Malalai Joya: her struggle is our struggle


Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out
By Malalai Joya
Macmillan, 2009
278 pages, $34.99 (pb)

When Malalai Joya described some members of the Afghan parliament in 2007 as belonging in a "zoo or a stable" in 2007, the howls and screeches from its fundamentalist and warlord members was predictable. They seized on her comments as a pretext for a plot to have the feminist parliamentarian permanently suspended for "insulting the institution of parliament".

In her autobiography, Raising My Voice, Joya notes the irony that the leaders of the countries with troops in Afghanistan never commented on her illegal suspension "even through they say their militaries are in Afghanistan to help build democracy".

Joya's book recounts many other examples of the undemocratic new Afghanistan ruled by pro-US religious extremists and warlords.

Joya was born in 1978, one year before the Soviet occupation, which drove her family into exile in 1982. In a refugee camp in Pakistan, Joya was educated at a school run by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). This began Joya's commitment to the importance of education for girls and rights for women. She started teaching adult women's literacy in the camps, when she was just 14.

After 16 years in exile, Joya courageously returned to an Afghanistan ruled by the "depraved and medieval" Taliban, which had emerged victorious in 1996 during the vicious civil war among the US-funded mujahideen following their ousting of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the overthrow of the pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan government in 1992.

Working through the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities (OPAWC), Joya's aim was to educate girls and women. Teaching was literally underground (in sympathisers' basements) where she found the compulsory burqua ("a symbol of women's oppression, like a shroud for the living") useful for "hiding books and other forbidden objects".

Joya risked kidnap, rape, torture and murder on a daily basis. She survived thanks to the quiet resistance, instinctive solidarity and human kindness of strangers. Afghan men, for example, at risk of their own lives, would step to claim to be a close male relative of lone women stopped by Taliban patrols for moving about the streets unaccompanied.

When the Taliban fled in 2001 after the US invasion, many Afghans were sympathetic to the Americans. This support soon collapsed as the US and allied military continued to kill civilians and installed a corrupt government of warlords and fundamentalists.

Joya, as a feminist and democrat, needed (and still needs) an armed bodyguard, a network of safe houses and the burqua to hide her identity. She remains in the sights of the CIA-backed Northern Alliance made up of "ruthless men with a dark past" who now dominate the US-approved government of President Hamid Karzai.

These were the same thugs and terrorists that pillaged Afghanistan during the post-Soviet civil war between 1992 and 1996. They were eager to resume their power and self-enrichment in a post-Taliban Afghanistan under US protection. Women were again the first victims of the pro-US Karzai regime — as they were in the anti-Soviet and Taliban regimes that preceded it.

Joya took the fight up to the new rulers as well, first against the local officials appointed by warlords in Joya's province of Farah who were hostile to the free medical clinic and orphanage run by Joya and the OPAWC.

Joya then raised the political level by standing, successfully, in UN-supervised elections in 2003 to the Loya Jirga (constituent assembly) to approve the new constitution.

Joya used her three-minute speech to parliament to attack the warlords at the gathering. Halfway through, however, her microphone was cut as accusations ("communist!", "prostitute!", "infidel!") and death threats were rained on her.

Joya was the youngest member of parliament elected in the 2005 elections. The physical and verbal attacks on her continued inside and outside parliament, culminating in the plot to suspend her. This, she says, was because she "spoke the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Karzai".

Human Rights Watch said about 60% of the members of the 2005 parliament were warlords or their allies who got elected through fraud, intimidation or US-financed bribery.

At the head of the current regime is the "impeccably mannered" Karzai whose "own hands", says Joya, are "stained with the blood of the innocent people of Afghanistan because he had put so many warlords and criminals into positions of power".

Under Karzai's watch, corruption and nest-feathering has been raised to a fine art. Misogynist laws were introduced and the war criminals in parliament, in the name of "reconciliation", granted themselves amnesty for all war crimes committed during the past three decades.

The claim that the US and its allies have brought justice, democracy and women's rights to Afghanistan "is all a lie, dust in the eyes of the world", says Joya. Afghanistan is still ruled by "women-hating criminals" — in most places it is still not safe for women to appear in public uncovered or to walk on the street without a male relative.

Girls are still sold into marriage. Rape, in and out of marriage, goes unpunished. Life expectancy is less than 45 years and 70% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Half of all men and 80% of women are illiterate. The US alone spends $100 million a day on the war butt total international aid for reconstruction is a mere fraction of this and mostly falls into corrupt hands.

The Afghan people, says Joya, are sandwiched between two enemies — the anti-US terrorists of the Taliban and the pro-US terrorists (originally armed and financed by US proxy efforts against the Soviets in Afghanistan) that came back to power with the Northern Alliance in the 2001 invasion.

US President Barak Obama, she says, continues the same failed policies as his predecessor. That is, more troops and support of corrupt, violent pro-US rulers in the pursuit of US military, regional, economic and strategic interests in the Central Asia region.

Joya's book is valuable for dispelling the fluff that passes for most analysis and reporting on the West's war in Afghanistan. It's also valuable for her clear perspective that neither the Taliban, nor the corrupt, warlord-riddled government of President Karzai, nor the Western occupation troops, offer anything but a diet of terrorism, misogyny, economic deprivation and censorship. She does not rule out armed struggle.

Joya's analysis is enriched by the stories of her personal experiences with the people of Afghanistan and their enemies. She puts faces and names to what it means when US-protected warlords are running society and brings the "poor and forgotten" people of Afghanistan, their traumas and humanity, out from the shadows of Western media stereotypes.

Afghans, she shows, are not backward people mired in Islamic fundamentalism. This does not stop her from having "hard discussions with men who thought that they could treat women and girls like property".

Joya says the struggle for Afghanistan's people is "hard and risky" but there is no other option. She says, quoting Bertholt Brecht — "those who do struggle often fail, but those who do not struggle have already failed".

Despite the personal dangers (Joya has survived five assassination attempts and uncounted plots), she feels "proud that even though I have no private army, no money and no world powers behind me, these brutal despots are afraid of me and scheme to eliminate me". Her outspoken stance for equality and democracy has won her many friends and protectors, and her grassroots support is both enormous and enthusiastic, especially among young Afghans.

International support, she writes, is very important in the struggle — messages of support are invaluable for keeping up the spirit of democratic activists and showing the people of Afghanistan that they are not alone. Joya's struggle is our struggle.