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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

In the global struggle over discourse and knowledge after 9/11, the voices of otherwise silenced women in Afghanistan were significantly amplified on the Internet. RAWA.org demonstrates how a Web site contended with discourses of fundamentalism and war while envisioning democracy and constructing new leadership identities for women.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

I'm the woman who has awoken

I've risen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burnt children

I've arisen from the rivulets of my brother's blood

My nation's wrath has empowered me

My ruined and burnt villages fill me with hatred against the enemy,

I'm the woman who has awoken,

I've found my path and will never return.

Excerpt from the 1981 poem “I'll never return” by Meena, the martyred leader of RAWA.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, multiple voices have contended for public space and global attention in an effort to effect understanding, action and change. Clearly, the most ubiquitous and powerful voice has been that of the U.S. government, mobilized for war against its attackers and controlling the master discourse worldwide. In contrast, what might have been one of the world's most powerless positional voices–that of Afghan women who were barred physically from public space and made mute by first Northern Alliance, then Taliban dictates and violence–instead have been broadcasting a forceful anti-fundamentalist message across the Internet. The well-organized and articulate women's rights organization RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was forced to operate without a physical presence, not even an office, in their own country or Pakistan. So they learned to use the Net to project their message, one that. after September 11. found itself spotlighted and in contention with powerful discourses of fundamentalism, war and external control of Afghan people's and, in particular women's, destinies.

The RAWA Web site invited and received significant support from around the world, support that multiplied significantly after September 11. RAWA's firm opposition to Taliban and Northern Alliance fundamentalism, both of which historically had significant U.S. support, put them into direct contention with contemporary U.S. government policies and media messages. RAWA.org called for women's rights, freedom, and secular democracy in response the spread of fundamentalism. Fears of a global monoculture and penetration by Western culture and languages helped to fuel this fundamentalism. In a moment when the whole world was training its attention on and searching using the key word “Afghanistan,” RAWA.org broadcast their “discourse of resistance,” in English and six other languages, that opposed all support for fundamentalists and, at the same time, appealed to the world's “freedom loving, democratic people” to take action. It attempted simultaneously to guide global readers beyond simplistic wartime dualities of good versus evil and towards more nuanced and situated understandings of anti-fundamentalist and democratic resistance. The Web site gave Afghan women an unprecedented voice in the contest for a new vision for Afghanistan's future and a new identity for its women.

In this paper I examine the Web site RAWA.org, in particular its Guest Book, in the context of competing post-September 11 discourses. RAWA.org is employed as an example to show how a Web site can be used to construct and broadcast new discourses and cultural identities. I speculate about how the Web site supports new learning and nurtures the development of oppositional knowledge and discourse in the context of a global war on terrorism. Issues which emerged include the problem of creating “virtual” discourse communities of resistance on the ever-changing Net without benefit of safe or stable institutional presence in the physical world. There is a further challenge in specifying the nature of the contribution of a Web site like RAWA.org, compared to traditional media, in contributing to new global understanding of and support for democracy and women's rights in Afghanistan.

RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

The Internet has played a powerful role since September 11, instantly providing news, information, and commentary from multiple global perspectives that, on the one hand, are used to construct a new national and international narrative of U.S. global power and an all-inclusive war on terrorism, but on the other hand make possible sophisticated challenges to simplistic notions of good and evil. Resisting being assigned monocultural identities as passive Internet “receivers,” RAWA members actively assert an oppositional discourse and new identity for Afghan women. The multimedia site includes extensive historical information on the struggle of Afghan women against fundamentalism, as well as political commentary, news from Afghanistan, incident reports, invitations to act on RAWA's behalf, artistic expressions, and an unedited Guest Book. Its photos, videos, narrative and poetry create a multimodal environment, employing the Net as a communication technology that has “a direct impact on the media and on the formation of images, representations, and public opinion” (McLaren, 1999, 15).

Twenty years after the founding of RAWA by a group of Afghan women intellectuals dedicated to struggling for human rights and social justice, the one-page Web site was started in 1997 by a few RAWA members with no previous Web experience. They were ecstatic when they discovered that there had been three visitors to their site. Initially, the site, an electronic version of their bilingual (Persian and Pashtu) magazine Payam-e-Zan, Women's Message, was designed to reflect the organization's political program—democracy, secularism, and women's rights—and their clandestine social work in Afghanistan and with refugees in Pakistani schools for girls and boys, as well as in hospitals, vocational training programs for women. It eventually expanded to include graphic images of the violence of the Taliban and a calling of the global community to action, introducing RAWA to the world and the world to RAWA. By February 2001, within 24 hours of the second appearance of RAWA members on the Oprah Winfrey show, there had been over 300,000 hits. While RAWA members quickly became Web page experts and continued to develop and maintain the pages themselves, they had increasing help from individuals around the world, especially for translations from English into 6 languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Persian) and a growing number of host servers to accommodate the exponential growth of the site that counted over 4,800,000 hits by November 2002, 5 years after its arrival on the Net. Unable to organize or even conduct social programs openly in Afghanistan or Pakistan, RAWA women utilized their 2001-2002 Golden Web award-winning site for multiple tasks. “The Web site is our only office,” explained Tahmeena Faryal, a RAWA representative who visited the U.S. in October 2001.

