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June 1, 2002

Women Risking Their Lives for Education

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In Afghanistan, members of a secret organization of women risk death to give other women education and hope. Eve Ensler took a harrowing undercover journey to chronicle their fight against the Taliban -- one of the most repressive regimes in history.

The Taliban Forbids Women to:

  • attend school
  • work outside the home
  • laugh loudly
  • perform or listen to music
  • leave home without a male relative
  • use cosmetics
  • visit male doctors
  • go outside without wearing a floor-length veil called a burqa
  • wear high-heel shoes
  • watch movies, TV and videos

If a woman breaks these laws, she risks being flogged or killed.

Documenting the Situation
Freshta is 26, thin, pale and haunted. She is an undercover reporter who travels across Afghanistan and risks her life to document the atrocities of the Taliban, the fundamentalist Muslim regime that controls her home country.

"On Fridays," Freshta says, "the Taliban closes the shops and streets in Kabul and forces all the people, children included, into a stadium. They are forced to watch as thieves have their hands cut off and are hung from trees. Yet the Taliban is what has made these people so poor they must steal. I have seen women stoned to death in the stadium for refusing arranged marriages. And the Taliban actually sells popcorn before these events -- executions have become entertainment for children."

She reports on other atrocities: A 6-year-old girl was beaten for carrying schoolbooks in public. Two cousins, a boy and a girl, were buried alive for talking in the bazaar. Commanders abduct and rape girls. "The girls don't want to be interviewed," Freshta says, "because they are ashamed. I interview their mothers, who usually say, 'Our daughters are dead to us.'"

Freshta tells me that since she became a reporter, she faints all the time. But she will continue "as long as I have the ability to publicize the shocking situation of my people. I hope I will live to see the elimination of these criminals."

RAWA Takes Action
Freshta reports for the newsletter and Website of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. More than 2,000 members of this clandestine network provide shelter, education and medical services to Afghan women and girls -- all in defiance of the Taliban. Unable to show their faces in their own country, they are building international connections through their Website. I first contact them by email.

After putting me through a series of security checks, RAWA's leaders agree to show me their schools and orphanages -- and to help me secure passage into Afghanistan to witness life under the Taliban firsthand. I am traveling with Willa Shalit, the executive director of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women, and we start our journey in Pakistan, home to 1.2 million refugees who have fled the Taliban.

In a city I agree not to name, a driver sympathetic to RAWA's mission takes us down narrow, garbage-strewn streets until we reach an unmarked house. Behind a gate, unseen from the street, a guard armed with a machine gun stands watch. He lets us inside, where we find clean, ordered classrooms decorated with brightly colored pillows.

What We Learn
RAWA operates a dozen schools like this one in Pakistan, some in desert refugee camps and others in RAWA members' own houses. In Afghanistan itself, RAWA runs 65 schools and 33 orphanages, all housed secretly in private homes. The Pakistani schools face harassment and raids by Taliban sympathizers, but in Afghanistan, both students and teachers risk death. RAWA rotates school locations and strictly limits class sizes to avoid detection.

The women studying at the school I visit, refugees of every age, tell me their stories in turn. "A member of the Taliban struck me with a stick because I wasn't wearing a burqa," says a manic, 48-year-old widow, referring to the long Afghan garment that provides only a small grill for air and sight. "I fell facedown on a stone. No operation will fix it." She shows me her knee, swollen and deformed.

Then Freshta speaks. Afterward, a woman says, "We want to show you something. One RAWA member smuggled a camera in under her veil and filmed this." She brings out a television and VCR and puts in a videotape.

On the screen, we see images from Freshta's horrifying account of the stadium executions. About nine Taliban men arrive at the stadium in the back of a Toyota pickup truck. Soon, another truck appears carrying three women covered in burqas. A man with a microphone reads from the Koran.

One of the women is led into the center of the stadium and thrown to the ground. A Taliban man places his gun to her head, and without pause, fires it. Wails and cries come up from the crowd, but the dead woman is left on the ground like garbage. Someone turns off the TV.

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