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Afghan champion of women’s rights

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"We believe the US and allies of the US have pushed us from the frying pan into the fire."

by Jamie van Wagtendonk, Radio Netherlands, May 30, 2008

Malalai Joya
Malalai Joya in the press conference in Kabul on April 5, 2008

In Afghanistan, most people have an opinion about Malalai Joya. She has been called a brave woman and an infidel. She has been described as a leading champion of women's rights in Afghanistan and as a communist, harmful to the fledgling democracy. Through all the controversy surrounding this young activist, her personal story offers a perspective of the fragile democracy in Afghanistan, increasingly fractured by regional, religious and gender divisions.

Malalai Joya was first elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 when she was only 25. Last year she was indefinitely suspended from the post when she compared the legislature to a zoo. It was not the first time she got in trouble for criticizing the powerful in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2003, she emerged as a leading politician fighting for women's rights and called for the expulsion of warlords from the national government. In the firestorm that erupted from her criticisms, Joya has endured threats of rape, made even by fellow elected officials, and has survived four assassination attempts.

A year on from her controversial suspension, now flanked by a large security detail and still hounded by critics in Afghanistan, Ms Joya has taken her message of progressive reform around the world. Today, she works for The Organization for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, and speaks out about the corruption she sees among members of the Afghan government. On a recent visit to the Netherlands, she remained meticulously focused in her message, arguing that the situation for women has not improved greatly since the fall of the Taliban regime. Today, she notes,

"In some big cities, women have access to jobs and education. But in faraway provinces, the situation of Afghan women is worse than ever."


The United States-led coalition does not escape her criticism either. She suggests that the Western powers have "betrayed" supporters of democracy in Afghanistan by allowing Northern Alliance warlords into the government and by legitimising Islamic religious practices that she sees as promoting violence against women and children.

"We believe the US and allies of the US have pushed us from the frying pan into the fire."

Because of her increased fame and her current international tour, Joya has become, to her supporters, a symbol of the precarious democracy in Afghanistan. In a brief report about the Afghan parliament last summer, the European Union parliament cited Ms Joya's suspension as part of a troublesome trend on the part of the Afghan government of shifting away from "an open democratic system".

Along with the recent passage of an amnesty law, preventing prosecutions of people for war crimes in past Afghan conflicts, and codified restrictions on freedom of the media, Ms Joya's suspension has signalled to some that democracy in Afghanistan has taken a step backwards. This has not stopped her from fighting for greater protection of human rights in Afghanistan.

"I strongly believe that they will destroy all of the flowers, but they cannot stop the spring. One day we will have everything in our country."