Without public or permanent office space, the Web site became like the organization's permanent archive. It documents their work, solicits support, shows the work of donors, responds to critics and corrects misconceptions. Incident reports from Afghanistan detail the situations facing women and their communities while photographs show women working in schools, hospitals, and camps. There are hundreds of media reports and RAWA's political statements on the translated pages that since September 2001 have grown to include Japanese, Chinese, Basque, Catalan, Dutch and Esperanto. Graphic videos and photos (and warnings about the explicit nature of the material) depict the violent conditions in the country and the women at work. Photos of two recent book covers of Zoya's Story and Veiled Courage are links to Amazon.com where the books can be purchased directly. The site has a multi-layered “Take Action” section where visitors can sign petitions, send letters, organize fundraisers, donate money, sign up to distribute flyers and volunteer to help educate. Visitors are encouraged to send e-mail or sign the Guest Book (joining the 4890 posters since August 21, 2001). Posters include one-time and more frequent visitors who post statements or exchange comments expressing support, outrage, anger, questions, promises and more. Since gathering around the first arriving e-mail back in 1997, RAWA members began to translate e-mails and Guest Book postings to send to refugee camps in Pakistan where there is no dependable electricity, let alone reliable Internet access. Women working in the camps claim that such messages provide critical moral support for members struggling against hopelessness in dangerous and depressing conditions. Families in the camps are heartened by the international show of support in messages that also become texts for literacy and English classes and tools to demonstrate the differences between the U.S. people and their government. After September 11, RAWA received 500-1000 e-mails each day and thousands of postings to their guest book. Although by December 2001 they had begun an automatic response for commonly asked questions, the organization that claimed only 2000 members had over 16,000 e-mail messages to reply to and continued to try to respond personally to each one, a multi-step process requiring multiple language translations. By summer of 2002 e-mail was back down to about 50 a day, and the organization continued to try to respond with personal replies. Over time, e-mail also became the sole mechanism for organizing material support and international educational tours. But in spite of all of the attention to e-mail and their Web site, RAWA members continue to be most interested in their on-the-ground work in Afghanistan where the Internet is rarely accessible and the paper publications that launched RAWA.org remain their primary communication tools (Brodsky, 2003).

Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

Globalization has created unprecedented misery as capital investment moves in and out of national economies concerned with return on investment but not with long-term social or economic development. At the same time, it has created new mobility of peoples, cultures and ideas in an unimagined crossing of actual and virtual borders. As a result, people who otherwise may not have been considered in setting the direction of their local communities, countries or the world now have new challenges and opportunities for communication and learning regardless of geographic location. How is the Internet contributing to the creation of new democratic spaces for discussion, information dissemination, and the creation of knowledge?

With globalization's weakening of the nation-state has come a sharper focus on the local, with identity, culture, and technology uses constructed locally against global backdrops. Differences have become dangerously volatile with the need for constant negotiations and renegotiations of language, culture and discourse in an increasingly connected yet profoundly diverse and often fragmented world. The New London Group, an international collaboration of educators, writes,

Local diversity and global connectedness mean not only that there can be no standard; they also mean that the most important skill students need to learn is to negotiate regional, ethnic, or class-based dialects; variations in register that occur according to social context; hybrid cross-cultural discourses; the code switching often to be found within a text among different languages, dialects, or registers; different visual and iconic meanings; and variations in the gestural relationships among people, language, and material objects. Indeed, this is the only hope for averting the catastrophic conflicts about identities and spaces that now seem ever ready to flare up. (The New London Group 2000, 14)

How well do computer-mediated communications support negotiated learning of counter-discourses in which people discuss race, culture, gender, class, language, or democracy within virtual communities or networks? Many educators believe that CMC creates new opportunities for transformative learning through high-interest material, multiple sources of information, reduced isolation, increased authoring opportunities and authentic, purposeful communication. CMC has also transformed ways of acquiring knowledge by fostering participation in complex international collaborations, cross-cultural and collectively risky problem-solving, Diaspora communities, and enabling access to rich multiplex visuals, sounds and text together in support of less abstract meaning-making. Further, CMC has increased opportunities for engaging in peer-to-peer language and cultural learning and creating interdisciplinary opportunities for language acquisition and cultural literacy (Luke, 2000; Mitra, 1997; Rheingold, 1993; Schofield et al., 1997; Warschauer, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2003).

