by Anne E. Brodsky
Routledge, 2003, 320 pages, $25.00
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Contrary to the impression left by western news reports, feminism did not arrive in Afghanistan with U.S. troops. Beyond the buzz created when President Karzai appointed Dr. Sima Samar as Minister of Women's Affairs in 2002—only to later abandon her in the face of political opposition—lies a deeper history of Afghan women's struggle.
A key player in this history is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the focus of Anne Brodsky's With All Our Strength. For 26 years the women of RAWA and their supporters have committed themselves to empowering all Afghan women and peacefully building a free and secular democracy in Afghanistan. Brodsky weaves together direct accounts from members and supporters of RAWA to tell the story of RAWA in a way that respects the many experiences of a group as diverse and varied as “Afghan women.” The book features the voices of older women politicized by RAWA's underground literacy courses, younger women drawn into roles of great responsibility, men who have become ardent RAWA supporters after attending RAWA's Watan schools in refugee camps in Pakistan, and more.
As Brodsky shows, integral to RAWA's resilience has been their maintenance at once of a culture of secrecy, democratic mechanisms for providing constructive critique and resolving arguments among members, and a policy of training members in multiple jobs. Brodsky emphasizes the importance of democratic and collective leadership in ensuring RAWA's continued existence and in serving as an example of the type of society RAWA seeks to create.
Much attention is devoted to Meena, a student who founded RAWA at the age of 20 and was assassinated 10 years later in 1987. The charismatic Meena served as the prototype of sacrifice that inspires and influences RAWA members today. Her memory and martyrdom create a second layer of connection between RAWA members—the first being their mutual commitment to women's rights and human rights for all Afghans.
Brodsky argues that RAWA's focus on human rights for all has attracted many male supporters who might not otherwise support a women's organization. Of course, there are also men who proudly support the organization because of its explicit focus on women's equality. Only Afghan women are admitted as members, for well-argued reasons, but RAWA embraces these male supporters and the vital roles they play.
The special value of Brodsky's book lies in its explanation of how an indigenous, self-avowed feminist organization has built its success on foundations in both culture-specific traditions and in embrace of “secular democracy, freedom, peace, women's and human rights, and equality.” As one member argues, “These values are neither western nor eastern ... They should be for all people. Why don't Afghans deserve them as much as anyone else?” Contrary to popular western depictions, these values and those of Afghan cultures are not mutually exclusive, as RAWA's work demonstrate.
RAWA's example of vision and action forged out of 26 years of extreme duress shines as a light of hope. In the face of despair, these women have created a strong organization and even a movement. Here is a model that folks discouraged by the current direction of the United States can learn from; let us be inspired by RAWA.
It will be intriguing to observe how RAWA adapts and evolves in response to the changing political landscape of Afghanistan. The Foreword written by RAWA emphasizes that U.S. support of the Northern Alliance, the inclusion of warlords in the interim government, and the power vacuum outside of Kabul have created an environment that is just as hostile to women as the Taliban were.
I would welcome a follow-up to With All Our Strength, detailing the ongoing challenges of RAWA. (To a large extent, RAWA's website www.rawa.org does just that.) In this hypothetical book, I hope to see westerners, and particularly U.S. citizens, taking on a larger supporting role for RAWA sisters and brothers. But in order to help write the story of that book, let us first read this one.