It's hard to imagine a more brave parliamentarian than Malalai Joya

By Elizabeth DiNovella, The Progressive Magazine, June 10, 2007

It's hard to imagine a more brave parliamentarian than Malalai Joya. Joya is the young and outspoken Afghan representative who received international attention for denouncing her country's warlords in the 2003 constitutional convention. She asked "Why would you allow criminals to be present at this Loya Jirga? They are warlords responsible for our country's situation. They oppress women and have ruined our country. They should be prosecuted."

This incident, and the unrest that ensued, can be seen in a new documentary about her, "Enemies of Happiness," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. (Matt Pascarella reviews the film in the June issue of The Progressive.)

pro-Malalai Joya Demo in Kabul Supporters of Afghan female lawmaker Malalai Joya shout slogans during a demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday, May 30, 2007. (AP)

Joya was elected to parliament in 2005, campaigning for women's rights. "Enemies of Happiness" follows her as she campaigns. What really struck me about the film is seeing ordinary Afghans talking about democracy, talking about human rights. Since President Bush's use of such rhetoric seems to be just another propaganda tool, I often fail to understand that people in other countries do fervently want democracy and human rights.

Joya recently made headlines when Afghanistan's lower house of parliament suspended her on May 21 for insulting MPs. She told the private Tolo television channel that the parliament is "worse than a stable."

"A stable is better, for there you have a donkey that carries a load and a cow that provides milk," she said.

Given the warlords in Hamid Karzai's government, Joya's outrage is understandable. Her suspension will last until the end of the current session.

On May 29, women and girls in Pul-e-Khumri, a city of Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, protested Joya's suspension. The photo that accompanies this report is striking—women in burkas held up signs of Joya's uncovered face. Joya's bravery is matched by her countrywomen's.

People have organized similar rallies in other cities. But this week, police have started to block them.

In March 2006, we had the opportunity to interview Joya on our radio show. She said that people in Afghanistan have suspicions about the U.S. "war on terror" and its efforts at democracy in her country since the U.S. replaced the Taliban with the notorious Northern Alliance. There's been no fundamental change in Afghanistan, especially for women, she said, and rattled off the names of women who had been raped or killed.

"Why can't I talk freely in parliament?" she asked. "If I want to give a speech they won't let me."

She has received several death threats and has survived four assassination attempts. "This should be an example that there is no democracy in Afghanistan," Joya told "Progressive Radio."

Four assassination attempts?

"Yes," Joya replied, "they tried four times. But in every corner of Afghanistan I have my supporters because most of the innocent people in Afghanistan support me. These goals and hopes and ideas and the struggle that I do, there is no personal benefit. This is the main reason people support me. The ideas that I have do not belong only to me—it is the voice of the suffering people of Afghanistan. So I decided that while I am alive and have energy I want to serve my people."

She went on to say, "One day they will physically kill me but I will never be afraid and I will never compromise with warlords and will always expose them if I see that they once again want to build laws against freedom, against democracy and against women's rights in Afghanistan."

Zakia Zaki, an independent radio journalist in Afghanistan, was murdered June 5 in her home. According to Reporters Without Borders, two armed men broke into her home and gunned her down in front of her young son.

Zaki was the head of Sada-e-Sulh (Peace Radio) since it was founded in 2001. She, too, has received death threats after openly criticizing warlords and the Taliban.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Zaki's relatives and friends say local warlords were behind her killing while the police blame the armed group Hezb-i-Islami.

The Guardian of London reports Zaki recently received warnings from powerful local commanders to tone down her reporting, according to the Afghan Independent Journalists Association.

If Afghanistan is ever going to improve the lot of its people, women's voices will need to be heard. People will have to get used to hearing criticism from women. And the use of violence to silence women needs to end.