The Afghan revolutionary who took on the Soviets and patriarchy

In 1977, Meena began a resistance movement to fight for women’s rights and defy imperial occupation in Afghanistan.

An illustration of Meena.
[Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Only one clip of Meena speaking — flickering, faded, just a few minutes long — survives today, and it sounds like a prophecy. It is 1981. She is 24, in a pale blue turtleneck and a dark blue dotted pinafore, her wavy hair cropped short.

Meena had just delivered a speech in Valence, where she was invited by the new French Socialist government to represent the Afghan resistance movement at a party congress. Her speech so angered the Soviet delegation — the USSR had invaded Afghanistan two years earlier, and she spoke forcefully against the occupation — that they stalked out, glowering, as she raised a victory sign in the air.

In the clip, a snippet from an interview with a Belgian news channel, she predicts — calmly, sombrely, pen in hand — the victory of anti-Soviet forces. But she also warns of its cost: that the anti-democratic, misogynistic factions of the mujahideen being valorised by the West in their fight against the Soviets would, in turn, devour Afghanistan.

Amid the clumsy binaries of war, Meena was treading a tricky path.

Fixated on the inferior status of women

Meena was born in 1956, in the final decades of Mohammed Zahir Shah’s reign. The modernist king had nudged along a number of firsts for women: female voices on Afghan radio, voluntary abolition of the chadar, and ratification of the constitution by a Loya Jirga — a grand legal assembly — that included women.

She attended one of Kabul’s best schools — the Lycee Malalai, named after a beloved folk heroine who rallied flailing Afghan forces to victory against the British in 1880 — but in her middle-class home, she saw her father periodically beat her two mothers.

Uncommonly alert to injustice — her relatives’ casual mistreatment of Hazara servants, of the educational disparities between her architect father and her unlettered mother — teenage Meena became increasingly fixated on the inferior status of women.

How men saw women and how women saw themselves — as individuals with their own hopes and dreams, rather than in perpetual service to the family, the tribe, and the nation — would not be transformed by state mandates alone. These roles would have to be renegotiated, Meena knew, by Afghan women themselves, from within the most fundamental unit of society, the family.

It is 1976. Three years earlier, the old king had been overthrown by his cousin, and the 225-year-old monarchy was replaced with an autocratic one-party state. Kabul University, where Meena is now studying law, is a microcosm of the forces buffeting Afghanistan: Marxists and Maoists, monarchists and Islamic revivalists.

Meena, 20, is married to a doctor 11 years older, the only man her family could find who fit her criteria: no bride price, no second wife, no objection to school or work. He is the leader of a Maoist group. Meena also leans left, but she is not interested in being relegated to the women’s wing of a political outfit. She seeks an organisation that centres the liberation of Afghan women.

There is none, so she starts one herself. It is called the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

Western-dressed female students wait in front of Kabul University on October 17, 1986, during the Soviet-Afghan war. (Photo by Daniel JANIN / AFP)
Students stand in front of Kabul University in 1986 during the Soviet-Afghan war. The previous decade, Meena was a law student there and the campus was a microcosm of the forces buffeting Afghanistan: Marxists and Maoists, monarchists and Islamic revivalists [Daniel Janin/AFP]

A fist in the mouth of patriarchy

In the beginning, there were five. A year later, 11. They were not even all known to each other and rarely met all together. Once, when they did meet, they sat in a room partitioned by curtains so they could hear the rest but could not see more than three others. Years before the Taliban first took over Afghanistan, at a time when women had the right to education, were such extraordinary measures necessary?

RAWA was not plotting the downfall of the state. At first, it was organising adult literacy classes, a preliminary step — in Meena’s vision — towards helping women from strict patriarchal families develop a sense of self. But in a stubbornly gendered society, where the only women with any real power tended to be mothers-in-law, the organisers knew their work would be perceived as a threat: it would, in Dari, be mushti dar dahan — a fist in the mouth — of patriarchy.

