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Women Who Dare Oppose Talban

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By Farooq Sulehria

The Romans will tie clown symbols to prisoner. The prisoner was put in an arena, handcuffed. Hungry beasts were let loose on him. The sequence would last few minutes.

They year 1999. Almost the same sequence. The arena is a football stadium in Kabul. This time it is a gun totting Taliban instead of a hungry beast and a woman in a blue burqa instead of a handcuffed POW. The sequence lasts for couple of minutes. Woman is taken from a vehicle and made to kneel on the edge of the penalty area. Her name is Zarmeena, mother of seven. A Taliban fighter steps forward with an automatic rifle and shoots her in the back of the head then pumps several more bullets into her prone body.

There was yet another 'small' difference here between Roam and US-made Kabul tragedy. This sequence was filmed and photographed. The CNN and BBC found the footage too sensitive to be shown to their viewers. However, the photographs were soon circulating across the world. First time the world had come to see the Taliban atrocities in this way. Also, first time the world got to know another heroic name from Afghanistan: RAWA. It was a RAWA member who at the risk of her life, smuggled a digital video camera in her burka and filmed the execution through the gauzy slit which permits the wearer a dim view of her surroundings.

But this was not the first time some RAWA member had risked her life. Since its start of struggle back in 1977, RAWA members have worked underground at a constant threat to their lives. The threat was from all sides: the communists ruling Kabul, the US-trained Mujahideen fighting back communists as well as the military intelligence of Pakistan. Meena, founder of the RAWA back in 1987 was finally murdered. She was hardly 31.

Today RAWA, abbreviated from Revolutionary Afghan Women Association, is not an isolated feminist group active at Afghan immigrant camps in Pakistan. Now it functions as the most effective political, social and feminist organisation whose activities range from political activism to running schools, hospitals and development projects. In Afghanistan, RAWA symbolises resistance, opposition, struggle and bravery. Last autumn, when at the Loya Jirga a brave Afghan girl Joya Malali stood up and criticised the war lords both at Loya Jirga and running the government, she was 'accused' of being RAWA member.

Warlords could expect such bravery only from RAWA members. They must have been annoyed. But anyone with even a slight respect for human rights and women liberty, would get a nice surprise if one happens to visit RAWA members, the hospitals or schools they are running. It would belie the media picture one often gets about Afghanistan.
This scribe experienced one such surprise at Malali hospital, efficiently run by RAWA at Rawalpindi, a town in north of Pakistan hosting over hundred thousand Afghan immigrants. Soft spoken, Sultana, in her thirties, is there to receive. Dressed decently in shalwar kameez, Sultana extends her hand to shake while saying welcome. With dozens of Afghan women around, hiding their bodies in well-known blue coloured Afghan burka, this handshake came as a surprise. Bit of confusing as a matter of fact. As one proceeds to Sultana's office, one comes across nurses with friendly smile on their faces. Some extend their hands to shake, others just node. It really confuses some one particularly with a Pakistani background. One does not shake hand in Pakistan with women. Afghan are considered by Pakistanis even conservatives.

Hospital starts at 0730 in the morning. Now it's 11 o'clock. Almost 200 patients are thronging both floors of the hospital. Only women and children. Malali is meant for women and children. 'At average we receive 150-200 patients a day', says Sultana.

'The hospital has an operation theatre, delivery room, a dressing room, x-ray and ultra-sound, facilities', she continues. There are28 employees at the hospital. Most of the nurses and doctors are women. All Afghans. The staff providing technical help like X-Ray and ECG or running the pharmacy is male. Couple of Pakistanis as well. Hospital provides free medical care.

The hospital walls are decorated with militant RAWA posters. Also hanging on the wall is a poster of Meena, the martyred RAWA leader (as RAWA always addresses her). The presence of a watchman at the hospital door naturally one makes wonder why one needs a watchman at a hospital. But this is meant for the security of hospital staff. 'Threats keep coming through emails or telephone says Sultana. Now she has been joined by Sahar Saba, member RAWA International Affairs Committee.

'A hospital doctor was shot and injured in March 2003', Sultana says. ' The Pakistani police refuses to lend any help', she regrets.

