An Uncompromising Voice

The sitting president has selected two cruel men as vice presidential candidates. These candidates insult my people, says banned Afghan Member of Parliament Malalai Joya.

expression, June 3, 2009 (PDF version)
Elisabeth Eide

Malalai Joya in Kabul
IN HIDING: Malalai Joya displays pictures of war victims in her secret refuge in Kabul. Today she will speak at the opening ceremony of the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Two years ago, Malalai Joya was banned from the Afghan Parliament. Today she will speak at the Opening Ceremony of GFFE.

– The newly accepted Shi’a law is a Taliban-like policy, she says.

Blunt condemnations of Afghanistan’s all-powerful political establishment like these have made life very dangerous for Joya, a keynote speaker at Wednesday’s opening of the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Oslo.

To meet her in Kabul you have to go through a strict security procedure.

– Call me the same morning, she said in our first phone conversation in the city in May.

– I don’t know where I’ll be that day. To avoid her persecutors, she moves from home to home. Yet she refuses to be silenced.

A few days earlier, on May 10, she had called a press conference at the University of Kabul where she spoke her mind about the now notorious May 6 US bombing attack on two villages in Banj Baluk district in her home province of Farah.

Few reporters attended. She has been largely ostracised from domestic Afghan political debate. Yet hers is a voice of clarity and conscience amidst the argument over the civilian death toll in Farah. Afghan sources report between 90 and 147 killed. The US military say the number may be as low as 20. Joya says the media receive threats from certain warlords if they let her speak on any subject.

– Many journalists agree with me, but they do not broadcast, she complains. – They say «we have children».

Threatened with rape

Joya was banned from the Afghan parliament, two years ago. She has been forced to live an outlaw’s life ever since, in hiding and closely protected.

Her supposed «crime» was to speak out against the country’s warlords, against the law that gives the immunity from prosecution and impunity to act as they will, and against their continued crimes and corruption. In one of her TV interviews she likened the parliament to a zoo or a stable, pausing only to apologise to animals for the analogy. This event triggered her expulsion from the parliament under the constitution’s Article 70, which prohibits the insult of MPs.

The accused MPs themselves added threat to insults of their own, unpunished. She was threatened with rape, and some MPs threw plastic bottles and other objects at her. One said: «We did not punish her as we should, (the) Kalashnikov would be a better way». Some defended her.

When the rape threats came, other women MPs walked out of the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house) in protest. When the bottles flew, a small group of liberal-democratic MPs surrounded her to give her protection. Speaking of the interview, she says the private TV channel Tolo TV only broadcast the controversial half of it. Outside parliament there was a good deal of sympathy for her comments.

Another private channel, Ariana TV, called for public opinion on her reported views. By Joya’s account, 80 per cent of the SMS response agreed with her characterisation of the parliament and 90 per cent of them wanted her reinstated.

People’s choice Born in 1978, during the years of Taliban rule, Joya ran a women’s capacity building NGO called OPAWC in the western provinces of Herat and Farah. She was selected for the first Loya Jirga in 2003, where she first spoke out against the warlords, distinguishing between the «good» ones for fought for independence from the Russian invaders and the «bad» ones, men linked to well-documented war crimes, men who she says should face trial instead of sitting in the Jirga.

Later she received the second highest number of votes in Farah, her home province in the 2005 parliamentary elections. After her expulsion from parliament, six women Nobel Peace laureates – Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchu, Betty Williams and Jody Williams – issued a joint appeal in October 2008 for Joya to be reinstated. «Like our sister Aung San Suu Kyi,» read their statement, «Joya is a model for women everywhere seeking to make the world more just.»

Today, her fragile security situation compels her to protect herself with armed guards wherever she hides. She sits on the floor in a bare room, leafing through print-outs of digital photographs from the Farah bombing and other incidents.

– One student at the university lost a lot of members of his family, she says.

– The latest news is that they are still searching for eleven bodies. They cannot find them. Just pieces, maybe a hand. These are the gifts of the US. They are playing a game of Tom and Jerry with the terrorists.

Disastrous situation for women

In Afghanistan in May 2009, one journalist and one writer were still imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh and Ghous Zalmay both sentenced to 20 years in jail. As evidence of the arbitrariness of Afghan justice, Joya pulls out a copy of a document signed by President Hamid Karzai pardoning three rapists with apparent political connections.

– This he can do, while young Kambakhsh receives 20 years.

– The women’s situation in this country is a disaster, she says passionately. – Many rape victims threaten to kill themselves. Somebody must talk to prevent this from happening. Many do call me asking for assistance. That is one of the reasons that I am still here. I also appreciate support from democratic people around the world. It is impossible to bring women’s rights to the country by way of the gun.

– The UN should be more vocal in their criticism, she says, particularly of the amnesty granted to MPs accused of past war crimes and of the recent controversial changes to the marriage law for Shi’a citizens that dramatically curtailed the legal rights of Afghan Shi’a women. Her critics complain about her uncompromising, unforgiving stance. There is also an undercurrent of indignation at the attention Joya gets on the international stage. Does she not see any of her fellow parliamentarians as allies in her struggle?

– It is true that inside the parliament there are some democratic women and men. But in the present situation before the presidential election, there will be a lot of hypocrisy. The amnesty law has been accepted, and so has the Shi’a (marriage) bill. If I compromise in my critique, I will lose the support of my people. That would be a shame.

Elisabeth Eide is vice president of Norwegian PEN.