In 1978, on the heels of a violent coup, a new Soviet-backed government began rolling out reforms across Afghanistan. Land was redistributed, the tricolour flag turned a solid communist red, bride prices reduced, and marriage before the age of 18 outlawed. Afghan society bristled at these changes — particularly, scholars have since noted, the changes concerning women. RAWA baulked, too: if the fight for their rights became associated with imperial power, it was Afghan women who would bear the brunt of the backlash. And so, it expanded its mandate, becoming, in Meena’s words, “an organisation of women struggling for the liberation of Afghanistan and of women”. One could not be achieved without the other.

Anti-Soviet resistance mounted across Afghanistan, first percolating in the countryside, then spreading to the cities. The crackdown by the Soviet-backed government also intensified. Political prisoners in Afghan jails — tribal leaders, clergy, public intellectuals, students — tripled within six months. Executions were a daily occurrence. Many others vanished into thin air. Meena began visiting the families of the jailed and the disappeared, asking after them.

This is how many women joined RAWA. They were struck by the fact that Meena cared. Bereft of male protection — but also male authority — for the first time, they heeded her call to channel their rage and despair into a disciplined resistance.

Fighters inspect a captured Soviet tank in 1979
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Afghan fighters inspect a Soviet tank captured a few days after the invasion [Steve McCurry/AP Photo]

The Soviet occupation

In December 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. RAWA members took part in popular demonstrations, surreptitiously distributing political pamphlets (shabnameh, literally translating to night missives, circulated under cover of dark), started Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message), a polemical magazine that they assembled by hand, and supported secular factions of the mujahideen on the war front, where they dispensed medical aid and learned to use and clean guns.

Melody Ermachild Chavis, author of a RAWA-authorised biography of Meena, recalls story after story of Meena’s doggedness: disguised in an old burqa, she would visit women from dawn to dusk, talking for hours, returning every week.

That is the closest to a critique of Meena that Chavis — who channelled 20 years of experience as a private investigator preparing death-row appeals in California into reconstructing Meena’s life — heard from RAWA members. “Some of the older women would tell her, you’ve got to rest, you’ve got to protect yourself more. They told me how she’d periodically collapse: from dehydration, exhaustion, malnourishment, sometimes pregnancy,” she says.

And sometimes from grief. Once, thousands of women went to meet jailed family members being released under a general amnesty — when only 120 were released, the women stormed the prison and found piles of dead bodies.

Meena, returning home from one of her prison visits, collapsed, unable to process what she had witnessed — the screams of a mother whose son was killed in prison. That night, she shook in her sleep.

Afghan pupils sitting around their teacher (C) raise their hands to answer a question during a class in a tented school October 10, 1996
During Soviet occupation in the 1980s, millions of Afghans seeking refuge from war crossed the border into Pakistan, many of them settling in the now-closed Nasir Bagh refugee camp (pictured here in 1996) in Peshawar. As a political activist opposing the occupation, Meena was also forced to flee [Reuters]

‘The woman who has awoken’

The first issue of Payam-e-Zan, published in 1981, shortly before Meena’s trip to Europe, features an unsigned poem.

The midnight screams of bereaved mothers still resonate in my ears

I’ve seen barefoot, wandering and homeless children,

I’ve seen giant henna-handed brides with mourning clothes,

I’ve seen the giant walls of prisons swallow freedom in their ravenous stomach,

… I’m the woman who has awoken,

I’ve found my path and will never turn back

The poem was penned by Meena. By the time she returned from Europe, a number of RAWA members and supporters had been imprisoned. Her husband, after being jailed and tortured, had fled to Pakistan. As a political activist opposing the Soviet occupation who had garnered international attention, Meena’s photos were being circulated at checkpoints across Kabul, so she too crossed the border, alongside millions of other Afghans seeking refuge from war.

Ultimately, she set up a base in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where RAWA began opening schools, clinics and orphanages for fellow refugees.

In 1986, Meena’s husband was murdered in Peshawar by mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin — an armed group said to have received more CIA funding than any other mujahideen group during the Soviet war.