Malali hospital was started in 1986.Owing to paucity of funds, it was closed down in 1996. 'Thanks to September 11', it could be started again, as all of a sudden the whole world was very concerned about Afghan women. If Cherie Blair was lamenting the plight of Afghan women, Laura Bush was declaring, after five weeks of cruel US bombing on Afghan that started on October 7, 2001: "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

RAWA was getting invitation from across the world following September 11 events. Some concerned US citizens took the question of Malali hospital seriously. Thanks to their help, this hospital could be started again. 'But we are running short of funds. It seems we might have to close at least some sections at this hospital', Sultana observes. 'The world it seems is forgetting Afghanistan one more time', adds Sahar. 'The Iraq war has shifted the world focus from Afghanistan to Iraq', Sahar thinks.

Sahar continues: ' The situation in Afghanistan is not improving. The immigrants living here in Pakistan have even worse. They do not have any status any more. They cannot return home. Here they do not get any international help as it used to be. The number of patients at the hospital has not gone down since it was restarted .It belies the claims made by different governments that Afghans are returning home. This is not happening at least in Rawalpindi. The closure of hospital will be a big tragedy for them. This is the only place they can go for medical help and afghan immigrants come from nearby town as well besides Rawalpindi.'

Sahar is concerned about hospital but she seems more into politics. One cannot help talking political situation in Afghanistan if Sahar is around.

'The hospital should be supported', says Sultana. ' It does not mere need to keep going. We need lot of medical equipment. Help is not coming. Unfortunately, we get no help inside Pakistan', she adds.

Something must be done. The hospital should not close. This is what one passionately thinks while looking around at the cute Afghan kids and burka-clad women. The services rendered by Malali hospital make one feel nice. The very thought of its closure leaves one nostalgic.

The same thing one experiences at RAWA school, few kilometres from Malali hospital. The school located in a working class area is in total contrast with its ugly and stinking surroundings. Though the building is in no way luxurious by any standards yet the upkeep, cleanliness shown the dedication of school staff running it. The staff is not from among the RAWA members. ' The school is not meant for RAWA's political objectives', explains Sahar. 'The staff here is recruited according to the demands of teaching job in order to run school efficiently', she says. Syeda, school principal however supports RAWA. Other staff members also support RAWA. Though some of them have no political leaning. The school offers courses up to high school. It has co education. But owing to availability of classrooms, there are two shifts. First shift is meant for high school students. Second shift in the afternoon is meant for primary level kids. Students do not have to pay any fee. Books are free as well.

One learns maths, English, Persian and Pashtoo at this school. The school is now registered with Afghan Education ministry and its certificate is recognised in Afghanistan as well. 'Under Taliban certificates awarded by RAWA schools were not recognised by the government', Sahar says. She himself has been to a RAWA school. The only school she has been to was a RAWA school in Quetta. She was hardly seven when her family migrated to Pakistan. She has grown up in Afghan Mohajir (immigrant) Camps. It was here at RAWA School; Sahar impressed by the RAWA struggle, decided to dedicate her life to RAWA.

There are 315 students at this school. Eighteen teachers. All women. There are only two man among school staff. Both help school administration. It is perhaps not possible to run 'women only' project in Pakistan or in Afghanistan for that matter. RAWA has some 'male supporters' as RAWA members often refers to them in their conversations. Some 'male supporter' for security reasons, particularly in Afghanistan escorts often RAWA members.

At present, RAWA is running seven such schools. Some schools are run secretly to avoid an attack by the fundamentalists. Providing funds to keep these schools running is a constant struggle. Teachers must be paid in time. Books should be provided to the students. School building itself needs expenditure. Sometimes provision of clean drinking water becomes a big problem. Laboratories are missing. The high school students are sent to Malali hospital for practical.

'I wish I could arrange a water filter as soon as possible at the school. Soon its summer and one need to drink water dozens of times' say Syeda. It hardly costs Rs 10,000 (SKR 1500). But school administration finds it hard to spare this money. Something should be done. Must be done. At least for clean drinking water to these kids. At least by those who flush away gallons of clean drinking water in their toilets.

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