On the surface, "Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan" is a very simple book. Since this account of the life of the founder of the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, is told for girls as well as women, the style is conventional and direct. Yet the narrative will provide a profoundly moving experience for readers of any age. In fact, the story of the young woman who at the age of 20 started the first movement for women's rights in Afghanistan, only to be assassinated 10 years later, is a page turner.
Meena's story cannot have been easy to piece together. Readers will benefit from the experience of the author, Melody Ermachild Chavis, who in her career as a private detective has investigated numerous murder cases. In the course of her research for this book, she traveled to Afghanistan to interview many of the principals -- men and women who, even after the Taliban was overthrown, were still in danger of attack by fundamentalist terrorists because of their support of women's rights.
Those readers unfamiliar with the lot of women under the Taliban will be shocked by the conditions revealed in this book. Yet the logic of the oppression will not, unfortunately, be entirely unfamiliar to Westerners, who see various forms of repression imposed on women in Christian fundamentalism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Claiming that women are spiritually and intellectually inferior as well as sexually dangerous, the Taliban promoted male domination both in the family and in public life through various forms of repression, including the imprisonment of women in the home, the imposition of the veil and the burka, the denial of the vote and of education, the exclusion of women from the clergy and places of worship, and opposition to abortion, affirmative action and the employment of women outside the home.
In 1957 -- the year Meena was born into a middle-class family in Kabul -- Afghanistan was ruled by King Zahir Shah, a monarch who supported some measure of equality for women. Afghanistan's modern history can almost be read as an exercise in violent ambivalence concerning democracy and women's rights. Amanullah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 (the year the country won full independence from Britain) until he was deposed in 1929, began a program of modernization that included education for women. Nadir Shah, king from 1929 to 1933, abolished Amanullah's reforms, but Nadir's son Zahir, who succeeded him after Nadir was assassinated, advanced Amanullah's liberalizing policies even further, establishing a constitution in 1964 that gave women the right to vote.
It was thanks to these innovations that Meena received an education -- unlike her mother, who was illiterate. Lycee Malalai, the all-girls school she attended, was named for an Afghan heroine who in 1880, when the country was invaded by Britain, had retrieved under gunfire a fallen Afghan flag and held it high until she was shot down by British soldiers. Inspired by this story and by two of her teachers who believed in the equality of women, Meena eventually became a heroine herself to countless Afghans, legendary even before her martyrdom at age 30.
After graduation, Meena intended to study law so that she could fight for women's rights in the courts. But by then the liberal atmosphere that had fostered her determination had dissipated. Three years earlier, Zahir was overthrown by his prime minister and cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who was aligned with a pro-Soviet party. Gradually Afghanistan lost its independence, and the government became unstable. Fundamentalist groups began interpreting every democratic reform as a sign of corrupting foreign influence, and emancipated women were their first targets. By 1976, when Meena entered the University of Kabul, its female students had to contend with a reign of terror as random attacks were carried out on them. The followers of the Islamic radical Burhanuddin Rabbani threw acid on the exposed legs and even the faces of women walking across the campus -- the beginning of hostilities that continue to this day.
Meena did not let these attacks stop her from attending the university or from speaking out for women. The resolve and bravado for which she was soon to become famous showed itself in a family drama culminating that year with her marriage. Meena was 19 years old. Because according to Afghan tradition a girl is considered marriageable at 13, the pressure from members of her extended family for her to wed had reached a fever pitch.