However, researchers point to how the same technologies support neoliberal policies and globalization from above that have resulted in a commercialized and ubiquitous Western media and penetration of Western culture. The Net and other media portray and help create a monocultural and monolingual world full of discourses and images that hearken back to an era of conquest and colonialism. At the same time in many parts of the world where English or other super-languages prevail, the loss of indigenous languages and linguistic diversity mirrors the loss of biodiversity resulting from unfettered human demand for natural resources and accompanying loss of habitat (Phillipson, 2000; Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000; Terralingua, 2002). Other observers are troubled by the Net's use as a platform, gathering space and organizing tool for racist hate groups and violent pornographers (Beckles, 2001; Hughes, 1999) as well as its role in loss of community, growing inequities of access, a flattening overload of undifferentiated information, its shrinking public space and exploding commercialization and uncritical stances towards the its own educational potential (Burbules & Torres, 2000; Eriksen, 2001; Postman, 1992).

Quantitative change brought about by networks may be leading to what Ulf Hannerz calls “emergent, hybridizing Webs of meaning” (1992, 264) between rapidly changing and potentially shifting centers and peripheries. Using the metaphor of Creole cultures, Hannerz asserts, “The cultural processes of Creolization are not simply a matter of constant pressure from the center toward the periphery, but a much more creative interplay” (1992, p. 265). Hannerz predicts that while asymmetries and center-periphery relations will remain, centers and peripheries may change places as peripheries “talk back” and use the same technologies as the center to advance their agendas for social change. Certainly the Internet has provided a powerful tool for peripheries to “talk backm” from Diaspora communities reconnecting to their homelands (Miller and Slater, 2000) to the Zapatistas, who used the Internet to organize the instantaneous global solidarity that served to shield them from the Mexican military's traditionally violent counterattack. Describing grass roots responses to international capital's globalization from above, Douglas Kellner writes, “Cyber-activists have been attempting to carry out globalization from below, developing networks of solidarity and circulating struggle throughout the planet” (2000, p. 313). RAWA joins this emerging network of ethnic and minority communities, women's and AIDS organizations, environmental and linguistic diversity groups in taking advantage of the Internet's contested terrain and the possibilities for voice “for those interested in the politics and culture of the future [who] should be clear on the important role of the new public spheres and intervene accordingly…” (Kellner, 2000, p. 315).

The democratic potential of the Net for promoting “civic pluralism” will partly rely on its being constructed by those capable of negotiating global differences, creating multiple, complex meanings and crossing boundaries. Like other activist Web sites, RAWA.org meets Schuler's (1996) criteria for effective, participatory Web sites and on-line communities through its unedited Guest Book, its clarity of purpose and its accountability to its constituency. The site reinforces strong ties among members while linking a weak network of associates in an exchange of basic distributed information (Granovetter, 1982). Thirteen years ago, McLuhan and Powers wrote that “world culture is repositioning itself to accept a completely different perceptive mode—the mode of the dynamically many centered” (1989, p. ix). Since then, many have joined them in hoping that the Net may well be found to be a powerful contributor to transforming users into members of a vast many-centered community of connected actors no longer obliged to listen passively to a single broadcasting center (Preece, 2000). The one thing almost everyone can agree on is the profound potential of the Net in the promulgation of ideas, social construction of knowledge, and dissemination of information. It is a place, a space, of discourse and identity that can be at once a mirror, a looking glass, a fortune-teller's orb, a telescope or a kaleidoscope.

A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks by fundamentalists, a simplistic narrative of good versus evil has attempted to justify a contraction of democracy in the U.S. and support for unilateral military actions overseas. Essentialized, simplistic language of “good guys beating bad guys” continues to be broadcast and debated on Web sites, news groups, bulletin boards and circulating e-mails. Immediately following the September 11 attacks, President George Bush used TV, radio and the White House Web site to call for a “crusade” (hearkening back to an era of Christian fundamentalism) and told the world that “justice will be done” to the “enemies of freedom” by the “loving,”“giving,”“strong,”“free,”“democratic,” people of America (Bush, 2001; Mugambi, personal communication, 2 October 2001). Such U.S. narratives of simplistic patriotism, purity and bravery against foreign and evil “others” attempted to chart a simple and direct way out of a complex, horrifying mess. But part of the complex mess was language itself. The oversimplified use of “evil” to justify violent action against an “enemy” is a notion associated with fundamentalism. The “evil” being discussed across national, religious and ideological borders clearly did not mean the same thing to all nor was it restricted to Al-Qaeda. But it did mean that an “enemy” was named and targeted.