Three months later, Meena went missing in Quetta. In August 1987, her body was unearthed from the compound of an abandoned house, identifiable only by her wedding band. She had been strangled to death, betrayed by a male RAWA supporter. Originally arrested for driving a truck filled with explosives into Pakistan, the two men who confessed to her murder had ties to KHAD, the Afghan secret police allied with the Soviets. In 2002, 15 years after her death, they were hurriedly executed by the Pakistani state. Afterwards, RAWA released a statement reiterating its opposition to capital punishment.

Afghan women protest anti-Taliban slogans in 1997 is Islamabad
Afghan refugees chant anti-Taliban slogans at a protest organised by RAWA in Islamabad in 1997. A male protestor holds up a picture of Meena [Tanveer Mughal/AFP)

‘A living presence’

More than 10 years after Meena’s assassination, scholar Anne E Brodsky recounts viewing that clip of Meena alongside young RAWA members in Pakistan. Watching their martyred leader predict a future they had lived through but one she did not live to see, the young women were moved to tears. “Most of them had never met her,” Brodsky writes in With All Our Strength (2003), her book-length account of RAWA, “but they had heard the stories and they felt that the only reason they were where they were — educated, safe, and with a deep purpose in life and a community of love and caring to support their struggle — was the efforts of this woman”.

Brodsky, a community psychologist, interviewed more than 100 RAWA members and supporters in the early 2000s. Time and again, women spoke of how RAWA gave them meaning amid the chaos of war. “They chanted the slogans that were stuck in my throat; they spoke the words that I didn’t dare speak,” one member told Brodsky. Another, a premed student forced to stay home when the Taliban came to power in 1996, was able to claw her way out of depression through involvement with RAWA: “I even forgot I didn’t have rights and couldn’t continue my studies because I was always busy.”

RAWA’s response to Meena’s murder had been to double down on her life’s work. On both sides of the Durand Line — the British-drawn boundary between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan — RAWA established schools and orphanages for Afghan boys and girls, literacy programmes for older women, health clinics and income-generating programmes.

In Afghanistan, then as now, most of these operations remained underground. In areas of Pakistan where it was relatively safer to operate for RAWA, many people remember Meena’s visage having pride of place. Jennifer L Fluri, a feminist political geographer at the University of Colorado, recalls in the early 2000s nearly every room in an openly RAWA-run school or orphanage in Pakistan featuring Meena’s portrait. “She was very much a living presence,” she says.

Afghan women hold a banner as they shout anti Afghan government slogans during a demonstration in Islamabad in 2005.
In 2005, Afghan women hold the RAWA banner at a protest in Islamabad to demand peace in their country. In the mid-2000s, RAWA had an estimated 2,000 members living in Afghanistan and Pakistan [Faisal Mahmood/Reuters]

An anonymous organisation

Meena remained the face of RAWA for another reason, too: after her assassination, the organisation became entirely anonymous, operating as a single, undifferentiated front. At the same time, it became even more decentralised, a collection of committees spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan that exchanged information on a need-to-know basis.

Chavis estimates that there were approximately 2,000 members in the mid-2000s — membership is limited to Afghan women living in Afghanistan or Pakistan, while men and other women can join as supporters — but there was no real way of ascertaining the actual number. For security reasons, RAWA did not maintain a consolidated list.

In 1997, a year into Taliban rule, they launched a website, helping them find international supporters and donors. It exists today, too, stuck in a 90s design warp, an ode to Meena as well as meticulous documentation of the conditions of Afghan women at large. Trigger warnings abound, followed by an unapologetic reminder: this is the reality for many.

In addition to their social work, RAWA also began documenting Taliban atrocities at a time when Afghanistan had been largely forgotten by the world. In 1999, members smuggled a camera into a football stadium in Kabul to film the public execution of Zarmina, a mother of seven accused of killing her husband. When RAWA approached Western media outlets with the video, most declined to air it — it was too shocking, they said, for their viewers.

Then 9/11 happened. RAWA’s footage of Zarmina’s execution, despite being two years old, began playing on a loop on CNN. Before dropping bombs on Afghanistan, US warplanes first dropped flyers over the country making the case for military action. Some of the pamphlets featured images of Taliban crimes plucked from RAWA’s website. “RAWA was appalled,” says Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit established in 2000 by RAWA supporters. “To them, it was such a betrayal and a huge danger to be inadvertently associated with a US invasion that they staunchly opposed. The US never asked for their permission to use those images.”

