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First Fact-finding Mission to Pakistan 2001
The Islamic Pashtun context

One has to understand the context in order to evaluate why the word ‘Revolutionary’ in their name is so important : this is practically the most conservative brand of Islam imaginable and meeting this fully frontally comes as real shock. And this is not a Taliban invention, simply a Pashtun (i.e. the dominant ethnic group) tradition, which explain that even today in the streets of Peshawar and some of the camps (and Afghanistan itself), women can only go to the market shrouded in their burqas. Even Karachi and downtown Islamabad in comparison feel like L.A. The media have given us the idea that women have simply thrown off their veils and slapped the make-up on with wild abandon, but this in fact is clever media hype to justify Bush's politics. if this is the case in private (in front of TV cameras), it's impossible in public, they would be attacked by males whose attitude has not and cannot be changed overnight (overcentury?). I personally would have felt safer in some places with my own face covered, but as I wear glasses and happen to be tall this poses endless problems... The much-vaunted burqa is not the real problem, everything else is. There is a Pashtun proverb which goes something like 'Women should be seen either in their houses or their graves'. Basic women's rights have a long way to go, no wonder RAWA's politics (demure by our feminist standards) are perceived as most radical and subversive because they challenge the dominant male paradigm both of Islam and the subcontinent. Women are routinely beaten, girls are underfed, baby girls disappear from the statistics at birth and nobody in the region thinks this abnormal as women themselves have internalised these values. Except a minority of which RAWA is certainly the most vocal. Having said this, women I met were not all totally unhappy: there have evolved coping strategies which does give them some form of satisfaction and pride, generally centered on their family. Apart from that, in Peshawar, I did see a girl in a burqa swaying her hips perched on top of platform shoes... On a less violent level, the relations between the sexes are conditioned by a notion of shame and indecency, where the physical proximity of women's bodies in a male context is perceived as inappropriate, indeed inconceivable- except in a proprietary context, when a female is considered as first her father's (to a lesser extent brothers') property and then her husband's, and it's up to these males to defend (or cultivate, in the case of the husband) their female 'territory'. Again, girls do not necessarily revolt against this, brought up as they are to submit to men and to be responsible for his happiness and the family equilibrium. There is some sort of vicarious pleasure derived from this, especially if a woman produces a batch of sons. RAWA's self-appointed role is to point out the injustices and abuses against women through the extreme interpretations of local traditions which they want to modernize, not necessarily annihilate. If on a personal level, some of them definitely would n't mind opting out totally, they do not wish to turn Kabul into a Western city

To give you an idea to what extent this is ingrained in the local ways of thinking : I spent a few days in the refugee camp which RAWA helps to run and proposed several ideas to improve the life of the orphans which they have housed in two separate orphanages (co-ed at this rate should appear by the year 3000). The first one was a washing machine as the 40 boys and 40 girls wash their clothing and sheets by hand in basins of freezing water which has to be heated.( Remember this is typical of RAWA’s shrewd brand of progressive thinking : the boys have to do their own washing). Everyone insisted on the necessity of 2 machines as it was unthinkable for boys and girls to meet at one or another of the orphanages : after many heated arguments, I got them to agree that we could place one single machine on some neutral ground where specific days would be allotted to each group. I then tried the same with the deep-freeze, but this time I was voted out. In summer, when from May-June onwards, the temperature hits the 50s Celsius, boys (or veiled women) have to go to the nearest bazaar to lug back blocks of ice, so such a purchase is a priority. One freezer for everyone, this would mean constant converging of the sexes throughout the summer, which is deemed totally inapppropriate. So finally each orphanage will be equipped with its very own freezer, as will every other orphanage RAWA runs. With hindsight, I can see that their way of doing is the appropriate one, you cannot transform centuries of codified patterns of behaviour in an over-abrupt manner, we cannot impose our standards and our feminist notions of self- definition and choice on a society which does not remotely recognize the existence of such options. But I have to add that these discussions took place with the male head of the orphanage ( a staunch supporter of RAWA, aged about 23, not the only supportive male) seated next to the RAWA girls, a revolution in itself by local standards : the refugee camp next door run by a die-hard fundamentalist calls them Infidels for this apparently outrageous behaviour- it’s no good for us to disparage this kind of conduct as being ridiculous because it IS the reality they live in, complete with Kalashnikov wielding fanatics 300 yards away. And RAWA submits to this in a purely pragmatic way, because by keeping a low profile, they are able to continue their exceptional work.