“Evil” became commonplace in the media, appearing in e-mails circulated widely after September 11 and on the RAWA guest book, illustrating the divergent meanings and different discourses it served. The Guest Book posting below shows what can happen with the word “evil” when this inimical categorization extends from Osama Bin Laden to all Muslims, and focuses on Muslim women.

On September 11, 2001 our country was attacked by militant Muslims, in an evil attack that killed thousands of innocent souls and destroyed many buildings that took years to build. This kind of evil has not been seen in the world since HITLER murdered millions. Osama Bin Laden is Hitler re-incarnate, and will be killed before he can create more evil in the world… Islam must be a very evil religion to permit such acts to be perpetrated in its name. Muslim women create evil in their wombs. (Marsha, 2001, November 23)

Fundamentalist terrorist attacks seemed to provoke, from citizens and leaders, fundamentalist responses broadcast on TV, printed in newspapers, called in on talk radio or posted on the Internet.

The Net is a place of vision, visuals and language, with powerful potential to inspire or provoke. The carefully situated language and images of RAWA.org must be understood in the context of a revitalized master discourse that opposes evil with good, Taliban (men) defeated by U.S. military (men), and feudalism replaced with modern constructs of Western civilization. A message in the unedited RAWA guest book, a complex collection of multiple perspectives, language, culture, and identities, demonstrates a U.S. poster's response to the Web site and the complicating of this poster's previous hatred towards all Afghans:

2 days after the WTC and Pentagon attacks, I wanted to know more about Afghanistan, being in the US Military I thought it might be a good idea. I originally had hatred in my mind for the whole country, ignorant as it seems. I now realize how wrong I was to have these feelings towards the whole country…If I am ever sent to Afghanistan as a soldier I will remember what I have seen, and tell all my fellow soldiers. (Binder, 2001, September 13)

That language and media representations of identity reveal and create power differentials is no surprise; the potent expression of linguistic and representational national values is provoked in times of trauma and war.

At the same time there were calls for a more textured response and willingness to struggle for understanding. “I have a problem with this ‘evil’ thing,” said Eve Ensler, the playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” and an avid RAWA supporter, when interviewed for Salon.com. “Evil is a really problematic word…Evil is reductionist. It destroys ambiguity and takes away duality and complexity; it says that they are the dark and we are the light, they are evil and we are good. That's all a lie. We all have the capacity for great goodness and love, and we all have the capacity for terrible deeds” (Brown, 2001).

Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

People in the U.S. were asked to support a war on terrorism overseas and at home on the basis of security, unity and patriotism. Patriotism and defense was defined as guarding the U.S. and world from terrorists, tightening national borders, protecting U.S. interests around the world, scrutinizing immigrants, especially Arabs, and protecting Afghan women. Powerful pedagogic authorities–the U.S. government and media–took 24-7 pedagogic actions: speeches, articles, TV, Web sites, radio talk shows, the sending of troops, and the frequent announcement of wartime military spending and immigration laws and policies, acts that nonetheless hid the arbitrary power of the U.S. government (Bourdieu & Passaron, 1998) and rendered dissent difficult at best. After all, the U.S. government, many in the U.S. would agree, is the “natural and legitimate leader” of the “free” world. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, could there have been any other scenario? Thus wartime discourse could claim a profound and seemingly total power as it appeared to be simply patriotism. Unconsciously accepted as natural and right, U.S. patriotism and nationalism, the stars and stripes, in God we trust, good vs. evil, ridding the world of terrorism, and the protection of women, served to reproduce and reinforce a rapidly popularized discourse of war.

Drawing on simplistic Cold War understandings of the enemy “other,” the Bush administration called for a return to clearly defined and defendable national and identity borders, distinctly discernible motives, and obvious heroes confronting equally manifest villains. Positioning itself not only as the enemy of Al-Qaeda but also as the champion of downtrodden Afghans, the U.S. government and media began to spotlight the plight of Afghan women sequestered beneath the burqa. Several postings by U.S. men to RAWA.org echoed promises to rescue Afghan women:

Don't worry. The USA is on the way. The Taliban will not be in power 6 months from now. The Taliban is siding with the Wrong man and I will enjoy watching Afghanistan being liberated. USA USA USA!!! (Alexander, 2001, September 14)

Tell your men. We are coming. We are not Russia. We are the U.S. and this time we will not hold our full power back as in Vietnam or Iraq. The women should go some place safe. (Presley, 2001, September 14)

We are looking for Osama. When we have him we will leave…(Alan, 2001, November 25)

Seeking (to be) clearly recognized, uncomplicated heroes, these posters expressed a patriotic belief in the linear progress of human societies led by male champions of weak and sometimes captive women.

