A WORLD TO WIN    #24   (1998)

Women of Afghanistan Celebrate March 8

On 8 March 1998, an important meeting celebrating March 8th was held in Quetta, Pakistan. This meeting was organised and held by Afghani­stani women in exile in Pakistan. Similar programs were held in Europe following a call issued by Afghanistani and Iranian women in exile in Europe.

The meeting was held under the open sky in the late winter sun of March 8th. Women of all ages, who were called to the celebration that same morning by trucks circulating in the streets of the city, began pouring in from early afternoon. For most of these women, this was their first time to participate in a meeting organised and chaired by women alone. Fire in the Mountains (from the A World to Win music tape We Only Want the World!) was playing from the loudspeakers, and the walls were decorated with banners and slogans. One banner condemned the inhuman conditions imposed on women, another called for defending the just struggle of women. One slogan read “Breaking the chains requires uncompromising struggle”. The other emphasised that women should establish their rights even if by force. Altogether about 600 women participated, and more continued to arrive even as the meeting was coming to an end.

The meeting opened with a woman reciting a poem declaring that without the struggle of women, victory cannot be won.

The chairwoman greeted the participants: “Today is March 8th, International Women’s Day (IWD). This day is a symbol of the struggle of women against the oppression imposed on them by the relations dominating society and keeping them in chains. The women workers of the US rose up against their bosses to protest difficult working conditions and low wages.... On that day, the active presence of women textile workers in the struggle for their rights showed how the interest of the bosses and rulers is to oppress and exploit people, especially women. The State used its armed forces to defend its interests, but women were not afraid to face them and participated, taking their lives in their hands....

“We, women of Afghanistan, should also celebrate this day in the most militant way as the day of women’s struggle against oppression and against male chauvinist regimes in Afghanistan and around the world.” Talking about how in many countries the rulers try to co-opt March 8th, turn it into a state carnival and throw water on the fire of women’s struggle, she added: “Women are not fooled by false celebrations by their rulers, and continue their struggle. But celebrating March 8th is illegal in Afghanistan. The present male chauvinist rulers of our country don’t even see it necessary to hold a phoney celebration. This shows the brutal and completely open oppression being carried out. We women of Afghanistan who face such unabashed and open male chauvinism should courageously celebrate this day and carry forward our struggles firmly and boldly.

“Let us once again on this day turn our fury into a fighting force and continue our struggle with perseverance and firmness against the oppression of women and all other oppression....”

One of the organisers took the podium and on behalf of the organising committee called on women to celebrate International Women’s Day ever more powerfully. She talked about how on the eve of the 21st century women in Afghanistan are forced to live in medieval conditions. She added: “This situation is not tolerable! We should rise up against it! As was said in the declaration of the Afghanistani women immigrants in Pakistan, the women of Afghanistan have no solution but to boldly struggle against this situation in order to gain our rights....

“At present there are courageous women who are rising up against the barbaric measures and exclusionist laws of the Taliban and other Jahadis [Islamic fundamentalists]. Women of Afghanistan are even giving their lives to keep the public baths open.... Women have even gone as far as taking up arms and have shed the blood of their aggressors. Women fighters abroad carry out the struggle through meetings, demonstrations, publications and other forms. All these fearless struggles and sacrifices must become deeper and broader in order to become a true social movement.” She explained that the oppression of women is not limited to societies like Afghanistan but exists in different forms in advanced capitalist countries also, and that the women’s struggle in Afghanistan is part of a broader international struggle against the system ruling the world.

A young woman read a paper she had prepared about the types of oppression women suffered: “Women of Afghanistan are deprived of the most elementary rights of a human being because we are women. At present, even in the cities, we don’t have the right to step out of our homes to fend for ourselves, to use the baths, to go to hospital or school. Being forced to wear the veil concentrates the imprisonment of women. Not even our eyes are supposed to be visible. This veil is not a simple piece of clothing; it impedes our ability to see, move or walk long distances. Those women who have learned to work and were active in society have been forced by the Taliban and other rulers to sit in their homes. Many worked outside to support their families and many have lost their husbands in the anti-Russian resistance war and the present wars and have no choice but to work to support themselves and their kids... but it is forbidden to work now.

