RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation
RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the
Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, womenâ€™s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?
To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, â€œWith All Our Strengthâ€ by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Rather that destroying the organization, Meenaâ€™s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meenaâ€™s face has essentially become RAWAâ€™s face.
RAWAâ€™s underlying philosophy sees womenâ€™s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, womenâ€™s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the
RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate â€œeconomic democracy,â€ and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.
Excerpts from RAWAâ€™s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aimsas:
(1) womenâ€™s emancipation, â€œwhich cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole,â€
(2) separation of religion and politics, â€œso that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives,â€
(3) equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups,
(4) â€œeconomic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation,â€
(5) commitment to â€œstruggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture,â€
(6) â€œto draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially,â€
(7) to serve and assist â€œaffected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy,â€
(8) establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-womenâ€™s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations â€œbased on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs,â€
(9) â€œsupport for other freedom and womenâ€™s movements worldwide.â€
RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and â€œthe party line.â€
Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:
We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of
For the formation of a free, independent and democratic
â€“ RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.
RAWAâ€™s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.
Education is seen as part of RAWAâ€™s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.
RAWAâ€™s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled â€œincome-generating projects.â€ The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.
RAWAâ€™s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that â€œPaolo Freireâ€™s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education â€¦ speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses.â€ RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.
Health Care and Humanitarian Aid
Despite much-touted progress,
RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside
Because of the large numbers of orphans in
Media, Documentation, and Technology
From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.
Payam-e-Zan (translated as â€œWomanâ€™s Voice) is RAWAâ€™s main publication â€“ a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan â€œoperates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment toolâ€ for RAWA, â€œserv[ing] as a place to document RAWAâ€™s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.â€
As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from
Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWAâ€™s own archive. The most famous example of RAWAâ€™s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in
The advent of the internet catapulted RAWA into the international like no other new technology. Wisely seeing the potential for international solidarity, and drawing world attention to a forgotten crisis, RAWA launched www.rawa.orgin late 1996. One member explained:
We never imagined the internet would bring such a positive result for us. It is very important and something that now we canâ€™t imagine we could work withoutâ€¦ At the time I remember it was kind of amazing. The first email from the
Most of the relations between RAWA and their international supporters have developed through their website and e-mail. I too first discovered RAWA through their website and wrote to them expressing my solidarity.
RAWAâ€™s website is the perfect portal for them to express their political views and publish their documents while preserving the anonymity of their members. Additionally, large amounts of material can be published and archived with little additional cost.
While Payam-e-Zan is still RAWAâ€™s primary outlet to reach the majority of Afghans - who live in a poor country with little internet access, RAWAâ€™s website is the main method of communicating with the outside world,
RAWA organizes public protests up to several times a year to mark various dates: March 8th, International Womenâ€™s Day; April 28th, the â€œblack dayâ€ when the fundamentalists entered
One member of RAWA explains the importance of demonstrations:
When a demonstration happens, some in backward places canâ€™t even think a woman can stage such a thing. Our mission is to change that mentality and let women know they are human beings and equal to men.
RAWAâ€™s demonstrations also highlight events in Afghan history that either are forgotten or have been re-written. For example, the bloody events of fundamentalist infighting and civil war that followed
The women in RAWAâ€™s demonstrations march militantly with faces uncovered and fists in the air. Their signs are explicitly pro-democracy and anti-fundamentalist. As such, the public demonstrations also challenge pervading assumptions among Westerners who were obsessed by images of mute, burqa-clad, helpless looking Afghan women, after 9/11.
Organizational Structure and Decision making
While RAWA had adopted a committee structure from the beginning, their founder Meena operated as a de-facto President. Her tragic assassination in 1987 highlighted the organizationâ€™s vulnerability with having a high-profile â€œleaderâ€ who could be easily targeted. After Meenaâ€™s death, RAWA changed its structure so that no single member could assume a leadership role. Their goal was to â€œcreate a leadership structure that was democratic, collective, and as non-hierarchical as possible, thus promoting the equality and democracy that RAWA seeks for
The election of the Leadership Council is to my knowledge, unique among â€œsubversive movements.â€ Because of RAWAâ€™s underground nature, its members are geographically dispersed and cannot communicate with one another frequently. Consequently there are no nominations or election campaigns. Members simply submit in writing 11 names of members that they think ought to comprise the Council. The top 11 vote-getters are then elected.