Powerful classic messages of strong good men defeating powerful evil are at work; Grimm's fairytales may have provided the story lines and protagonists for these would-be modern heroes, and Afghanistan was not the first time that the U.S. government positioned itself as the champion of women as part of a justification for military intervention. Abuse of women and their country by then Panamanian President Manuel Noriega was claimed as part of the rationale for the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Cynthia Weber writes,

In his speech to the American public outlining the justifications for intervention in Panama, Bush explicitly states that what all the fighting is about is sexual abuse. Panamaian “forces under his [Noriega's] command shot and killed an unarmed serviceman; wounded another; arrested and brutally beat a third serviceman; and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with sexual abuse. That was enough.” (1994, p. 182)

A few years later, George H. Bush led the nation in proclaiming the U.S. a brave and technologically sophisticated protector of humanity against Iraqi evil and immorality. Abouali Farmanfarmaian writes,

The campaign to paint immorality on Iraq and moral righteousness on the United States started…with a sudden and massive infusion of reports on Iraqi violations, focusing particularly on sexual atrocities. The images and concomitant fears of rape were present from the outset. As Bush desired American outrage to escalate, the “violation of Kuwait's sovereignty” became increasingly tied to sexual atrocities committed by the Iraqis, and infanticide, rape, and torture became the main focus of attention. (1998, p. 286)

Most recently, First Lady Laura Bush joined the effort to champion the plight of Afghan women and the potential for U.S. heroism in a November 16, 2001 radio address and Web posting that was coordinated with the release of a State Department report condemning Al Qaeda and Taliban abuses of women and children. Crimes and abuses directed at women by the Northern Alliance were not mentioned in the report or Bush's radio address or Web site. Laura Flanders (2001, December 14), in a Znet commentary wrote,

The Bush team's sudden excitement about presidential addresses and women's rights helped put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign…Coverage of Afghanistan has singled out one totem of women's oppression: the burqa. The public has seen some, but far less, reporting on women's struggle for fundamental rights – the right to education, to healthcare, to personal safety – perhaps because of the U.S. Allies' rotten record on granting women any of those.

In photographic images reminiscent of the Allied Forces liberating Nazi concentration camps, world media celebrated smiling Afghan women shedding the burqa. On March 8, 2002, Laura Bush addressed the UN Commission on the Status of Women and used her Web site to highlight U.S. support for Afghan women, affirming the U.S. mission to protect human rights in honor of International Women's Day (IWD). Historically a holiday commemorating the struggles of working class women and most-often celebrated by progressive movements and socialist countries, IWD has not often been officially acknowledged in the U.S. or ever before spotlighted by a first lady. Applauding his leadership and offering some limited humanitarian assistance and a symbolic children's dictionary (most likely in English) to Chairman Karzai, Bush, the feminine face of the U.S. government, posted her own remarks and photos of her press conference prominently on the first lady Web site within whitehouse.gov. In a Web-based challenge, RAWA published a detailed 12-page statement for IWD in which they detailed why “in Afghanistan women still don't feel safe enough to throw away their wretched burqa shrouds” (RAWA, 2002) and criticized Karzai for surrounding himself with well-known fundamentalist criminals who would, they predicted, cause chaos and eventually seize power. Decrying continuing U.S. support for the fundamentalist Northern Alliance forces (“one fundamentalist band cannot be fought by siding with and supporting another”) and the U.S. military campaign (“a fracas between patron and ex-protégés”), they also celebrated U.S. people for the thousands of e-mail letters, significant financial support, and the visit of September 11 victims' families to Afghanistan's own bombing victims. RAWA.org and whitehouse.gov, both addressing issues for Afghan women on IWD, displayed extremely different interpretations of the current situation in Afghanistan and prospects for women's leadership and identities.

Representations of “real” experiences of oppressed or endangered women have served political interests since the lynching of Black men alleged to have raped white women. In their edited work Haunting Violations, Hesford and Kozol explore “how representations of the ‘real’ have been used in different historical moments to construct hierarchies within communities, to silence the views of oppressed groups, or conversely, how ideologies of truth and authenticity are used by marginalized groups to contest dominant narratives and to stimulate resistance” (2001, p. 3). The “real” facts and images of brutalized women in Afghanistan are used simultaneously to justify continued fundamentalist control and U.S. military actions in the name of women, while at the same time RAWA.org posts similar photos and media reports as proof of the need for Afghan women to struggle for control of their own destinies in the face of fierce opposition by fundamentalist men opposed to women's demands for freedom and full participation. Several postings to the guest book by men from different cultures demonstrate the virulence of the opposition that RAWA faces from all sides.

IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOUR SITUATION GET OFF YOUR FREAKIN BUTTS AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. STOP WEARING THE BURQUA. ETC. ETC. BUT STOP BLAMING THE USA. I AM SICK OF YOU WHINING AND COMPLAINING WOMEN. (GET OFF YOUR FREAKIN BUTTS AND DO SOMETHING, 2001, November 24)

YOU ARE GIVE A VERY BAD NAME TO AL ISLAM. WE MUST LEARN PRACTISE OF FEMALE CIRCUMSISON FROM OUR SOMALI BROTHERS TO PURIFY AND CONTROL WOMENS LIKE YOU. (Khan, A., 2001, September 11)

We shaved and joined population and wait for you to come back to afganistan-pakistan you communist rawafeminazi radical anti-family anti-religion pro-homosexual pro-gay lesbian dyke european and american spies-we wait for you… (Bin Laden, 2001, November 24)

You idiots are another set-up by the west to create ashamed Muslims. Fighting for rights is fine but fighting for the US is a punishment by death… Do not become a stooge of the West and the US…God May send all Munafiqs like you to hell. (Malik, 2001, November 21)

The hybridity of RAWA's position with its critique of fundamentalism that encompasses historic U.S. support for the Northern Alliance, its opposition to U.S. bombings, and its advocacy of women's leadership and call for a secular democracy brings them into contention with a wide range of forces: fundamentalists of all kinds, Muslims who fear Western cultural encroachment., the U.S. government, and anyone who challenges Afghan women's rights and capacity for leadership. While individuals and human rights and women's organizations from other countries joined the support for RAWA, the complexity of their position was challenging even for supporters. The cultural and religious meanings of the veil for Muslim women and the continuum of Afghan women's attitudes towards wearing the burqa and continuing to wear it in the context of concerns for women's safety under newly established Northern Alliance rule were missed by feminists focused on the burqa as a political symbol and brushed aside by Western media's liberation-from-the veil celebrations. Postings from U.S. women spoke of new awareness and commitments to act, the seeds for what could become new cultural models, but retained a framework where the West is the exemplar of women's and human rights.

The horrible things that have befallen the women of Afghanistan are often hard for those of us in the U.S. to realize. From now on, I swear to do my part to show my fellow Americans that not everyone in the world shares our rights as human beings and women. All human beings deserve these rights and I will not have rest until justice is done. (Brown, 2001, November 15)

This is such an amazing Web site. I am here, 20 years old and am one of the millions of american females who have taken for granted the liberties and freedoms that we as women of America have…My own country has killed innocent civilians and to me, that is not acceptable. I feel so insignificant and small, but would give my heart to help Afghan women for a better way of life and a brighter future… (Gina, 2001, November 24)

Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

How do women forced out of schools and behind the veil learn to be more than they have been assigned or summoned to be? A national trauma may cause people to reflect and question, some to even crave new learning along with an urgent sense of needing to become more or different, to make a difference. But how do people actually construct or create new or oppositional knowledge and identities? Research on languages and literacies argues that knowledge is constructed and acquired within primary discourse communities, lifeworlds, or communities of practice where the lived experience among family and community provide the context and the content for making meaning. It is largely an intuitive, experiential, invisible, and seemingly natural process of becoming, exemplified by a child's ability to begin to fluently speak her native language without formal instruction (Gee, 1992; Lave and Wenger, 1991; New London Group, 1996). At the same time, humans engage in conscious, active and metacognitive activities focused on patterns, structures and lessons, what we most often call teaching and learning. Afghan girls sitting in clandestine schools studying mathematics and literature are surely involved in learning tasks. At the same time they live as apprentices within communities of women whose daily lives are dedicated to helping each other become fully participating members of an envisioned democratic society. Their interactions and activities are directed towards common goals; their relationships infused with respect for women's leadership, democratic participation in decision making, caring for poor families and building communities of concern. As the girls learn the meta-lessons of history, they are being enculturated to a new social identity and situated meanings that allow them to join a community dedicated to women's rights and leadership whose discourse has been brutally contested by fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A few RAWA members “learned” how to develop a Web site, a “teaching” tool where people could visit to “learn” about women in Afghanistan, all metacognitive tasks with potentially powerful learning outcomes. But the Web site is more than an Internet classroom full of textual and visual information. Its rich, multimodal elements enable visitors to not only read text but also picture and hear graphic stories of women's oppression, violence and resistance. Visitors document outrage, anger, hope, support and learning in the guest book and encourage each other to take meaningful action to support the organization's transformative efforts. From Copenhagen, an Afghan woman wrote, “Hmm, It's the first time I have seen this homepage, and I think it's absolutely amazing, u r really helping us, I mean the afg women” (Farkhunda, 2002). Similarly, women from Iran who face some of the same conditions as Afghan women wrote about their understanding and gratitude for RAWA courage and leadership. “I know about your uphill struggle since theres a similarity between wemons right in Iran and Afghanistan. I wish you happiness and luck please don't give up” (Fariborz, 2002). Another poster added, “Long live the struggle for freedom for all weman in the world. Thank you RAWA. We are fighting in Iran against our kind of Taleban and one day we will be free as well” (Taraneh, 2002).

