By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In a room at the back of Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, a number of smartly dressed people, plastic cocktail glasses in hand, are watching a film of women being tortured. The screening is part of ”The Algebra of Infinite Injustice,“ a November 14 benefit for the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, the exiled humanitarian agency that has recently been championed by celebrities from Oprah to Eve Ensler. In one scene, an old woman staggers to her feet several times, surrounded by men who knock her back to the ground; in another, children cry for their mothers, and veiled women are beaten as they beg for food. The images are sickening, but they come as no surprise -- this is what we’ve come to expect from Afghanistan.
It‘s also the U.S. response we’ve come to expect: celebrity-studded benefits; orphaned petitions that wander the Internet until the originators lose interest in the signers; toothless outrage over a political situation too complicated to solve. As the film rolls, I‘m sitting on the floor, staring blankly and drinking wine, when a voice speaks up behind me: ”It wasn’t like this 25 years ago,“ says Nazi Etemadi, a professionally dressed woman who looks to be in her late 40s. ”This is my country,“ she says, pointing to the screen. ”But when I left, women not only went to work -- they went to work wearing miniskirts.“
Etemadi is a member of the Afghan Women‘s Association of Southern California, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group who have in the last few years raised money for such unlikely projects as a school for the deaf in Kabul. She is a conservative woman, closer in her political beliefs to Laura Bush than Eleanor Smeal. On the day of the benefit -- which was, by every measure, the place to be seen on that Wednesday night -- the news of the day was dominated by the Northern Alliance’s capture of Kabul. Men are rejoicing in barbershops, ”women are throwing off their veils,“ wrote one reporter. But Kabul had not been taken by U.S. forces; the Taliban had been chased out by the Northern Alliance. When I asked Etemadi about them, she sighed and shook her head. ”The Northern Alliance, they don‘t have a good record of human-rights treatment. They do not represent the whole country of Afghanistan, where the majority of people are Pashtuns from the South. I don’t believe they will be better for women. They might be worse.“
Amid all the contradictions of present-day Afghanistan and the ambivalence of wartime, women‘s rights is a cause everyone can rally round; one that unites the hawks and doves, the dignitaries and the working class. The $100-a-ticket Track 16 benefit for RAWA’s Malalai hospital was well-attended by the Hollywood elite and activists -- Viggo Mortenson and Benicio Del Toro greeted young, attractive Afghan women with the deference accorded to saints; Tom Hayden spoke eloquently on behalf of the people ”who have borne the brunt of the suffering.“ Similarly, single mothers in the U.S., say the women of RAWA, have garage sales and send the proceeds to them.
So far, however, raising money for the women of Afghanistan -- which has been fashionable at least since Mavis Leno and the Feminist Majority threw a post-Oscar party for the cause in 1999 -- has not rescued women from the systemic horrors of Islamic fundamentalism, and it‘s hard to imagine that it will now. For that, the Bush administration and its allies must insist that women hold leadership positions in the new Afghan government -- preferably women who already have a stake in Afghanistan’s future, the people who have risked their lives to operate clandestine schools for girls and provide refugee women with medical care.
Earlier in the afternoon on the day of the benefit, the Afghan Women‘s Mission had held a short press conference with Tahmeena Faryal, a pseudonym-ous spokesperson from RAWA, at the American Friends Service Committee Center in Pasadena. She entered the room obscured by a portrait of RAWA’s ”martyred leader,“ Meena -- who was assassinated in 1987 by either the KGB, an Islamic extremist faction known as Hizb-I-Islami, or both, depending on whom you ask -- and spoke from behind a screen, reiterating the objections to the Northern Alliance that RAWA had stated in a press release the same day. ”Obviously, we want a secular government,“ she says, ”in which women have meaningful participation. The society cannot function without the representation of half the population, and we cannot have representation if the government is fundamentalist. And the Northern Alliance, they are still fundamentalists.“
”Will RAWA have a place in that government?“ asks a reporter.
”I hope so,“ says Faryal.
”Will you have a place in that government?“
Faryal laughs. ”That‘s a very difficult question to answer.“
In fact, it’s not. For one thing, RAWA‘s underpinnings are Maoist; for another, Afghanistan looks destined to be rebuilt not by humanitarian-aid organizations, but by the same sprawling, multinational business interests that have been willing to work with military dictators and Islamic fundamentalists as long as they’ve cooperated with Western economic interests. (The Taliban only fell from the Clinton administration‘s favor in 1999, and then only because feminist groups applied significant pressure.) The Northern Alliance might be the next to benefit from the administration’s largess, even though its Taliban-like crimes are well-documented by human-rights watchdogs. RAWA, however, won‘t -- for the simple reason that multinational corporations are not in the habit of doing business with nonviolent humanitarians.