Women walk past a university in Kabul in 2022
In Afghanistan today, RAWA’s work continues but remains underground [Reuters]

Meena’s legacy of independence

In her role as a RAWA ally, facilitating its advocacy work abroad, Kolhatkar had a front-row seat to Western liberal feminism’s encounter with RAWA.

Prior to 9/11, some members came to the US for the first time on a speaking tour sponsored by a prominent women’s organisation. “The organisation sold these little pins with squares of mesh cloth on them, similar to what you’d find on a burqa,” Kolhatkar recounted. “And one condition of the invitation was that at every event featuring RAWA, they would first have to play a five-minute video, produced by the organisation, highlighting the plight of Afghan women …  and after 9/11, they [RAWA] were dismissed by Western feminists as being too Western. This, to me, was the most infuriating part: to have their work co-opted and their legacy questioned by Western feminists.”

The activists who came to the US, writes Brodsky, were also frustrated by Western attempts to individualise them, needling them for their personal stories, rather than engaging with RAWA’s institutional message.

When a RAWA representative explained her role on RAWA’s foreign affairs committee to the Western women in the room, Brodsky recalls the meeting room lapsing into baffled silence. “The other women in the room appeared to strain to integrate this piece of information into their mental picture of this young woman and her grassroots organization,” she writes in With All Our Strength. “Finally someone responded, ‘A Foreign Affairs Committee, isn’t that organized of you?!’”

For RAWA, these experiences abroad were a vindication of Meena’s fierce commitment to independence and her refusal to let the organisation’s mission be subsumed into a broader political project, whether at home or abroad. “Her legacy remains really central to RAWA, especially with regard to independence, secular democracy, and the complete rejection of foreign intervention — except when it comes to people-to-people solidarity,” says Kolhatkar.

Fluri, as a geographer, was particularly interested in examining how RAWA negotiated power closer to home in Pakistan. She recalls spending time in a refugee camp in Peshawar in the early 2000s, where RAWA wielded great influence — so much so that when a woman complained of her husband continually hitting her, they worked with male allies to have the man kicked out of the camp. “It was almost like they had their own mini nation there,” says Fluri. The camp was a microcosm of their vision of Afghanistan — feminist, multiethnic, she says. “I remember thinking, oh wow, they really are kind of creating this there.”

Many of the major refugee camps in Pakistan were disbanded in the mid-2000s. As Afghan men and women returned to their homeland — often involuntarily, hounded out by an increasingly hostile host country — RAWA’s activities in Pakistan began to dissipate. In Afghanistan, its work continues but remains underground: a mix of home-based schools and feminist study circles, rural health services, and income-generating projects for women, such as poultry farms.

RAWA did not respond to requests for an interview.

Much of RAWA’s work today depends on donations from international supporters and is therefore especially susceptible to the fleeting attention span of the West. “The situation right now inside Afghanistan is worse than it was last summer [when US forces withdrew]. But there’s less attention being paid, and so it’s harder to raise funds — and getting the money to RAWA has also become nearly impossible because of US banking sanctions,” says Kolhatkar.

Still, RAWA soldiers on. Last December, they marked International Human Rights Day with a protest against the Taliban, concealing their identities by wearing masks of slain Afghan activists. “In the absence of freedom and democracy,” their placards proclaimed, “human rights have no meaning!”

Meena’s legacy extends beyond RAWA, too. Years after that refugee camp in Peshawar was shut down, not too far away, another young Pashtun would become famous for demanding her right to education — so famous that she too would be known by her first name alone. In 2014, asked about her childhood memories of reading, Malala responded: “One of the first books I read is called Meena, about a girl who stood up for women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

From the Afghan woman who fought patriarchy and the Soviets to the mother who taught her daughter what it means to survive and the art of care, we are telling the stories of women – contemporary, historical, in the public eye and overlooked – who are shaping other women’s lives. In 2022, starting from Women’s History Month in March, these are the stories of women who are making a difference to other women.

Source: Al Jazeera