With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan


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Beyond the buzz created when President Karzai appointed Dr. Sima Samar as Minister of Women's Affairs in —only to later abandon her in the face of political opposition—lies a deeper history of Afghan women's struggle. For 26 years the women of RAWA and their supporters have committed themselves to empowering all Afghan women and peacefully building a free and secular democracy in Afghanistan. As Brodsky shows, integral to RAWA's resilience has been their maintenance at once of a culture of secrecy, democratic mechanisms for providing constructive critique and resolving arguments among members, and a policy of training members in multiple jobs.

Brodsky emphasizes the importance of democratic and collective leadership in ensuring RAWA's continued existence and in serving as an example of the type of society RAWA seeks to create. Much attention is devoted to Meena, a student who founded RAWA at the age of 20 and was assassinated 10 years later in The charismatic Meena served as the prototype of sacrifice that inspires and influences RAWA members today. Her memory and martyrdom create a second layer of connection between RAWA members—the first being their mutual commitment to women's rights and human rights for all Afghans.

Brodsky argues that RAWA's focus on human rights for all has attracted many male supporters who might not otherwise support a women's organization. Of course, there are also men who proudly support the organization because of its explicit focus on women's equality. Only Afghan women are admitted as members, for well-argued reasons, but RAWA embraces these male supporters and the vital roles they play.

RAWA event on the International Women's Day

Furthermore the virtues attributed to her of purity, suffering and obedience make her figurehead role in the religion not a positive one, but one that reinforces the apparent fragility of women. What becomes apparent is that mainstream Islamic thinkers can use specific symbols and figures to reinforce conformity rather than challenge it. While valuable as attempts at showing Islam as mutable, what is left out in the prevailing legalistic and cultural examinations of gender in Islam is the possibility for 94 Emadi, Hafizullah Repression, Resistance, and Women in Afghanistan pg 30 95 Nasir, Jamal The status of Women under Islamic Law Graham and Trotman, London.


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It does little to alter the perception that what it means to live a female human life is different from what it means to live a male human life and devalues the female experience. Furthermore, a culture that systematically renders women invisible may produce a group like RAWA who hold a liberal-feminist perspective in an Islamic country. Also, this group will accept elements of this culture it finds distasteful in order to achieve its goals. Islamic feminism seeks to rectify the problem of the lack of acknowledgement of activism and the role of women in religious discourse, even within liberal interpretations of Islam.

The implication is that through successive generations the true meaning and intention of the religion has been lost. The solution to the violation of rights is therefore to promote moderate interpretations, and encourage female Islamic scholarship. The reformist notion of women having a place in Islamic scholarship, or the teaching of the religion is a particular taboo.

Thus the feminist discussion of the possibilities of Islamic scholarship uses terminology of reform and modernity, and is not based on the conventional understandings. This further highlights the fact that the discussion of gender in Islam cannot be separated from the wider societal context. Groups such as RAWA seek to promote secular notions of democracy and rights. The separation of religion and state is seen as key priority because the politicised religion enables the patriarchal systems of Islam greater power.

This has particular manifestations when discussing Islamic Feminism as a response to politicised Islam. Their rejectionist Islamic feminist view has developed to counter the way the conservative, patriarchal interpretations of Islam have been used within their society as a foundation for the subjugation and abuse of women. Thus this discussion of Islamic scholarship has developed from a modernist perspective of reform The situation for women in Afghanistan is a result of a complex interaction between political, personal and historical circumstances and cannot easily be attributed entirely to the religious or cultural context.

It is this complex interaction that forms the national context for the work of RAWA. This debate is significant for the analysis of RAWA, specifically in relation to the difficulty of turning the theory and moral philosophy of human rights into practical reality. This process is to be discussed in three sections, the first discussing the assumptions of universalism and the development of relativism as a response to it.

The second section will analyse the possibility of adding culture to universalism. Universalism and the relativist response The universalist versus cultural relativist debate takes up an enormous amount of the body of work concerning human rights theory.

The central question raised is the existence of universal human rights beyond the western world. Proponents of universalism make the simple statement that if one is human then one has human rights, therefore all rights are universal. There is disagreement among universalist scholars over the appropriateness of simple universal equality in framing the discussion surrounding rights.

The difficulty with an equating of rights with equality is that it discounts the prospect that different people suffer from different infringements on their liberties and may need specific or restorative rights to address this. Richard Falk proposes an alternative understanding of universalism that allows for the recognition of difference. The central relativist position on rights is that their historical grounding in western liberal democracy means demands for other cultures to adopt these standards when their history has been so different that it is a form of ethnocentrism.

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Alison Renteln asserts that this argument has enormous value in increasing awareness of the need to look beyond western constructs to understand how rights work. They operate in a very specific framework as women in Afghanistan, and their major goal is the achievement of better circumstances specifically for women in Afghanistan. A philosophical objection to the universality of rights raised by relativism is their individualistic nature. Rights, particularly first and second generation, carry with them an assumption that an individual is to be left alone, with no outside interference.