“Both in the cities and in the countryside, the women of Afghanistan carry the burden of all the housework.... Housework is never-ending — cooking, washing, cleaning, serving the husband, hosting the guests, raising the children.... The society doesn’t value this work... only men’s work is valued and merits wages.

“Long hours of housework prevent women from thinking about other things in society. We are not allowed to know or learn and think about important things.... It is always men in the family and society that decide for us, whether or not we have the right to study, work outside the house, think, or participate in political, social and economic activities.... When they want to praise a woman they say she is quiet, shy, obedient.... When she struggles against the oppression she and other women feel they say she is stepping over limits, she is no good, outspoken... Thus they try to silence the voice of women’s struggle....

“In marital relationships a man can own as many women in official and unofficial marriage as his income allows him to. Her feelings as a human being, a partner who can think, are looked down on and ignored. When a man brings in a second or third wife, all these women are oppressed; it is not the fault of any of the women and they should understand the dominant male chauvinist relations....

“Women in the countryside don’t have the right to own land. Their work is not valued even though they work from dawn to dusk at home, on the land... harvesting crops, turning wheat into flour, raising animals, doing the milking, making yoghurt and other diary products, embroidery and carpet-making are all part of the work women do alone or alongside men. In areas of Nurestan and Jadaran women carry out all agricultural tasks without any help from men. In the majority of cases women are not paid for their labour and even if there is a wage for things like carpet weaving it is minimal and... is mostly handed over to the men of the family.

“Starting from childhood, girls are forced to do heavy work in the villages and when they are seven they have to do the cooking, baking, sewing, and caring for smaller children to prepare for getting married. After 12 years of age they are barred from going to school — if there are any schools — to keep them from seeing things and from changing and refusing to be obedient....

“When there are family and tribal disputes and somebody is killed, a girl or a woman is given as a ‘blood prize’ [to compensate for the life taken] to settle the dispute. In war the victors treat women as war spoils, mistreating and raping them, and women are abused for not complying with medieval laws....

“We must fight against all of this oppression that is part of the oppressive ruling system in Afghanistan. But we are not alone in this struggle.... Struggle against oppression is carried out by women in different countries....”

Amidst applause she left the podium to a young teenager who read a poem about how the suffering cries of women will turn into thunder that will bring down the prison walls of oppression. Another speaker said: “Spontaneous and individual struggle can be seen in a significant number of cases. But these individual struggles can’t do away with oppression in the society and if we get rid of one oppressor we later fall into the hands of another one....

“The oppression of women is part of the relations dominating society and the rulers defend it. We face these governments and the laws they have written based on backward relations and traditions; we face the armed forces that preserve these relations. Whenever our struggle goes beyond the individual level and targets these oppressive relations and their guardians... they come down hard on us.... The reason is clear, these struggles threaten their very existence....” She gave some examples of spontaneous struggle of women and added, “Women should join hands and strengthen their struggles, they must unite their forces and build a movement that is ever more organised.… The power of women sends shivers down the spines of the oppressive rulers, that’s why they resort to threats and force....” She finished by saluting the just struggle of women in Afghanistan and throughout the world.

After a solidarity message from a girl’s school was read, the following speaker introduced herself by saying she was illiterate and could only express herself in simple words. “Our mothers were backward and have not come to gatherings like ours today, so they did things that ruined our futures. I want to recount my sad fate so that you would hear it. When I was seven they gave me into marriage to a 70-year-old man and they ruined my life. In the last nine or ten years I didn’t feel like living, I didn’t know whether I was alive or in the cemetery. Sisters, mothers, I beg you not to ruin the future of your children. Your daughters are weak and helpless. Nobody recognises our rights, nobody tells us about our rights. When I was seven I was given to a 70-year-old man. But when I was 17 I started to struggle and learned that if I don’t do anything to get myself out of my misery there is nobody to do it for me....” The loud applause that greeted her speech indicated she was not the only one in the audience to have suffered such a fate.

