Calls on Canada to 'act independently' and break from U.S. policy

Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier, November 7, 2007

She is a politician who is prepared to die.

As a member of Afghanistan's legislature, Malalai Joya says she has received death threats and her house has been shot up for reasons she believes are connected to her criticism of the country's government.

In December 2003, she famously spoke out against the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying it was dominated by warlords. She also described the country's 249-seat legislature as worse than an animal stable, "like a zoo." Since her denouncement--and subsequent suspension from the legislature--the 29-year-old Joya said her life is in danger. It has forced her to travel in Afghanistan under a burqa with armed bodyguards.

"Telling the truth is risky," she said in an interview at the Courier's office Friday.

The diminutive woman, dressed in a grey suit, pink turtleneck and white scarf, had been in Vancouver for several days, appearing at a local peace rally and speaking at an event at SFU. She came with no bodyguards, but she remarked that her profile is such that she has enemies in various countries. "They may kill me but they will not silence the voice of the people who support me," she said, speaking rapidly but quietly. "I know that the power of people is like the power of God. I'm still alive today because people support me."

Joya in Canada Malalai Joya got in trouble for saying the Afghan parliament was worse than a barn, 'because at least donkeys and cows are somewhat useful.' (Michael Stittle, CTV.ca)

Joya has embarked on an international tour to tell her story and answer criticisms from her detractors, who include Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad. "Malalai Joya only speaks for herself and her tiny group of supporters here in Canada, and probably even smaller group of supporters in Afghanistan," Samad said in a September 2006 interview with the Courier. "She is not representative of the Afghan people or parliament."

Dr. Karim Qayumi, a prominent doctor at Vancouver General Hospital who fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s, also dismissed Joya's self-proclaimed popularity in an earlier interview with the Courier. Qayumi called her "the person who is most hated by the people of Afghanistan, the person who doesn't have any political values in the political circles of Afghanistan."

Qayumi is a co-founder of the nonprofit Partnership Afghanistan Canada. After the Courier read those criticisms to Joya, she said people will not always agree with her views. But she contends that "known criminals" occupy seats in Afghanistan's parliament. "The truth is the truth and maybe one day they will know this."

Joya won the second highest number of votes in the province of Farah, the fourth largest province in Afghanistan and located on the border of Iran. Her suspension expires in 2009, the year the Canadian government will decide whether more than 2,000 Canadian soldiers should remain in the battle zone. She urged the Canadian government to stop following the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, which indirectly supports the warlords in parliament.

Afghans, she said, are blind to the fact Canadian soldiers are distinct from U.S. soldiers, saying "they are thinking all troops belong to the U.S. because of the U.S.'s policy." "If [the Canadian] government really wants to help Afghan people, then act independently and give us a helping hand. Our history shows we don't want occupation."

Added Joya: "We need reconstruction, we need more schools, we need more hospitals--we need the rebuilding of Afghanistan." She argued Karzai's government has no control outside of Kabul and that women and children continue to be raped and killed "under the nose" of foreign troops, including Canadians.

Born four days after Russia invaded Afghanistan in April 1978, she describes herself as part of the war generation. At four years old, she fled with her family to Iran before moving to Pakistan. At 19, she taught literacy courses to women in Pakistan before returning to Afghanistan to establish an orphanage and health clinic, all the while being a vocal critic of the ruling Taliban.

Joya is now head of the non-governmental group, Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities. She said life for women in Afghanistan is "more worse than ever."

In September, the European Parliament nominated Joya for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom. She was named International Woman of the Year in Italy in 2004 and was one of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Despite death threats, she hopes to "tear the masks off the fundamentalists [in government], to tell the truth about what the media doesn't hear."