Long before September 11, RAWA members worked under burqa cover in Afghanistan and Pakistan to organize demonstrations, distribute their paper publications, run refugee camps, schools and health clinics throughout Pakistan, and communicate via their Web site with the rest of the world. Increasingly they understood the potential power of the Net for creating oppositional knowledge and asserting an identity profoundly contested from all sides: within their country, within parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds and by powerful interests in the West. Discovered by a mass audience in the West largely through their increasingly sophisticated, multimedia Web site, RAWA.org attracted the attention of playwright Eve Ensler and media personality Oprah Winfrey along with others who had the power to amplify the organization's message. Post-September 11, the struggle to clarify their message intensified as RAWA was forced into contention with a dominant wartime ethos claiming to protect women while aligning with violent Northern Alliance fundamentalists. Always clear about their opposition to fundamentalism as practiced by both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, RAWA's message suddenly came into contention with a U.S. strategy to defeat the Taliban through supporting, if grudgingly, the Northern Alliance.

With the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan inaccessible to RAWA members, they relied more heavily than ever on the public space of the Net to host their Web site in order to reach Afghan women in the Diaspora, support members working clandestinely, and educate the world about their anti-fundamentalist message; it was a strategic intervention to influence the international construction of knowledge about the need and potential for democracy and women's rights in Afghanistan. An Afghan woman posting from Sweden wrote,

Dear sisters! I say thank you for important work. I left the country in 1992 after Mojahadin (KASIF) came to power, I am a doctor. I had a good job and respect in my country but they tooke it away from me only becase I am a woman. I support your activities and remember you have lots of supporters among Afghan women experts in Europe. We think Afghanistan needs for a secular state who can understand women problems and social difficulties. Taleban and onther Islamists know how to rape to cut hands and bomb the people. (Faryad, 2002)

RAWA's creative use of the Internet's public space is a historical extension of women struggling for access and control of public spaces in order to project oppositional messages and construct new knowledge, identities and lives. Harriet Tubman led escaped slaves to the U.S. north following “underground railroad” trails only made “public” and accessible at night; early suffragists and labor leaders spoke out from street corners when halls were denied to protesting women; and late twentieth-century women in the West protesting violence against women “took back the night” streets as temporarily safe public spaces.

RAWA.org's authority is derived from the graphic presentation of “real” Afghan women telling their own stories, showing their photos of girls studying in secret schools, videos of RAWA rallies alongside a public execution of a woman, poetry, and songs. While the site is full of facts and information, its persuasive power lies primarily in an expressive culture in which the violence of fundamentalist oppression is revealed alongside resistance and community building practices of women deeply committed to and engaged in democratic development. Eve Ensler described her own summoning to action by the Web site.

We had found RAWA on the Web, and had asked if we could come and interview them. We met them in a hotel in Pakistan where they interviewed us to decide if they would take us into their clandestine world. Then they made the decision to trust us and took us in…It's funny, because I've become RAWA's greatest defender: I feel like I'm defending women who are struggling for their lives! (Brown, 2001)

While RAWA relied on their Web site to articulate their political positions, educate about their social programs and garner international moral and financial support, it was also essential to the women's own struggle against hopelessness and despair. E-mail messages and guest book postings by people from around the world were translated and shared with members working in the most difficult and isolated conditions. Many of the 500-1000 daily e-mail messages expressed support and chronicled new learning and commitments to help from distant geographic and cultural places:

When I first learned about the Taliban several years ago while flipping through a womans magazine-Marie Claire-I was shocked…I had heard virtually nothing at the time about what was happening to the women of Afghanistan. Since that moment the people of your country have always been on my mind. Weeks ago I discussed the Taliban rule with a few co-workers who knew absolutely nothing about the conditions not only of women there-but of everyone. (Lanie, 2001, September 15)

Im a 15 year old Caadian girl and i s a documntary about what is happening to Afgani women! It really disturbed me and I want to hellp any way I can!! (Jasaitis, 2001, November 21).

