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An American Voice For Afghan Women

It was one of those things that didn't hit her until it was under her nose. Anne E. Brodsky, a psychologist, had been fascinated since childhood by stories of how ordinary people find the strength to resist oppression. In graduate school in Washington, she wrote about impoverished single mothers and how they coped. In Baltimore, she wrote about African-American women so busy with their daily struggle to survive they didn't have time to organize a community to help one another. In both cases, she left feeling she had little to offer, and the whole point of her research on how people create communities was to give something back.

One day in the spring of 2000 in her dining room in Baltimore's Hunting Ridge, Brodsky heard visitors from Afghanistan tell of their secret efforts to run schools for girls.

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The women were visiting Baltimore to speak at the Feminist Expo, and they were invited to stay at her house by her then-partner. Listening to their stories, Brodsky realized they were the first revolutionary women she'd ever met, the first example of people she'd read about in her suburban youth. There she was, with these young women who were risking their lives because of what they believed in, and she was moved to join them.

She has met many members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) since that day. They are women who fight with words and deeds for equal rights in Afghanistan.

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Photographs after the American bombing of Kabul that toppled the Taliban government showed women in the Afghan capital shedding their required burqas, the veil covering all but a woman's eyes. Coverage of the bombing at the time showed women freed by the same campaign to capture Osama bin Laden. The U.S. war against terrorism moved on to Iraq, but the battle for women in Afghanistan is hardly over. Last week, another school for girls in rural Logar province was set afire and the doors padlocked. Many women continue to wear the veil for their own safety and, for many, the dream of education remains dim.

Brodsky, 38, is still an activist on their behalf, being host to RAWA women when they travel to the United States in search of supporters, and risking her own life to travel abroad and document their history in With All Our Strength, a book full of personal hardship and struggle.

The women she writes about say they don't expect to see freedom and equal rights for women in their lifetimes.

The photos of freed women now seem like a cheap public relations ploy, and it pains her to think they might be used as evidence of improvement.

"Here in the U.S. it seems like the story is over," she says, "but there, it's far from over."

It was a personal mission at first. After meeting the RAWA women, Brodsky taught herself Persian and for the next six months read everything she could find on Afghanistan. She talked about the women's group to her friends, her students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she is an associate professor of psychology, and the public. She sold the women's rugs and crafts to raise money for them. In numerous e-mails, she learned that the women she met were part of a remarkable political and humanitarian movement that flourished despite no central office, no public meetings, no single leader and members without real names.

It occurred to her that she studied people like them, people who are resilient in the face of crisis, professionally. Why not research RAWA?

Brodsky was nervous about asking if they would be her research subjects. It seemed silly, given the dangerous lives they lived and the amount of work ahead of them.

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But RAWA wanted somebody to document what they do. Brodsky paid her own way to Pakistan in the summer of 2001 after colleagues at UMBC, looking over her grant application, worried that travel there was too dangerous. She arrived at the airport in Islamabad knowing no one - the three RAWA women who had visited Brodsky in Baltimore were traveling outside the country - and at the luggage counter, a stranger approached her and asked, "Are you Anne?"

She was driven to a RAWA guest house in Pakistan. A few days later, introduced to little girls studying at a refugee camp, she discovered they had been studying her e-mails in English class. "You're the lady writing the book," one of them told her. She had never considered or promised a book, only a scholarly article, but by the end of her two-week stay, they had convinced her.

With All Our Strength, published in the spring by Routledge, an academic press based in New York, is the first to provide an intimate history of the 26-year-old underground movement for women's rights in Afghanistan, a country where women still risk their lives if they leave home without a male escort.

Over countless interviews, and months of research, Brodsky gathered stories from people whose lives were changed by the movement and who themselves became part of it. Here, too, she found stories where she wasn't looking.

Weeks passed in the company of a woman named Najia before Brodsky learned the woman's surprising story. Najia, a widow with five children, was Brodsky's host on her first trip to Islamabad. She was a powerhouse of energy and her boundless joy around her children was reflected in the twinkle of her eye. But her heart was pained. Or, as Najia described it, "My heart is full of blood."

