Afghanistan needs to find its own way to democracy: Malalai Joya

Women’s rights activist courts controversy, rails against warlords

ABC-Australia, The 7.30 Report, June 30, 2009
Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

Malalai Joya spent much of her childhood in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, before returning to Afghanistan in the 1990s, working to promote women's health and education. Joya was elected to parliament, has survived assassination attempts, travels with a bodyguard, but may stand again at the August election. A secular Muslim, she's a critic of fundamentalists in the Taliban and the northern alliance and says her country needs to find its own way to democracy without military intervention.


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Malalai Joya spent much of her childhood in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan before returning to her Afghanistan home in the Taliban-era of the late nineties, working underground to promote women's health and education for girls. She burst into the public eye with a brief but electrifying public appearance at a constitutional assembly in Kabul in 2003 called Loya Jirga.

Malalai Joya on ABC 7:30 report
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A meeting dominated by the powerful men of Afghanistan, including the former Mujahedeen commanders and even some ex-Taliban officials. She was 23, and all of five feet tall. 90 seconds into her address she was shut down and thrown out of the assembly. Here's what she had to say.

MALALAI JOYA, AFGHAN PARLIAMENTARIAN: My name is Malalai Joya from the Farah Province. With the permission of all those present - and in respect of the martyrs who were killed I would like to speak. I wish to criticise my compatriots in this room. Why would you allow criminals to be present at this Loya Jirga?

War lords are responsible for our country's situation. Afghanistan is the centre for national and international conflicts. They oppress women and have ruined our country. They should be prosecuted. They might be forgiven by the Afghan people but not by history.

KERRY O'BRIEN: It would be fair to say that many of the men in that room had never been spoken to like that by a woman before.

Malalai Joya was subsequently elected to parliament, but not allowed to speak, has survived assassination attempts, travels with a permanent bodyguard, moves from safe house to safe house but may stand again at the national elections in August.

A secular Muslim, she's a fierce critic of fundamentalists in both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and says her country needs to find its own way to democracy without the military intervention of America and its allies including Australia. She's here promoting her book, "Raising My Voice", and I spoke with her in Sydney.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Malalai Joya we've heard a lot about the bad things - the negatives - after you spoke out at Afghanistan's constitutional assembly in 2003. Threats to your life, the need to travel in disguise with bodyguards. What were the positives, what were the good things that came from you speaking out?

MALALAI JOYA: As you ask about my speech after Loya Jirga, the positive points I want to say that lots of support came from the innocent, poor suffering people of my country, men and women around Afghanistan. And the main positive points was that the masks of these fundamentalist war lords and criminals has been peeled for the great people around the world as they deceive them, and they are in power after 9/11 tragedy. These fundamentalist war lords of Northern Alliance become imposed on our people and continue their crimes and violence against men and women of our country.

And I got international support from different countries around the world in the US and here in Australia.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What difference did it make for you, becoming a member of parliament?

MALALAI JOYA: From the beginning in parliament when I want to talk they turn off the microphone, they threaten me these war lords, as majority of seats of parliament belongs to war lords, drug lords and criminals who destroyed Afghanistan. But today unfortunately they are in parliament and even made Amnesty Law, that criminal forgive themselves despite international condemnation. But it was easy for them to pass this law, and one reason that they expel me form parliament was that because inside of parliament I raised my voice against this.

KERRY O'BRIEN: How many assassination attempts have there been?

MALALAI JOYA: Until 2003, five times they did assassination attempts against me. Has now changing the houses and it’s up to the area that how much it is secure and how many I could spend there.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What was the attempt that came closest to succeeding?

MALALAI JOYA: One that was very close was when I went to my home village in Farah Province. When we want to return - when I went there friends and enemies all become aware that I'm there, but when we return in our way on approach they put bomb, We were lucky that before we arrived in exploded. In many times their planning has been exposed when they are planning to kill me they don't know that in every corner of Afghanistan I have my supporters and among their meetings sometimes their planning gets exposed. For example, when they want to beat me in parliament.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What real gains have been made since the fall of the Taliban for girls and for women?

MALALAI JOYA: There are not only Taliban who committed many crimes against men and women in our country. Especially women during the 30 Years War, they were the main and first victims and still many violences against them. But after 9/11 tragedy unfortunately because the US and its allies brought into power these fundamentalist Northern Alliance, who are mentally the same like Taliban but physically has been changed. They are in power and control Afghanistan.

