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.
Even Etemadi, for all she admires RAWA’s human-rights advances, distances herself from what she calls its political agenda. ”I know they have put their lives in a 16 jeopardy by bringing the information out, and I would not have the courage they have,“ she admits. ”But this word, revolutionary, it kind of scares me,“ she says with a laugh. ”I am not a leftist at all.“
Over the phone on the first night of Ramadan, Maliha Sarwari tells me the story of King Amanullah, who ruled over Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929, the first decade of Afghanistan‘s independence from Britain. Sarwari, who lives in Ventura County, was raised in Kabul and became Afghanistan’s first female radio broadcaster for English-speaking media; her diction is measured and perfect, and her knowledge of her native country runs deep, particularly when it comes to women‘s rights. She speaks like a diplomat; she is also an observant Muslim. ”Islam,“ she insists, as nearly all Muslim women do, ”is an excellent faith for women.“
”Amanullah sought to improve the lot of women, and, as a symbolic gesture, he had his wife, Queen Soraya, remove her burka in public,“ Sarwari tells me. ”Educated women in Kabul followed suit, and the practice spread throughout the countryside. The rest of the Islamic world was still under veil, so Amanullah was one of the first Muslim leaders to acknowledge the rights of women.“
It was not to last. Amanullah was soon branded an infidel and deposed by ”another group from the North — just like the Northern Alliance,“ not just for emancipating women, although that legacy didn’t help. ”My own grandfather was killed at that time,“ says Sarwari. ”My mother never saw her father because she was only a month old.“ But before Sarwari and her husband fled the Soviet invasion in 1980, Sarwari saw women‘s rights return to Afghanistan once more. The last king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, involved women in the drafting of a 1964 constitution that made men and women equal under the law; he also included women in the loya jirga, the legal body that has historically chosen Afghanistan’s kings.
King Zahir Shah is 87 now, living in exile in Rome, but Sarwari is not alone in calling for his return. ”He has aged a lot, but he is a very well-respected man in the country, by all ethnic groups, and I hope he is there for the future of Afghanistan. As far as you can see back in the last 20 years, so many people have come and gone through Afghanistan. In this stage, he will be a mediator between all ethnicities in that country.“
Yet when Laura Bush delivers her terse radio address on Saturday, November 17, she says nothing of deposed kings or the place of women among Afghanistan‘s new government. She does not mention the resolution submitted to Congress by New York Democrat Louise Slaughter and Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen urging that women be leaders in any new government. She does not mention RAWA, and she does not promise the women of Afghanistan that the Northern Alliance will not be permitted to oppress them. She speaks as though women’s liberation is a fait accompli. ”Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women‘s fingernails for wearing nail polish,“ complained Mrs. Bush. But ”because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.“
In an exhibit of Fazal Sheikh’s photography at Track 16, a letter from an anonymous Afghan woman has been printed on the wall: ”Many Afghan women look to the West in the name of freedom and expect people in the West to promote our rights,“ it reads. ”But in the West they neither consult us about the issues that affect our daily lives, nor do they uphold or promote on our behalf the standards by which they themselves live.
“History,” continued the woman, “has taught us that the bright future is nothing but a mirage for Afghan women. The reality is tears, chained hands and silenced mouths.”