Najia - not her real name - is in her early 30s. Her father was killed by the Soviets, prompting her to flee with her mother and sisters to Pakistan. They returned to Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated, and there, at 15, she was wed to a man in his 30s. The man was educated and kind. He worked as a teacher until fundamentalist freedom fighters took back the province from a warlord. They disapproved of what he taught so they beat him and, when he resisted, shot him dead.

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As a woman alone in Afghanistan, Najia said, she was nothing. She couldn't work, go out alone, buy food herself or dress in any color but black. Some in her situation became prostitutes to support themselves. Najia, then 23, felt her life was over. For four months, she was miserable, until a stranger knocked on her door and offered to take her to a RAWA camp in Pakistan. She learned that a village family she trusted had told the man her situation, and when he returned 10 days later, she and her children went with him. RAWA paid for their move. At the camp, Najia's children attended school and she, too, enrolled in class. After four years, she learned to read and write and became a RAWA member.

Nobody was interested in Brodsky's book proposal when she returned to Baltimore in August 2001. But after Sept. 11, which led to the U.S. campaign against Afghanistan's Taliban regime, that changed. Was this a terrible window of opportunity? she asked herself. Could anything good come of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks? To her amazement, the women in refugee camps were e-mailing her to ask if she was safe. Next, Brodsky heard rumors - false, it turned out - of American rockets hitting Kabul, and she felt her stomach sinking. Would she ever go to Afghanistan?

Many of the women she met in Pakistan camps had lived there since childhood and were educated at schools run by RAWA. Brodsky wanted to document the work of the RAWA women still inside Afghanistan, the women who, if their work became known, faced public execution by the Taliban.

When she returned to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in December 2001 as a "participant/observer," she met newly arrived Afghan immigrants who had fled to the camps after the American bombing. One, Marghalari, said that even during the bombing, classes continued. In one area, near a military installation, RAWA members asked the teacher to stop, and the teacher left it to the students to decide. They said no, "it would be an honor to be killed continuing their education in such a risky situation."

For eight weeks that winter, Brodsky traveled between RAWA-sponsored houses, camps and schools in Quetta, Islamabad and elsewhere. The RAWA members she met are not paid, live sparse lives and move often to escape notice. Many are widows whose husbands were killed during the civil war. Sometimes when Brodsky accompanied one RAWA member to visit another, they entered through a back door and hid until the member could get rid of visitors or family who did not know about her RAWA activities.

Eventually, Brodsky would meet over half of the group's Leadership Council - 11 women elected by secret paper ballots collected by hand to run RAWA, and whose position may not be known even to members they work with every day. She would meet people who knew RAWA's founder and martyr, Meena, who was assassinated in Pakistan in 1987, and whose death prompted the present nonhierarchical structure of RAWA, which ensures it won't end with the death of any one leader. And Brodsky would document the work of sympathetic husbands, brothers and fathers who provided physical protection and cover for the women to do their revolutionary work.

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The women Brodsky lived with told her they felt safe in Pakistan; to them, Pakistan was freedom. But Pakistan didn't feel that safe to her. While she was there, Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped and killed. Nor did it seem free.

She lived in a walled camp patrolled by armed security. The girls school had a hole in its wall with a gun turret through it. RAWA worked to win over antagonistic fundamentalists in the next camp, eventually persuading the parents of over half the girls in that camp to send them to their school.

The women she stayed with had driver's licenses, a readily available car, even the keys to the car, but for them to drive alone would reveal them as RAWA members. So, they always waited for a male sympathizer.

In the summer of 2002, Brodsky finally visited Afghanistan. For 11 hours, she rode in a Toyota Corolla from Jalalabad to Kabul along the route where bandits had murdered four Western journalists a year earlier. Everywhere she looked, she saw kids carrying weapons, and she felt her life was most in danger there. But these child-soldiers put down their weapons when they recognized her RAWA bodyguard. There were other dangers - the hairpin turns, marked by breaks in the guardrail where buses had fallen through, and at a stop in a village for car repairs, the stares of men. She and the women with her did not wear burqas. "We were writing. They were illiterate," Brodsky recalls. "It was eye opening."