I was searching the internet and came across this, and I just felt I had to say: This is very Inspirational to women across the world! I am a teenager (16 years old), but I felt very upslifted after learning about meena and other things on here, I also am muslim and I am so proud to know a muslim woman in the past has accomplished something that is still led by other great people! Arijana. (Arijana, 2001, November 15).

i entered taliban in a browser looking for the truth… i have found it my sisters my heart weeps deep chasms of grief for you. i will never forget this, i vow too help change this with you, now and far into the future. this and all causes for justice and truth are the lifeblood in my soul, i will pray for you all and spread the word to everyone I know… (Maynard, 2001, September 15)

Such postings exemplify the cognitive dissonance experienced by first-time visitors who testify to having had little exposure to the complexities and violence of women's experience in Afghanistan or their organized resistance. “Moments of trauma or crisis most often reveal our dependence on the ‘real,’ the authentic, and the truthful, especially when we seek legitimacy or power in response to that trauma,” write Wendy Hesford and Wendy Kozol. “Paradoxically, it is also traumatic moments that most often destabilize and expose the ideological premises underpinning claims to the ‘real’” (2001, p. 8). Contested media representations of Afghan women demonstrated just such a struggle over who could claim to act and speak on behalf of Afghan women. RAWA.org developed a tenacious, multi-modal “voice” that took full advantage of the Net to tell their own story and speak out forcefully about their vision for a new future for Afghan women.

Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

“There is a time and place,” David Harvey writes, “in the ceaseless human endeavor to change the world, when alternative visions, no matter how fantastic, provide the grist for shaping powerful political forces for change. I believe we are precisely at such a moment” (2000, p. 195). Profound differences in the global distribution of power and resources have created unstable, shifting and situational alliances and identities. A critical perspective that accounts for shifting symbolic meanings, the powerful motivation of identification with difference and oppression, and the inevitability of literal and figurative border-crossings is not only possible but essential to constructing new understanding and action (McLaren, 1994). RAWA used its Web site to reject fundamentalism, challenge wartime discourse and construct a new discourse of secular democracy and women's leadership in Afghanistan. RAWA members and Web designers, along with their supporters, had only the limited language of current experience and the enormous leadership task of imagining that which is beyond the bounds of current imaginations. How does one imagine and prepare to lead the tasks of peaceful, democratic development in Afghanistan in the context of decades of disregard, war and humanitarian crises? Zygmunt Bauman captures the enormity of such a visionary and leadership challenge: “…the kind of society we live in limits such strategy(ies) as may critically and militantly question its principles and thus open the way to new strategies, at present excluded because of their non-viability….” (1996, p. 35). Thus a new identity of leadership for RAWA women and a truly global democratic discourse is “born as a problem,” a challenge of belonging to and transforming a world that shifts like sand in a storm (Bauman 1996, p. 19). Stuart Hall writes, “identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not ‘who we are” or ‘where we come from’, so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves” (1996, p. 4). The Net, itself ever changing, seems a well-matched medium for these complex processes of becoming. RAWA.org, its institution and messages, like the Net in which it is held and nurtured, is contentious, inherently unstable and contextualized by events that themselves will continue to shape the future of the women and the Internet as a medium for democratic participation or exclusion.

Unable to draw on what is known to envision what might become, people around the world go to the Net to understand unforeseen and unimagined worlds. The attacks in the U.S. and the crisis in Afghanistan created an urgent need for new global discourses of peace and democracy; it was a powerfully potential moment for transformative action. With Afghan women designing and broadcasting their oppositional message in the face of nearly complete lack of public access, brutal physical and intellectual repression, and a powerful contending wartime discourse, their Net-amplified voices have played a significant role in teaching, mentoring and inspiring visitors from around the globe and in building an international network capable of supporting the creation of an alternative reality for Afghan women and people we may never completely know. Nor can we predict how the ever-changing nature of the Net will affect the Afghan women's future efforts. But we do know that in spite of all that the RAWA women cannot control, the Web site and its representations and visions are theirs. Perhaps this time of global struggles for power and democracy as well as precipitate technological change is best captured by an old Navajo protection song quoted by Gloria Anzaldúa. When going into battle, the warriors sang, “Now among the alien gods with weapons of magic am I” (1999, p. 33).

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References

Gratitude is due to the courageous RAWA members who brought their message and stories to UMBC and to Dr. Anne Brodsky for her committed support of their efforts. I am grateful to Dr. Pat McDermott and David Truscello for creative conversations about new ways of looking at the social construction of oppositional networks of knowledge on and off the Net.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. RAWA.ORG: No Office but a Web site
  5. Promoting Democratic Discourses and Identities on the Net
  6. A Discursive Struggle: Good Versus Evil from Multiple Perspectives
  7. Assigned Identities: Women in Need of Protection?
  8. Asserting Identity: Women Constructing New Democratic Discourse
  9. Conclusion: Net Nurturing of Oppositional Discourses and Identities
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References
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