‘The power of education is key to achieving Afghanistan’s emancipation’: Interview with Malalai Joya

November 7, 2023
Malalai Joya
Malalai Joya was forced to live in exile after defying fundametalist Afghan warlords. Photo: DocuandNewsKorea

Malalai Joya achieved international recognition in December 2003 when she bravely denounced the presence of warlords in the meeting of Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, which had been elected to develop a new constitution for the war-torn country. In her autobiography, Raising My Voice, she describes the subsequent years of her life as being on permanent guard against all forms of intimidation, including death threats.

In 2021, under threat from the re-imposed Taliban regime, Joya was forced to leave Afghanistan and live in exile. She discussed the shape of resistance against the Taliban today with Green Left’s Dick Nichols.

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How much resistance, and of what sort, is there to the Taliban regime?

The Taliban were and are a foreign, imposed, project: the shape of occupation changed but occupation itself remained. We don’t know for how much longer they will be in power. Anyone who raises their voice gets immediately suppressed.

However, they face resistance, and the main source is the women of Afghanistan. They are an extraordinary source of inspiration and hope. When you follow the news and see the resistance of these women in the context of the history of Afghanistan, their resistance really is a source of hope, courage and inspiration.

Every day brings shocking news about women being publicly whipped, stoned, forced into marriage, banned from listening to music, deprived of education, and even prohibited from going to the park, sport clubs and just outside the home without a male relative.

Different sources report that when they imprison women they touch their private parts, and these innocent women unfortunately cannot reveal this action to the public and the media. They therefore tolerate various kinds of tortures by the Taliban. When the Taliban rape women and they become pregnant, the Taliban beat them so harshly that they have miscarriages.

Despite all this cruelty our women maintain their resistance. For example, Elaha was a young medical student and victim of forced marriage to one of the key leaders of the Taliban, Said Khosti. When she escaped from his house, she was arrested on the border of Pakistan and held in detention for months. She was released because of international pressure and has exposed how she was tortured. There are many other such examples.

Recently, the Taliban closed the doors of hairdresser shops, most of them run by women who were the only breadwinner in the family. They demonstrated against the closure of their shops and their demonstrations were brutally suppressed. There are many other instances of women carrying out such resistance.

Afghanistan comes off worse in a comparison with Saudi Arabia, which also has a religious extremist government. Saudi women are allowed to fly, to take overseas trips for research, including even space research. But for our criminal misogynist Taliban, the woman must stay at home. Either in the grave or in the house — that is their notion: the woman must stay at home to look after the babies and satisfy male sexual lust. That’s her only function. They don’t look at women as human, and don’t care about their wishes. Even the women on TV that present for them must cover their faces and hair.

How to survive? Women are driven back into the home, but men suffer as well. Due to poverty men are forced to sell their kidneys or their loved ones. Or people give up and commit suicide. A large number, most of them from the younger generation and some of them young girls in forced marriages, just kill themselves. Because nobody has listened to them.

From my point of view, it is very important for our women to be educated, then the future generation of women will also be educated, and properly treated. That’s why the Taliban program for women is so very dangerous for the future of Afghanistan.

So, given the repression, resistance remains mainly underground?

Many people are offering brave resistance, even if a lot of media do not report it. But right now, yes, it is mainly underground and careful not to expose itself to repression. This resistance is testing out what degree of support it has. Does it, for example, have the social support that I experienced in the past when I was an underground teacher under the previous Taliban rule?

There are women in Afghanistan doing the same underground teaching work today — I am in contact with them. What they are doing is planting seeds for the future, not allowing themselves to be disappointed, lose hope and just be housewives. Underground, they can teach the girls at least until the end of high school. Then, we don't know in the future if they will be able to continue, if it will be possible for them to go abroad, but hopefully they will have a chance to go to university, at least to study after 12th grade.

With the United States defeated and Russia, China and the other bordering powers seeking some degree of accommodation with them, aren’t the Taliban set to rule the country for a long time?

When you look at Afghanistan today, you see that everything is under their control, and they can suppress any single voice. Women are doing more of the resistance now, but the men as well, even if in a different way.

We must always remember that despite the Taliban’s announced “amnesty”, since they came to power they have been killing those who were part of the former regime.

For this reason, things take time — slowly, slowly. But I’m sure that the anger of people will come out, come out and spread. I cannot say when. But there is hope. There is resistance, a big hope for the future.