In Kabul, she spoke with women who carried out RAWA's mission inside Afghanistan at risk of being stoned, raped or murdered. Carrying a banned magazine or wearing improper dress on the street could be cause for imprisonment under the Taliban. Now she understood why women in Pakistan refugee camps considered themselves living in freedom.

She spent eight days in Afghanistan. It was soon after the country's new congress had convened - including women for the first time - and Hamid Karzai was installed as president. People seemed to sense opportunity despite the fact that the government included warlords and people who had ruled repressively before the Taliban took power in 1996.

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Brodsky saw few women on the devastated streets, and those she did see wore burqas. RAWA members told Brodsky their husbands still asked them not to leave their homes alone for safety reasons. RAWA is still run underground because of the danger. Its members approach male family members to ask permission for their wives and daughters to go to school. Often only one person in an area knows the cell phone of the next nearest small group of RAWA members.

One of the oldest members returned to the capital, hoping to pick up where she left off in the 1980s, only to find destruction and no trace of her old network. To Brodsky, the saddest story was that of a young Afghan law student forced to quit school under the Taliban. Ghatol taught RAWA education classes in secret basement locations and distributed RAWA literature in the Taliban era. She had avoided unwanted suitors in those years with her parents' support, and hoped to continue her law studies some day. But when the United States bombed, her family fled to Pakistan. Afterward, given that some repressive warlords were sharing power, family members convinced her mother that it was unsafe to take an unmarried woman back to Kabul. A suitor flew in from Europe to marry her. She loved Afghanistan and wanted to stay; unable to reach RAWA for support and help, she ended her dream of becoming a lawyer and agreed to join her husband in Europe.

This summer, Brod- sky returned to Afghanistan and saw malls, shops and warlords' houses under construction. The roads were less rutted but still unpaved. Teachers earn $30 a month, far less than their $100 monthly rent, and unemployed lawyers drove taxis. One of the most positive things she saw was that everyone seemed to be taking a class; she saw even a guard in front of a store reading a book.

The changes are superficial, she says women told her. The colors of the leaves may change, they said, but the roots of the tree still needed to be fertilized.

Before the war, 90 percent of women in Afghanistan wore the traditional covering garb. Now 70 percent wear it. The people in charge are no better than the hated Taliban, Brodsky says, only different. A new report by Human Rights Watch said increased violence by gunmen and warlords against girls and women, especially in southeast Afghanistan, is endangering gains made under the new government.

The response of RAWA women is hopeful pessimism. "They are uncompromising in their values and stand and continue to see the benefit of working one school, one person at a time," she says.

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"They all say they will not see it in their lifetimes," she says.

As a scholar actively working on behalf of her subject, Brodsky brings a bias to her research. She says her work as an advocate for RAWA allowed her to gather richer information and, ultimately, to gain admittance into their clandestine circle. She doesn't claim to give "the truth" about RAWA, she says, but rather only "a truth as I saw and experienced it." She wouldn't have written the book or returned to the camps, she says, if she didn't think the organization was so extraordinary.

Her goal was to document their resilience and present a model, possibly an inspiration, for others in crisis.

She is seeking grants to pay for a return trip to Afghanistan, where she wants to document the lives of ordinary women and the future of the organization. How will the women of RAWA respond if democracy comes? If RAWA women return to Afghanistan, as many want to, what becomes of the displaced countrymen they have been teaching?

In Brodsky's living room, piles of wool rugs made by Afghan women stand in a corner, ready to be sold for the RAWA cause. Profits from the sale of her book also go to RAWA.

On her lawn stands an anti-war poster.

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"I feel helpless," she says about participating in anti-war protests, "lots of us do. But we have a voice, we can go out and do that, with nowhere near the danger women face marching in the street in Pakistan."

Yet, she says, "they don't give up. It's incredible."


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