Leadership Council members simply continue in their daily functions as RAWA members, while taking on the responsibilities of that particular committee. They meet several times a year to oversee RAWAâ€™s operations and author RAWAâ€™s standpoints and statements in a way that reflects the membershipâ€™s sentiments by conferring with the spokespeople from all the underlying committees. Their names are never revealed outside the membership for security reasons. RAWAâ€™s structure is consistent with their philosophy of the collective being more important than the individual.
The remaining RAWA members join any one of the following seven standing committees (see Appendix B). These are:
- Social (humanitarian)
- Foreign Affairs
Each committee has a number of sub-committees focused on its various responsibilities. All committees, including the Leadership Council, are composed of an odd number of members to avoid deadlock in decision making.
Each committee has a â€œmasâ€™ulâ€ which is Persian for â€œresponsible person.â€ The masâ€™ul functions like a spokesperson for the committee, to whom members can turn for mediation, or to make complaints. They are also responsible for communication between various committees. Brodsky elaborates: â€œOverall, RAWAâ€™s committee structure can be thought of as having branches in which each masâ€™ul is the sole connection between the committees and members she is responsible for and the next level up in the committee structure.â€ This fosters the â€œrelatively independent operation of each committee,â€ and ensures projects that are â€œlocally responsive.â€
As any serious activist knows, committees cannot function without regular meetings, and RAWA members have their fair share of frequent meetings. One of RAWAâ€™s most interesting type of meeting is a mechanism that enables them to deal with internal conflict: the â€œjelse entaqadyâ€ or â€œmistake meeting.â€ This is an â€œevaluation and correction mechanism that operates at all levels of the organization in order to facilitate RAWAâ€™s distributed decision making style, and address mistakes, problems, and differences of opinion.â€Differences of opinion or disagreements are directly addressed with the people involved. The committee masâ€™ul is often a mediator in such meetings, and an odd number of attendees ensure that there can be no deadlock.
Secrecy is a huge factor in RAWAâ€™s operations because of the dangerous nature of their work. As a result most members often know only a small number of other members personally at any given time. RAWAâ€™s dispersed committee structure, and its membersâ€™ belief in the collective having more importance than the individual, ensures the organizationâ€™s continued functioning.
Only Afghan women based in
What we can learn from RAWA
RAWAâ€™s approach to activism is very practical and tailored to suit the needs of their situation. Their political vision is simple, yet adheres to some basic fundamental truths such as the universality of human rights and democracy. While this may make some Western leftist ideologues scoff, it is an approach that, at the very least, works in a country like
However, RAWAâ€™s simple political vision enables it to be flexible to situations as they arise. For example, RAWA does not denounce capitalism. Rather they call for â€œeconomic democracy.â€ This enables them to train women in marketable skills through their â€œincome-generating projects.â€ The practical short-term goal of enabling economic independence for a poor struggling, often illiterate woman, is achieved in this manner. RAWA does not engage in micro-lending however, preferring to grant women the basic foundation they may need to start up an operation, free of charge.
RAWAâ€™s organizational structure is also quite practical, having preserved the organization for nearly two decades after Meenaâ€™s death. Rather than strain to achieve some idealistic but impractical notion of absolute participatory democracy, they have instead conceived a structure that has limited hierarchy (the Leadership Council), which is outweighed by ample democracy through simple and functional elections and committee membership.
RAWAâ€™s emphasis on the collective over the individual is also a philosophy worth aspiring to. Among Western activists we have seen an increasing tendency to valorize individual figures, at the expense of collective action.
RAWAâ€™s Educational Policy, from www.rawa.org
We teach our students:
Recognition of these basic principles and values:
· Everyone must respect all human beings regardless of language, religion, race, color, etc.
· There is no difference between people; no human being is superior to any other because of class, color, language, race, or religion.
