Afghan lawmaker speaks up for women

East Bay visit draws often-hostile crowd critical of 'sectarian' viewpoints

Inside Bay Area, March 18, 2006

FREMONT Afghan Parliamentarian Malalai Joya knew she would face a divided crowd of mostly Afghans before she spoke Thursday at the Century House on Fremont Boulevard.

But she got more than she expected after a group of young Afghan men started protesting a few minutes into her speech,

holding banners that read "Malalai (does) not represent women of Afghanistan."

"What have you come here for?" interrupted one man. Heads turned to see the group of men lined up in the back of the room, protesting Joya.

"I have come here to speak for the women and success of Afghanistan," Joya responded nervously. "You can come up here and beat me if you like. (I suggest) if you're going to do it then do it, but I ask you to take your seats and let me speak my voice, then you can respond when I am finished."

Joya is known for speaking out for women's rights, but she is also critical of policies within the Karzai regime.

Joya said she came to the Bay Area as part of a larger U.S. and Canadian tour to express her views to the Americanpeople from a woman's perspective.

She first spoke at the University of California, Berkeley at an event sponsored by the Gender and Women's Studies Department.

Joya is critical of the electoral process in her country, saying that warlords used intimidation tactics of force and bribery to get people to vote for them.

"People don't talk about the bad things happening, they don't focus on the extreme corruption that could endanger our country from falling apart," Joya said.

With many members of the government opposed to her views, Joya said she worries for her safety.

"Those who are in power know that I will expose them," she said. "They don't want me here to speak out. The president of Parliament gave a speech to encourage us not to tell the problems of Afghanistan to the West. I am concerned for my life. People have tried to kill me before, and I am not sure if I will be alive to ever come back."

Throughout her speech in Fremont, supporters and opposers clapped and voiced outrage.

At one point, however, even those who opposed Joya applauded her encouragement for national unity.

Joya's critics said she offers a sectarian view that does not represent the majority.

"Joya herself is part of the former communistic Maoist views of China, that is against religion and capitalism," said a person who asked that his name not be used. "Her views are representative of one of many sects within Afghanistan today."

Although she once went to a Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association school as a refugee, Joya denies being a part of any group at all.

"I am against corruption," Joya said. "Whether it is from a communist, Islamist, former Mujahideen or drug dealers. I don't favor anything except for the success of our country by ridding it of corruption."

Joya's Web site is