There is an argument that human rights are simply too costly for developing countries while nation building and economic development are underway. More hardline, authoritarian policies are the more proficient way of improving a country, and rights are a luxury that comes later. There is much to gain by diminishing the importance of human rights. Looking at the Taliban in Afghanistan, we can see that their particular policies have a clear agenda of keeping half their population invisible and silent Such an isolationist regime as the Taliban is always going to refuse the scrutiny that comes with endorsing human rights.

Furthermore, there is a concerted effort being made here to use culture to justify their regime and achieve legitimacy. While the Taliban may claim Islam is a separate entity that carries its own particular ideas of rights and responsibilities, they do not have complete ownership over interpreting Islam and its relationship with human rights.

Many Islamic theologians, and many Afghans, consider the Taliban interpretation to be incorrect. Who is making the claim of cultural specificity and the purpose behind the claim are just as significant, if not more so, than the claim itself. These principles come from a long tradition of theory on the inherent equality and rights of man and it has traditionally been the term man rather than people. In considering whether or not these standards of behaviour require a specific cultural justification it is important to allow for the possibility that there is no set of all encompassing Western principles determining human rights.

This is a particularly important development in the field of gender, where it has long been acknowledged that the majority of abuses against women take place hidden from view within families and personal relationships, and that culture is deployed as a justification for this. RAWA shows that culture is not a homogenous, immovable monolith. Considering the translation of rights theory into practice allows an understanding of rights on a different level from the dichotomous construction of universality and relativism.

What is left out with either emphasis is an acknowledgement that regardless of universal standards that have been set, in so many varying cultures rights are not consistently and actively realised in the daily lives of people, and women in particular. The possibility that rights are universal should not be conflated with the fact that there are enormous disparities between cultures in terms of how they should be practised.

The defining of cultural relativism and universalism leads to a perception that the two paradigms are diametrically opposed. This is somewhat of a false dichotomy however. Respect for cultural heritage, and differing interpretations of rights is not precluded within universalism. The difficult element within this is the extent to which this happens. This is useful because it attempts to ensure that the moral imperative of rights is not reduced simply because one culture is currently undertaking oppressive practices.

Adding culture to rights and rights to culture This third section will examine adding culture to rights and vice versa as a response to the problem of discrepancy in both theory and practice, and how RAWA is representative of this response. There are two key elements to this process.

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Secondly there is the obvious need for rights to be embedded within cultures and cultural practice to ensure the theory becomes reality. Theoretically, the process of adding culture to rights acknowledges both the universality of rights and the significance of culture. Universality of rights, in this sense, does not necessarily mean uniformity. There will always be the inevitable philosophical, cultural and religious divisions between various societies. So it is not culture that is the test, it is coercion.

With all our strength : the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

It is a difficult balancing act, and its practical application will vary enormously. The capabilities approach is centred on stripping away the value laden terminology of rights to focus on what is required for humans to live lives that enables them to fulfil their potential Small groups of women were taught basic literacy, and then trained to teach others. The idea of capability and locally grounded response has enormous relevance for understanding how RAWA operates as a case of the combining of culture and rights, as their focus on combining social service with political agenda has developed in order to develop the capability of women to participate and change their society.

Thus groups such as RAWA have the project of ensuring local acceptance and application of rights. Firstly allowing for the possibility that western philosophy does not have complete ownership over the moral imperative of rights does not remove the predominance of it. There are indeed examples of rights transcending the specifics of culture, such as the appeal to common humanity of the students at Tiananmen Square. From the very basic notion of gender equality, and the potential it has for transformation of society through to the interconnections it makes between basic rights to life and liberty and the social and economic rights to earn income and participate in public life can all be found in the universalist tradition.

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The idea of social justice is firmly embedded within RAWA. The conclusion that is reached is that the RAWA simply operates as a parrot of these bigger organizations, due to its financial dependence. There are several indicators that this is not an entirely accurate assessment. It is somewhat paradoxical but, by being so locally grounded, RAWA has developed not a western bias but instead a distinctive translation of universal ideas. A key indicator for this is that RAWA, as an organisation is deeply rooted in the opposition that existed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

It was widely assumed that RAWA was simply auxiliary to his work. Meena is held up as an almost saint like figure within the organisation. Her death profoundly influenced the organisation, not only in terms of leadership structure as mentioned earlier but also in terms of a shared past and creating a recommitment to the cause. Another key significant aspect of the role of Meena is that she is seen personally by many as a model. It is documented that during key personal events in her life such as her marriage, the birth of her children and the killing of her husband she was conscious of modelling the changes in society she wanted to see.

She was very deliberate in demonstrating marriage as a partnership and pregnancy and motherhood as not debilitating conditions that would stop her work This message was not intended purely for Afghan women, but for people respecting rights everywhere.

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan - Wikipedia

RAWA thus can be viewed as having a role in influencing, rather than being influenced. This is the major goal of the framing process. This is firstly in relation to support America gave Taliban members in the war against the USSR, and also its current backing of the Northern Alliance, which RAWA regards as equally destructive for Afghanistan especially during the Jehadi period when rape and torture of women was rampant.

It is somewhat of a false dichotomy because universalism can allow for the incorporation of culture into rights. Furthermore culture is a fluid entity, that can have different definitions and can evolve. The reality is that at some points RAWA deploys universalist thinking but is practically constrained by culture.

With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

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