Afghan Firebrand Gets Burned

The young parliamentarian is unrepentant after her suspension for insulting her colleagues, and vows to continue her struggle.

Institute for War & Peace Reporting, ARR No. 256, June 11, 2007
By Wahidullah Amani

"I will never apologise!" said Malalai Joya, bitter and defiant over her suspension from Afghanistan's parliament.

For almost three weeks, the young legislator has been on the run, unable to show her face, meet openly with journalists or disclose her location, for fear of reprisals. She spoke to IWPR by telephone.

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)

Protest in: Kabul | Herat | Jalalabad | Farah | Baghlan | Takhar

An interview Joya gave to Tolo TV, in which she compared some of her colleagues to barnyard animals, riled lawmakers to such an extent that they voted to suspend her from parliament, although legal scholars say the decision has no basis in the law.

"A stable is better," she said, in a video clip that was shown repeatedly in parliament on May 21. "At least there you have a donkey that can carry a load and a cow that gives milk."

The remarks inflamed many members of parliament who already had a long and hostile relationship with Joya. She has often spoken out about the "warlords" who tore her country apart.

In May, 2006, she was pelted with water bottles and threatened with death after she called some of the mujahedin "criminals."

Joya claims that her latest remarks to Tolo TV were misinterpreted.

"I was misquoted," she told IWPR. "I made a distinction between members of parliament. We have two types of parliamentarians – those who are the real representatives of the people, although they are very few in number; and the majority, who are criminals and who came to the parliament by the use of force."

Joya said that she had named some of the "criminals" in her remarks, but the references were "censored" out by Tolo.

Her suspension, she insists, is a plot by her political enemies, of whom there are many.

"It is absolutely a political conspiracy," she said. "I was not even allowed to speak in the lower house before they suspended me."

Joya's colleagues in parliament are in no mood for conciliation.

"Malalai Joya has offended the whole Afghan nation," said parliamentarian Haji Mullah Tarakhil, defending the decision to suspend her.

"If we say that parliamentarians are animals and parliament is a barn, that is abuse," said Ahmad Bihzaad, another legislator. "Even if she only named one parliamentarian, it is clearly an insult.

"Those who sit in parliament are the elected representatives of the people, and should not be insulted."

But legal experts say parliament has no right to suspend one of its members. Joya is an elected representative in her own right, they say, and as such can only be judged by the courts.

"Parliament does not have the right to suspend or cancel a deputy's membership," said Nasrullah Stanekzai, a lecturer in law at Kabul University. "According to Article 120 of the Constitution, Malalai would have to be sued in a court of law. The lower house's action is in breach of the law."

Bihzaad disputes this legal opinion, saying that the legislature's code of conduct give it the authority to act against members.

"If a member of parliament acts in such a way as to cause chaos in the lower house, then we can discuss his or her suspension," he insisted. "There is an article in the internal [operating] principles of the lower house stating that the house can stop a member from attending for more than one day. It does not, however, specify a time limit."

But Stanekzai is adamant that the law does not give the parliament such authority.

"Article 70 of the Code of Conduct of the lower house of parliament states that if a member violates the internal rules, then he or she must be notified by the administrative board of the house. The parliament does not have the authority to punish one of its members. That is the exclusive right of the courts," he said.

Stanekzai does not dispute that Joya committed an offense.

"If Malalai called someone an animal, it is a violation of human dignity, which is a crime in itself" he said.

Following Joya's suspension, her supporters staged rallies in her support in Farah, Nangahar, Baghlan and Kabul. In addition to demanding that the United Nations take action to restore Joya to her former position, they are asking that "warlords" be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

It was her tirade against the mujahedin that first launched Malalai Joya to international prominence in December, 2003, during the Constitutional Loya Jirga. Her question to the assembly, "Why have you again selected as committee chairmen those criminals who have brought such disasters to the Afghan people?" prompted angry outbursts from delegates, who demanded her removal from the hall.

In the three and a half years since that outburst, Joya has traveled the world with her speeches against the former mujahedin fighters, and has become arguably the most famous woman in Afghanistan.

She has also become a parliamentarian, winning a seat easily in Farah province in September 2005 election.

But many of those whom she criticised in 2003 also entered parliament, some gaining very prominent positions, And they have shown no signs of forgiving or forgetting the former slights.

Even some of Joya's female colleagues condemn her for her latest remarks, and call on her to make amends.

"Joya has offended the parliament," said Norzia Atmar, a female member of parliament. "If she really wants to serve the people of Afghanistan and be the envoy of the people, we respect her and her ideas. If she apologises, she can come back to work."

But Malalai Joya is unrepentant.

"If animals had a tongues with which to speak, they could sue me for comparing them to these parliamentarians," she said. "Then I would apologise – but to the animals!"

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul