA is not an underground movement. It works more socially and not political. But HAWCA also has a secret activity, that is providing secret shelter for woman who received torture, violence from husbands or warlords. The place is secret, that it will really guarantee the safety of the victims. HAWCA also provides the victims legal aids like advocates to defend the victims. The violence from husband is rampant. Even bearing a daughter instead a son can bring the mother under bad fate. In the villages, a 9 year old girl is ready for marriage, many of the times to a man who is much older than her. Even some babies got their fate to be named as a wife of someone after two or three days of her birth day.
It was the government which RAWA condemned most. The Karzai government has a ministry of woman affair (MoWA). But for RAWA, this ministry is just a fashion, a make-up. Nothing has been really done in its 4 years of founding. I am not really sure which targets RAWA wanted MoWA to achieve, as MoWA indeed had aranged many trainings for women in the villages. But as RAWA said, it was only cosmetics, something to show-off, just like the big number of proportion of female members in the parliament.
Not all parliament and government members are fundamentalists. The wali (governor) of Bamiyan province, a lady, is a good leader. And also Malalai Joya, a woman member from Farah in the Loya Jirga (parliament), who struggled for women. Malalai has received many times death threats from the warlords, and when she talked in parliament, she was thrown by bottles by other parliament members, included some female members. Throwing bottles in parliament meeting doesnt show an educated democratic manners of the learders of the country.
And it was secularism that RAWA to push forward. The religion should be separated from the government. Secularism is out of question in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This political agenda guarantees that RAWA members are vulnerable to life risk. A member of RAWA has visited Indonesia for a woman conference there, and she was impressed so much by the beautiful country. And it was surprising that Panveen mentioned Indonesia as a modern Muslim country, one of ideal examples of their woman movement.