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From Saturday's Books section: Lifting the veil

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In the Afghanistan that Malalai Joya writes about, women are now ‘free' to beg in the streets, sell their children and prostitute themselves

By Jennifer Moreau, The Globe and Mail, Jan. 15, 2010

Malalai Joya
Malalai Joya (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

Malalai Joya has never been the type to bite her tongue in the face of adversarial attack. The youngest Afghan ever elected to parliament has made a name for herself, relentlessly criticizing what she calls the “warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai.”

In return, she has been called a communist, a whore and an infidel. She has endured rape threats and death threats, and survived five attempts on her life. She travels with bodyguards, lives underground and uses a pseudonym to protect her family.

Late last year, she wrapped up a cross-Canada book tour promoting her new biography, A Woman Among Warlords, co-written with Vancouver peace activist Derrick O'Keefe. With her harsh criticism of the Karzai government and her troops-out-now stance, Joya raises serious questions about the war at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has just promised to send 30,000 more troops to the region.

A Woman Among Warlords starts with Joya's early life, growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan. She returned to Afghanistan to work as an underground teacher, at a time when the Taliban forbade education for females. In 2003, she stepped into the international spotlight with a controversial speech at a constitutional assembly in which she called for the anti-women criminals in attendance to be prosecuted in the national and international courts. Two years later, at 27, Joya won her seat in parliament, garnering the second-highest number of votes in her province. She was subsequently kicked out in 2007 for insulting parliament by comparing it to a zoo.

Raising My Voice, by Malalai Joya
A Woman Among Warlords:
The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, by Malalai Joya with Derrick O'Keefe, Scribner, 229 pages, $32.99

Throughout the book, Joya paints a bleak picture of life in Afghanistan, a corrupt narco-state overrun by warlords, drug traffickers and “dark-minded mullahs.” According to her, the country is worse off now than under the Taliban: Women are “free” to beg in the streets, sell their children, prostitute themselves to feed their families and burn themselves to death to escape their misery.

She blames foreign interference for the country's suffering and disputes the notion that intolerance, brutality and the severe oppression of women began with the Taliban. “But this is a lie, more dust in the eyes of the world,” she writes. “In truth some of the worst atrocities in our recent past were committed during the civil war by the men who are now in power.”

In parliament, Joya sat behind one of those men: Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an accused war criminal known for his links to Osama bin Laden. Sayyaf and his men dominate a district near Kabul called Paghman.

Joya describes how one day Sayyaf turned to her, made a “menacing motion” and threatened to silence her forever. “I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘We are not in Paghman here, so control yourself,'” she writes.

Sayyaf is just one of many. Joya cites a Human Rights Watch report that states 60 per cent of the new parliamentarians were either warlords or the allies of warlords.

For Joya, trying these men for war crimes is the key to improving the situation in Afghanistan. She calls for an end to the war by pulling out all U.S./NATO troops, sending real humanitarian aid to people who need it and disarming the warlords.

A Woman Among Warlords reads much like Joya's public talks: straightforward, a bit rhetorical at times and with a breathless sense of urgency.

It's hard not to fall for a five-foot-tall firebrand who stands up for women's rights and talks back to jihadis. But her detractors warn of a bloody civil war or Taliban takeover if the troops pull out, a spectre that could endanger the very people she says she speaks for.

In fact, a 2009 BBC poll of more than 1,500 Afghans found that 63 per cent support the presence of U.S. forces – a clear majority, but down from 78 per cent in 2006.

And while Joya says the situation is already bad enough, she does concede that there could be an eventual civil war if the troops withdraw. She also lists measures that could mitigate that: disarming warlords and their militias, international support of Afghans working for democracy, and the United Nations stopping other countries from selling arms to Afghanistan. Joya says she is confident that if foreign countries stop meddling in Afghanistan and the country is free from occupation, then a “strong, progressive and democratic force will emerge.”

She writes: “I have a country full of people who know what I know and believe what I believe: That we Afghans can govern ourselves without foreign interference. That democracy is possible here but can never be imposed at gunpoint.”

Joya's book is definitely worth a read and leaves the reader with many questions:

What's the point of trading the Taliban for another set of warlords in parliament?

Why fight a war on terror that seems to stoke the numbers of insurgents?

How can we help Afghanistan achieve real peace and stability?

Rest assured, you will be hearing more from Joya. She is a woman determined to have her voice heard at all costs – even her own death.

Jennifer Moreau is a B.C. journalist with a background in feminist anti-violence work.