Living symbols of reform in Afghanistan

Joya is one of Afghanistan's most prominent populists

Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2006
By Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writer

Joya in NDP Convention in Canada
Malalai Joya

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... The majority of Afghanistan's lawmakers still have their roots in the country's warring past. A number served as militia commanders and made their names and their money behind the barrel of a gun.

Even among the 68 women in parliament, U.S. and United Nations officials estimate that half have militia ties, and can be counted on to keep quiet and vote as they are told.

Some lawmakers still spit during sessions as though they were on a mountain road. Others doze off. A popular television news program was banned briefly from broadcasting parliamentary sessions because it showed lawmakers, heads thrown back, snoring. Many take the floor seemingly without any idea of what they want to say.

Despite their lack of experience in representative democracy, deputies have developed a range of styles to pursue their different political agendas on the floor of parliament and in visits to their districts.

Malalai Joya, a 27-year-old woman, publicly challenges the enduring power of warlords in a Western-style media campaign. For that, she has been pelted with water bottles in the parliament chamber, and twice her microphone has been shut off.

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Joya focuses on one theme, the enduring power of men such as Almas. She uses radio and television exposure to denounce them, and despite Afghanistan's limited media outlets, hers is a familiar voice in the country's larger cities.

The youngest member of parliament is already a master of the well-turned phrase, the eloquent exaggeration, the slight simplification. Along with parliament colleague Ramazan Bashar Dost, who works out of a simple tent in the middle of a Kabul park, she is one of Afghanistan's most prominent populists.

Her message is that despite the changes in Afghanistan, corruption is still rampant and the warlords are still in power.

"How can we have democracy when we have these warlords? The majority of seats [in the parliament] have been taken by these black persons…. First they should be tried by a court, but unfortunately the courts don't do that in Afghanistan," she said in one of the many interviews she gives to foreign and domestic reporters.

Even though she has become a well-known figure in many parts of Afghanistan, she remains a mystery in many ways. Most people who denounce the warlords will describe specific instances in which they, their families or perhaps their entire villages suffered. But Joya lived in Iran during much of the Taliban's rule.

Asked how she formed her viewpoint, she said only, "I suffered a lot and I saw people I know suffer. They cried, and I cried with them."

She has yet to make a concrete proposal for neutralizing the power of former commanders. So far, that doesn't seem to matter. Many people believe she is one of the few politicians who speak the truth.

They agree with her that brutal warlords now serving in high government positions are unlikely to look out for the best interests of the country.

"Malalai Joya says what many people know to be true," said Saad Mohseni, the director of Moby Capital Partners, which runs the popular Tolo TV channel.

Sharif's husband, Zadran, also says he admires Joya. "Not many people are willing to say the things she says, and to speak honestly about our situation in Afghanistan," he told his wife as they discussed corruption in their home province.

Joya's candor has provoked such serious threats that she canceled plans to visit her home province of Farah during parliament's six-week summer break because she could not get the United Nations to provide sufficient protection. In Kabul, she moves every few days among several houses where friends or relatives shelter her.

She stays in the public eye through high-profile speeches in parliament and regular interviews with journalists. One evening last summer, she invited 20 reporters to dinner at her home in Kabul.

"The current government is in the hands of warlords," she told the journalists. "Peace and security cannot be established. Bribery has reached its zenith. The current government is involved in bribery, smuggling and bombings."

There is little difference between the Taliban and its Northern Alliance enemies, she declared. "The Taliban and Northern Alliance are connected to each other like a chain. In fact, the Northern Alliance is a good brother of the Taliban."

Former militia commanders resent her deeply, some because she reminds the country of their misdeeds and others because they believe they deserve thanks for fighting the Taliban.

When Joya took to the parliament floor in May with another of her denunciations, some threw water bottles at her. Other legislators ran forward to shield her. Someone ordered her microphone turned off so her comments would not be audible on television.

Despite the obstacles, legislators all have their own reasons for staying in parliament. But for many, the frustration level is high and their commitment is tenuous. "Sometimes I wake up and I think I should just stay home and not go out and try to change things," said Sharif.

The bigger risk is that Afghanistan will fall back on the code of violence that has dominated its history.

Joya said that along with the water bottles came a threat from Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a warlord notorious for his cruelty who has become a powerful member of parliament: "She is lucky it was water bottles and not knives."