There's no justice in Afghanistan. Even in front of the court of Laghman Province a woman burn herself because her husband do violence against her and when she go to the court there is no justice. Always these fundamentalists mix Islam with politics and use it as a weapon against women of my country.

This is a picture from 1967. That how the girls - groups by groups enjoy on the streets of Kabul as they wish. They wear clothes without scarf, and they're going to schools without worrying that someone will kidnap or rape or kill them. The US and its allies want to pretend to the people around the world, to show them this is the first time we brought women's right to Afghanistan, which is quite - lies.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But haven't there been basic human rights established for women in the constitution since 2001?

MALALAI JOYA: We have in our constitution rights for women and even some shortcomings of the constitution have, especially regarding the woman issue - it's not very clear. But if we put this constitution in practice, then should be hopefully positive changes slowly come in Afghanistan. But the problem is that today in Afghanistan we have jungle law. There is no freedom of press, while we have in our constitution and this freedom that even inside of parliament two journalists have been beaten just because they show the crimes of the war lords through TV or dare to write about their crimes or to talk about them. Some of them has been killed, like Shaima Rezayee has been killed. Like Zakia Zaki in Parwan in her house has been killed as she was a brave woman who always said the truth. Shokiba Sanga Amaaj in Kabul under the eyes and nose of the thousands of US troops has been killed. Ajmal Naqshbandi was a young journalist by Taliban has been kidnapped and become beheaded.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Will the election change anything?

MALALAI JOYA: Our people has no hope on this election. It's a showcase for US Government under the shield of gun war lords, drug lords, awful corruption and occupation forces, has no legitimacy at all.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But do you...

MALALAI JOYA: Only one puppet can't be replaced with another puppet.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You have been critical of President Barack Obama for increasing the American military presence in Afghanistan. But without the Americans, and NATO in Afghanistan, wouldn't your country simply descend again into a dangerous civil war, essentially between the war lords and the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

MALALAI JOYA: Everyone is talking about this time the civil war happen but what's going on today - let's do talk about - itself is like a civil war. Today our people are between two enemies, internal enemies Taliban, who are anti-US terrorists - and Northern Alliance, who are pro-US terrorists.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Where will your people, as you call them, find the strength and the power to defeat both the fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance, the war lords and the Taliban?

MALALAI JOYA: I strongly believe that no nation can donate liberation to another nation. This is the responsibility of our own people to fight for their rights to achieve values like democracy and women's rights, human rights in our country. It's a prolonged struggled, it's a risky struggle full of hardships and challenges but I trust on my people. On the history of my country.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Let me put this proposition - and this is what you are arguing against - that the only way to a true democracy has to be a very slow very painful one, maybe over decades, but that it can only happen, if in the short-term, America and NATO work to beat the Taliban and give your people a chance then to focus on democratically overcoming the war lords and the fundamentalists?

MALALAI JOYA: Only the democratic-minded men and women in some parties in Afghanistan, modern parties, democratically-minded intellectuals ... we have a democrat men and women of my country, they are the only alternative for the bright future of Afghanistan as people trust on them and they don't have bloody hands and they really believe in democracy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You have been banned from attending the parliament, even though you are still a member of parliament. Will you run in the next election?

MALALAI JOYA: Many requests coming from people from different parts of Afghanistan. When directly underground I have an appointment with them. When they are calling me and even they are asking me to run for the presidential election and also for parliamentary election that what we can do. But as they wish I will do that, but at least now I am not sure about my tomorrow as these enemies, these fundamentalists, these war lords. As they know I never do compromise with them and they threat me more today and I have to be careful, but as much as I can, but as I am young I have energy. I wish to be alive as I have lots of hopes for the future of my country to do something for them, and more in the future.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Are you saying it is possible still, that you will run in the election and that you might even contest the presidential election?

MALALAI JOYA: I trust my people. I love my people and of course they wish I will do that but let's see that for the future. Now I can't say anything, as you know that as Brecht saying that those who do struggle may fail but those who do not has already failed. Just as I do my responsibility as much as I could serve my people. I don't have this dream that one day to be President of my country but if my people want - as today I'm a member of parliament, tomorrow as they wish I will do.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Malalia Joya thank you very much for talking to us.