Interview with Malalai Joya

IPS, November 7, 2007

Joya in press conference in kabul Afghan lawmaker Malalai Joya, shown at a Kabul press conference in May, speaks in Toronto tomorrow night on "Women and War in Afghanistan." (MUSADEQ SADEQ/AP)

VANCOUVER, Canada, Nov 7 (IPS) - Malalai Joya was four years old when her family fled Afghanistan in 1982 to the refugee camps of Iran and later Pakistan.

Her father was a medical student who lost a foot during the Soviet invasion. Joya returned to Afghanistan in 1998 during the Taliban's reign. During that time she founded an orphanage and health clinic, and became a vocal opponent of the Taliban.

Joya gained international attention in December 2003 when, as an elected delegate to the Loya Jirga convened to ratify the Afghan Constitution, she spoke out publicly against what she termed the domination of warlords. In response, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, chief of the Loya Jirga, called her an "infidel" and "communist". Since then, she has survived four assassination attempts, and travels in Afghanistan under a burqa and with armed guards.

Joya is currently director of the Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities. She sat down with Am Johal at the Metropolitan Hotel in Vancouver.

IPS: What are your views of Canada's role in Kandahar and Afghanistan today?

MJ: Canada has followed the U.S. and its so-called "war on terror". I'm here to talk about the reality. The main message of this for Canada, after the 9-11 tragedy, they followed the last six years in the footsteps of the U.S. position, which was a mockery of democracy, a mockery of the war on terror. They have replaced the fundamentalists of the Taliban with the fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance warlords and killers.

We must fight against fundamentalists in our country. With the U.N., these countries must put pressure on Iran, Pakistan, Russia and those others who support the Taliban and Northern Alliance killers. This is my main message. The Canadian government should pressure the U.S. and other governments to support real democracy in Afghanistan rather than choose between these fundamentalists who make the situation worse.

IPS: What has changed since Canada's increased role in Afghanistan?

MJ: It is shocking news, a catastrophic situation for women in our country. I moved back to Afghanistan to be a social activist on women's issues. Many women have been kidnapped, many are raped, according to official statements, there have been 250 cases of rape in the west of Afghanistan in the first six months of 2007. Every 28 minutes, an Afghani woman dies from childbirth. The conditions are worse than ever for women.

Despite the billions of dollars that Afghanistan receives in aid, only 2 percent [of the people] have access to electricity. Today in Afghanistan, 60 percent are staying jobless.

[But] the most pressing problem of our people is security. Even in the capital, for activist women, the situation is even worse. Recently a TV journalist was killed in front of her children. And another 25-year-old woman journalist. Another social activist. Many, many others. Too many to mention since 2001.

We have fascist fundamentalists that are like Hitler, Khomeini and Pinochet here in Afghanistan. They will be candidates and will be in power, fully supported by the U.S. "war on terror".

IPS: Do you feel with this narrowly defined peace and security agenda, some are arguing that there is not enough money being invested in development and human rights for the population outside of the elite?

MJ: There are criminals who are in power in Afghanistan right now. This government is not democratic. The [U.S.-led forces] want to have a situation like this, it seems, to make a kind of excuse to stay longer in Afghanistan. They should [only] stay more in Afghanistan if they will build a real democracy and be independent in their foreign policy. The U.S. is not helping organisations to change the situation in Afghanistan, especially for women.

IPS: Heroin and poppy growing remains a major part of the economy in Afghanistan and now there are glorified CNN stories with security officials spraying these fields. What is really happening and who is being affected?

MJ: The government is full of drug lords and they are undemocratic -- they are trying to get the farmers to stop planting opium. Is it possible to stop planting opium when most people are poor? The farmers, they do it because of the poverty, the warlords do it because of this dirty business -- it is their business. If these drug lords are in power, this will not change. People want to plant food, they want to plant flowers and make a living for their families. My people are like horses for these drug lords who are using them for profits.

IPS: What is your message to Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and the international community?

MJ: Today my people are sandwiched by the fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The Northern Alliance are a photocopy of the Taliban in power. This situation is not better for women. I do not agree with this. Our people hate the Taliban and the Northern Alliance killers and do not support this system. It is the U.S. policy. There's no need to give more chances to see it or make it better with the people who are there right now, especially for women. Due to the strong support of the people day in and day out, I understand how much I'm right.

If I was not right, if they don't believe in a world of human rights and women's rights, I could not be elected and have a position to speak from. The leadership is anti-freedom of speech. There is strong support from our people but the international community has to listen. Also the parliament needs the strong support of our people. But this parliament is no better than animals. An entire country is living in the shadow of warlords and gang lords who have money from this drug selling. How can we have democracy in this situation?

IPS: How is your safety in Afghanistan?

MJ: Since I gave a speech in 2003, things have been very difficult. I can't live with my husband, see my family. It is more difficult for me because I am a woman and I will not compromise with the warlords. We need the helping hand of the international community to support the future of Afghanistan to fight the fundamentalism of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

I want to say to people around the world that some people think Karzai is elected when he is not. I want to tell you he compromised with these warlords and criminals and fundamentalists. He promised not to compromise. But unfortunately, he made more and more compromises. Others will face him and take him to the court. My message is don't support these criminals and warlords backed by Karzai. It is not good for Afghanistan.

Today, I'm a candidate for my people. It is better for me to be there even if I'm alone. We have fascist fundamentalists that are like Hitler, Khomeini and Pinochet here in Afghanistan. They will be candidates and will be in power, fully supported by the U.S. "war on terror".

Today I'm not sure of my life, I'm not sure of tomorrow, when I go outside of my house I don't know if I will make it back. For my people, most people don't have security, especially the women of my country. I am young, I want to be alive. If people wanted me to continue, I have support from democratic people and I also have a large responsibility on my shoulders to remove the masks of these warlords and drug lords who are in power in Afghanistan today, supported by this so-called U.S. "war on terror".