Malalai Joya speaks to Canadians on her cross-country tour

By Iftekhar Kabir, TrentArthur.ca, 30 November 2009

In a recent article for In These Times, Noam Chomsky spoke of her as one of the “truly worthy choices” for the Nobel Peace Prize. At age thirty-one, suspended Afghan MP, Malalai Joya, already has more than a decade of experience resisting oppression and injustice. From her teen years spent in refugee camps, she has been working towards grass roots social development by helping provide education and health care to war-torn people. For her years of work she has recently been dubbed, “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” I heard her speak on November 18 at the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto.

Joya is currently touring Canada, speaking to audiences across five provinces about the state of Afghanistan – eight years into the US-led NATO intervention within the region. As she promotes her recently published book, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, Joya urges solidarity from the democratically minded people in the West to halt the ill-conceived attempts at liberating her people and giving them democracy. With conviction and courage she reminds us, “no nation can donate liberation to another nation.”

Malalai Joya came to prominence internationally in 2003, when she decided to speak out against the presence of “criminals” and “warlords” at the Loya Jirga – the national convention that approved the constitution of Afghanistan. In 2005, at the age of twenty-seven, she was the youngest member to be elected to the Wolesi Jirga (National Assembly of Afghanistan) as a representative of her home province of Farah. Since then, Joya has repeatedly faced persecution in her work. Apart from being suspended from the parliament in 2007 for her outspoken criticism of the country’s top officials, Joya has survived four assassination attempts. While in Afghanistan, she is always escorted by bodyguards and is forced to sleep in safe houses. Out of concern for his safety, she refuses to name her husband. Joya is not her real name; yet, there is no hesitation when she speaks. Addressing an audience of around 350 people, Joya was adamant that “liberation and democracy will not come from the barrel of a gun.”

The event included other speakers who welcomed Joya on her return to Toronto and thanked her for speaking. Vicki Obedkoff, a minister from Trinity-St. Paul, York University student Neela Zamani, American war resister Kimberley Rivera and New Democratic Party MP, Olivia Chow, all spoke before Joya. Chow reminded the audience that it was Joya’s address at the 2006 NDP national convention that led the party to overwhelmingly pass a resolution calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan. It was that same message to end war and occupation that Joya impressed upon the audience.

Joya told the audience how she was initially hesitant to write her book. She found her struggles to be commonplace amongst the Afghani people. But her co-author – Canadian activist, documentary filmmaker and writer, Derrick O’Keefe – convinced her to tell the stories, as it would allow her to “write about the lives of others who struggle.” These are the people Joya felt were neglected by mainstream media. She felt the world, if truly concerned about the people of Afghanistan, needed to support the work of these “activists and democratically minded people who work for social justice.”

She believes what the world mostly gets are the stories of the horrors in Afghanistan, such as the brutalities perpetrated against the women and children. The US-led intervention within the region is premised on bringing democracy to the Afghani people and ensuring human rights, especially the rights of women and children. Instead, Joya finds these so-called forces of democracy are negotiating with “warlords” and “druglords,” and legitimating their corrupt practices. The NATO-backed alliance is brandishing “criminals in suits” as moderates and as proponents of democracy. As Joya says, “they have established a puppet regime, full of people who are photocopies of the Taliban.”

Referring to a Human Rights Watch report, she noted, “since 2001 65,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan, while only 2,000 Taliban fighters have been killed.” The daily lives of the people of Afghanistan are progressively being mired in “corruption, poverty, injustice, violence and joblessness.”

“My people have no faith in these puppets and their government.”

Speaking on the state of women, Joya brought up the Shia family law. President Hamid Karzai signed this law, which restricts women from refusing to have sex with their husbands, and does not allow them to visit a doctor without the husband’s permission. Joya pointed out that now, under “so-called democracy,” people can legitimately perpetuate misogyny. She told the audience of an incident where a young girl had been raped by the son of an MP. He was not brought to justice. The MP was able to create documents that altered his son’s age to less than eighteen, rendering him ineligible for prosecution under Afghani Law.

Joya points out that there are some women in Parliament, as it is now constitutionally mandated. However, these women have internalized the oppression. To them, “the Taliban is their father and the Taliban is their brother,” so they do not challenge the cycle of oppression and stand up for their rights or those of other women. “Your government lies that they brought democracy and women’s rights to Afghanistan. The U.S. government and its allies have pushed us from the frying pan into the fire.”

To truly help the people of the region, Joya believes the international forces need to leave immediately. According to her, “the people of Afghanistan are fighting two enemies … the occupation forces who bomb from above and the Taliban who kill and torture on the ground.” She feels that “the casualties of both are the innocent people,” and that “the NATO led forces must leave” because “it is much easier for us to fight one enemy.”

Joya speaks from a proud sense of history when she asks for the immediate withdrawal. She believes that her people, “who have never accepted occupation,” should have the opportunity to “rebuild their own society.”

“We know what to do with our own destiny. Our freedom is our own responsibility.” She tells the audience, “if you want to help us then raises your voices against your governments. Raise your arms in solidarity with my people.”

This pride is not deluded by naiveté, as she makes clear during the question and answer period. Joya realizes that the withdrawal of the troops does not mean that peace will be established. As she says, “I cannot tell you how long it [peace] will take.” Yet, she is adamant that it can only come through a patient labor that her people have to perform. She reiterates that “ the US and Canada cannot gift us democracy.”