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Afghan human rights activist brings her controversial message to UMass, Smith

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Joya, who spoke at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the afternoon and at Smith College in Northampton on Monday night

By Steve Pfarrer, Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 29, 2011

Malalai Joya in the Western Washington University
Malalai Joya, left, author of “A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice,” receives a standing ovation after her talk Monday at the University of Massachusetts.

AMHERST - Forced to travel with bodyguards, staying in various safe houses when she's at home and surviving several assassination attempts, Malalai Joya has dealt with some heavy burdens in her 32 years.

But the Afghan human rights activist, writer and former Parliament member has not let her opponents silence or intimidate her.

And on Monday, just days after the U.S. government reversed its initial decision to deny her a visa to enter the country, Joya brought a message that will not win her any accolades from the Obama administration: that the U.S.-NATO war against the Taliban is helping to destroy her country.

Joya, who spoke at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the afternoon and at Smith College in Northampton on Monday night, pulled no punches in denouncing what she called the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The U.S., she said, has helped prop up a corrupt Afghan "puppet regime" that has been unwilling or unable to confront the Taliban, and which has also ignored systematic violence against Afghan women - from rape to mutilation to murder.

Meantime, wayward air strikes and mistaken ground attacks have killed "thousands and thousands" of Afghan civilians in the 10 years since U.S. and NATO forces first entered the country, she said.

The U.S. government "is afraid of me coming here, because I'm telling the truth," she said, referring to the State Department's initial refusal to give her a visa. "They are bombing and killing innocent people under the guise of fighting the Taliban, and they're allowing warlords and criminals to run our country."

Joya, whom the BBC called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan," is the author of a memoir, "A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice." Part of that story is about how at age 25 Joya became a member of the Afghan Parliament and then earned the wrath of many of her male colleagues when she denounced some members as warlords. She was later kicked out of the body when she referred to it as a "stable or a zoo" in a TV interview.

Since then she has received numerous death threats and survived several assassination attempts. She lives in Kabul, the Afghan capital, she said, but must travel with bodyguards and spend most nights in different locations.

Malalai Joya
Malalai Joya, author of “A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice,” speaks Monday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A painting of her by Denise Beaudet, of Florence, is in the background.

"I am mostly separated from my family, for their safety and mine," she said.

The U.S., she warned, has long since worn out its welcome among many of the Afghan people. They "can't believe this powerful nation can't defeat the Taliban," she said.

Many people such as herself, she added, have long since come to believe the U.S. has simply extended its stay and its military presence in the country for geopolitical reasons, viewing it as a key central Asian location for keeping pressure on hostile neighboring countries like Iran and a close eye on energy resources in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea.

By replacing the Taliban regime in 2001 with the Northern Alliance, and then "propping up" Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Joya said the U.S. had simply swapped one terrible regime for another, especially when it comes to women's rights. She recounted various episodes of violence and oppression against women, from forced marriages and child brides to rape and murder - with some of the latter crimes committed by members of Parliament, who have gone unpunished, she alleged.

"Women would rather kill themselves than try to pursue justice in Afghanistan," she said, describing a brutal wave of self-immolation among some rape victims.

Joya's views have been challenged even by some supporters, like Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Muslim, writer and member of the Dutch Parliament. In a portrait of Joya that appeared in an issue of Time magazine last year that named her one the world's 100 most influential people, Ali praised her courage but said she also hoped Joya would not continue to demonize the U.S. and NATO.

"She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country," Ali wrote. "The road to freedom is long and arduous and needs every hand."

During Monday's presentation at UMass, held before about 150 people in Thompson Hall, Joya was also challenged by a few audience members who questioned whether the immediate withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops would simply embolden the Taliban and their supporters in neighboring Pakistan. One woman, who identified herself as a fellow Afghan, said Karzai was "trying to do his best" for the country but was caught between the U.S. and the Taliban.

Joya, though, said she'd have to "agree to disagree" with the woman. Karzai's government, she said, "simply wasn't doing enough to work for the people" but instead represented rampant cronyism and oppression of women. True democracy, she said, will not be possible under Karzai.

And if U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan, she added, "It will be easier for my people to fight two enemies (the Taliban and corrupt government) than three."