Then the next speaker took the podium. “As an oppressed and suffering girl of my country I congratulate this day all the women of the world, especially the suffering sisters and mothers of my country. I’m proud to be here presenting my feelings to you....

“Sisters and mothers, without women, human society wouldn’t exist. Without the participation of women in the affairs of society, society would move towards destruction and could not take the road to happiness. In history there have been women who have struggled for their rights. They have proven that women are not second-class humans and can fight alongside men for the happiness of the people and even give their lives for this cause.

“Sisters and mothers, let us think about ourselves and the oppression we suffer and find a solution. Are we really weak and helpless and unable to free ourselves from this darkness covering our lives? No, it is not true....

“Sisters and mothers, let us join hands and uproot these superstitions. We must study, we must participate in the affairs of our society, work and participate in production, and we must have freedom of speech and take part in the political fate of society. If these rights are taken away from us, we will not be complete humans and will always remain miserable and inferior. We must struggle for our human rights and this of course requires effort and sacrifice. There is no time to silently watch our lives miserably go by... it is high time for us to prepare ourselves for the struggle for our human rights and carry out the struggle in an organised fashion.”

Another woman addressed the audience in Urdu (the meeting was held in Dari, also called Farsi). She condemned the situation of women in countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and went on to say: “Here I want to address the very important question of the education of women. We will not let anybody take the right of education away from us.”

The chairwoman gave a brief history of the roots of women’s oppression. “In Afghanistan, as in any other class society, the oppression of women is an important part of the socio-economic structure of exploitation dominating society. The active participation of women in the struggle against imperialism and reaction is a fundamental necessity in the victory of revolution. Because without the active participation of half of the people the advance of this struggle is inconceivable. But this is not all. More importantly these revolutionary struggles of women will strike serious blows against patriarchy, which is part of the exploiting system dominating the society and will unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution.”

A resolution of the meeting that had been drafted by the Committee of Immigrant Afghanistani Women for the Celebration of March 8th — International Women’s Day — 1998 was then read, which stated in part: “The successful meeting today proves that the struggle of Afghanistani women against oppression and for rights as individuals and in the family, society and political life can and must continue and develop deeper and broader. Our gathering today, as our previous gathering, is not an isolated event but part of a series of gatherings that are being held by struggling Afghanistani and Iranian women... in different regions and countries. And these too are part of the struggle of women around the world on March 8th.” In approval of the general Call issued for March 8th, the resolution of the gathering announced:

“1. March 8th is International Women’s Day, which is accepted widely on an international level. The position of the backward-minded and medieval forces ruling Afghanistan in terms of outlawing the celebration of this day is deeply oppressive and ignorant and deserves condemnation. The women of Afghanistan have as their duty to celebrate this day, every year alongside struggling women in other countries and view this as a struggle against the patriarchal system, and against the ignorant and oppressive rulers of the country.

“2. The struggle against the ‘Taliban’ and other women-hating forces in Afghanistan is the right of the women as human beings and their responsibility and we will continue this struggle despite any threats and intimidation by backward internal and foreign forces. Our struggle is just and will continue courageously....

“3. We call on all the revolutionary, democratic and national figures and forces in Afghanistan and other countries to support us in this cause and help us in the successful advance of our struggle.

“Long Live the Just Struggle of the Women of Afghanistan!

“Long Live the Righteous Struggle of Women around the World!”

The chair then opened the floor for debate. One woman promptly stood up to defend the veil. She said women should be helping men in the rear [of the war fronts] instead of complaining about oppression. This unleashed a heated debate over women's oppression in Afghanistan and the supposed “frailty” of women. The meeting ended in an electric atmosphere in song.

We add our voices to the thrill of March 8th,
We fan the fire of our anger.
Let us break the chains and unleash our fury,
We are free women, let us make ­revolution.
We will kill the oppressors and reclaim our rights,
We will uproot oppression, we will ­liberate ourselves.
Life is freedom, slavery is death.
Our war is for liberation; it spells doom for the enemy.