· All human beings do not have to think alike or live the same way.
· It's to the benefit of society that all human beings live in peace, understanding, and harmony.
· Respect all religions and their followers.
· Understand that followers of all religions can live in harmony and peace.
· Do not discriminate against the followers of religious sects different from your own.
· Understand that religion is a private matter that cannot be forced on anyone else and nobody should be allowed to misuse it for any end, it must be kept separated from politics.
· Do not allow criminals in the future to dare to commit crimes in the name of religion, as did the Jahadis and Taliban.
· Respect all ethnic groups in
· No ethnic group is superior to any other and no one should be allowed to look down on others.
· All members of all ethnic groups have the right to speak their own languages.
· Respect for each language means respect for the culture of those people who live in different regions and cities.
· Prevent ethnic divisions and the kind of conflicts that, unfortunately, today have reached their peak because it is practiced by the criminal fundamentalists.
· To know the history of their own and other countries and about those who sacrificed their lives for freedom; set them as an example for themselves.
· No human being is better than any other because of gender; contrary to the belief of the fundamentalists who treat our women as cattle and represent them as mentally deficient.
· Avoid any kind of behavior that promotes gender apartheid.
· Invalidate antiquated myths stories or poetry wrapped with religious, traditional or cultural reasons that portray women as powerless and less equal than men.
· Respect all people who have infirmity, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
· Promote a good relationship with the handicapped, and promote their involvement in society.
· Respect and promote the right of all children to live in harmony.
· Save mother earth with all its richness.
· Avoid using items that pollute the environment.
· Teach that animals have a right to live and avoid wanton killing; don't kill them except for food purposes.
· Do not injure animals.
· Preserve animals that are endangered or threatened species.
· Preserve trees and jungles and don't pollute the air and water.
· A culture of peace is not possible if it does not promote conservation of the environment.
· Avoid harsh treatment of human beings and animals.
· Recognize the causes of anger and actively try to help diminish the causes.
· Never hurt any human being who is not going to hurt you.
· Recognize the execution and killing of human beings as unacceptable and cruel.
· Avoid words, programs, toys, entertainment, and movies that promote and glorify violence and anger.
· Promote an understanding that anger and the exercise of violence is not the first and only way of solving problems.
Core Values of Life:
· Encourage a respect for the value of life and implement them in their lives.
· Honesty, decency, simplicity, unity, love, patience, responsibility, happiness, respect, and help for others are the values of life that should be inculcated and practiced routinely by everyone.
· Encourage eagerness in understanding the ideas of others.
· Encourage respect for one's own family and those of others.
· Promote the understanding that everyone, regardless of where they live (suburb, city, or our country), is part of the bigger family that we all belong to.
· Respect the wisdom and dignity of the elders in every family.
· Encourage listening to the ideas of others.
· Respect teamwork and focus on the success of common goals.
· Engage in the activities of others and involve others in one's own activities.
· Avoid unilateral decision-making and imposing one's will on the majority.
· Should not allow themselves to make decisions individually and impose them on others.
· Promote respect for the difference between human beings and an understanding that all human beings don't have to think alike.
· Avoid pre judgment.
· Avoid anything that damages and debases the values of human beings.
· Respect freedom of thought and avoid imposing one's ideas on others arbitrarily.
· Respect the freedom of all human beings.
· That freedom has real meaning only with justice and democracy.
· Teach the idea that freedom doesn't exist without justice.
· Encourage an understanding of one's own rights.
· Understand human rights and respect them.
· Encourage work for world peace and make peace a priority over conflict.
· Exercise love for human beings.
· Promote peace by learning other countries' cultures, and learn that living in peace and harmony is the only right way for human beings.
· Understand that peace will come to our country only when there is no sign of Jahadi/Talibi fundamentalists as military, terrorist and troublemaker force.
· To never let
From Anne Brodskyâ€™s â€œWith All Our Strengthâ€ (p. 159)
 Anne Brodsky, With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, (
 Brodsky, p160.
 Brodsky, p110.
 Brodsky, p110.
 Brodsky, p153.
 Brodsky, p156.
 Brodsky, p157.
 Brodsky, p170.