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June 1, 2002

Women Risking Their Lives for Education

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A Martyred Leader RAWA's founder, a poet and activist named Meena Keshwar Kamal, was 20 years old when she formed the group in 1977 in hopes of gaining equal rights for Afghan women. At the time, this cause was not yet life-or-death: Women were earning Ph.D.'s and working as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. If they wore the burqa, it was out of religious preference, not in obedience to national law.

But in 1979, Soviet troops invaded the country to back the communist government then in power, and Islamic and tribal groups known as jihadi mounted armed opposition. RAWA staged public protests opposing the communists and the jihadi with equal passion, and Meena paid for it with her life. In 1987, she was killed in her home in Quetta, Pakistan, by the Afghan KGB and their fundamentalist accomplices. After her death, RAWA members went underground, determined to complete what their leader had begun.

Since Meena's assassination, RAWA has had no single leader -- that would leave them too vulnerable. Instead, the group is directed by a rotating council of 12 women. (Men support, protect, love and marry RAWA members, but they cannot join.) Watched over by bodyguards, the council meets every three months, both in and outside of Afghanistan. At the end of each meeting, members decide where they will next convene. They tell no one else of their plans.

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