But with the Taliban now in power, there’s no force that can remove them in the immediate term, is there?

There are differences within the Taliban, even while they have their own single interpretation of Islam. Regarding education for girls, one group says no to education after 12 years old — girls must stay at home, get married and bring up babies, etc — while the other group says they can study, but separately from men. Both use Islam to justify their position. These sorts of small contradictions are of benefit to us. Secondly, there’s the fight for power, which never goes away.

They have other differences, but they usually try to hide them or pretend they don’t exist. It sometimes happens regarding militants from the non-Pashtun ethnic minorities, for example, with the few Taliban leaders from a Hazara or Uzbek background who raise differences. One of them they even killed, and another was shifted to another job. These kinds of issues are ongoing, no doubt, although they are not about benefiting the people, but power and money.

It is impossible to say how long these contradictions will be contained or under what conditions they will break out. But in the end, these will also offer openings for the benefit of the public as well.

How do you view growing Russian and Chinese informal collaboration with the Taliban regime?

It is an open secret now that each of these countries have their own strategic interest in Afghanistan and that for the past 20 years they have supported all these extremists and terrorists for their own agenda. For instance, the US is paying them $40 million a week. On the other hand, the Chinese have their own interest in Afghanistan, not only because of its rich mines and their own Belt and Road project, but also because they are wary of the influence the Taliban could have on China’s own Muslim minorities across the Afghanistan-China border. The same goes for Russia.

Afghanistan has rich mineral deposits, starting with very pure lithium. We have high grade uranium ore and the second-biggest copper deposit in the world. Coal and wolframite too. And these national resources are looted for the interests of the elite. During the regime of Karzai, it was revealed that then-mines minister Ibrahim Adel received a $30 million payoff from the Chinese.

In the meantime, Russia, China and the US fight against each other and are not concerned in the least for the Afghan people, who are left on their own. That is the nature of empire. The US wants to maintain itself as the one superpower against the rising superpower China, and also against Russia, and this despite their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How can the democratic alternative to the Taliban be built?

You know, in the past when King Amanullah Khan was in power, he would say that we are all Afghan. We have a lot of different peoples, a lot of ethnicities — Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, etc — but they are Afghan, which gives a basis for our national unity.

At that time the British applied their dirty policy of divide and rule. That’s still the imperialist policy, but applied in a different way. For example, in the past 20 years, during the Karzai and Ghani regimes, we had a national anthem that mentioned the name of every ethnic group. If you are Hazara, you get a mention and the feeling that you as a Hazara have been accounted for.

But why not only Afghan? Why isn’t that enough? They wanted this because they wanted to give this feeling that contrasted Afghans with each other in different ways: through books, the universities, the mosque, the schools and the communication system they don’t allow the sentiment of a common Afghan identity to grow. In all academic and social spheres, they try in different ways to grow the ethnic conflict among the public. It means they do not want the sentiment of national unity among the public to grow. 

It is the same today now that the Taliban are back in power. They call themselves Pashtun and are against other minorities, because their foreign masters don’t want Afghan national unity, because if we got united, we would give them a good lesson like in the past against Russia and the British.

That is why this policy of divide and rule persists and why they are against the education of women (and of men too). If people get educated, it’s not so easy to deceive them. So, they want the population, women especially, to be inactive, imprisoned in the home and trapped in ignorance, turning society as a whole into a corpse that’s impossible to resuscitate.

Is neutrality and/or non-alignment the only basis for a free and stable Afghanistan?

Yes, we need a neutral Afghanistan, an Afghanistan where no other country interferes in its internal issues. No more occupations under the nice banners. For four decades our people have experienced this chess game, where one set of puppets is brought in to replace another. This painful game must end. If the Afghan people are allowed to breathe a little in peace, they will know what to do and how to build their country.

The effort and role of progressive forces is vital at a moment like today and they should be in the front line, organised together. Progressive men and women have a big responsibility on their shoulders.

However, because we are in the heart of Asia, the big powers will always act in their own interest and not let Afghanistan be Afghanistan. They need an unsafe Afghanistan, an unstable Afghanistan, and an Afghanistan at war. They need Afghanistan to be backward, they need the people to live in poverty.

In the past 20 years US, NATO and their puppet regime always favoured grand superstructural projects rather than people-oriented infrastructure.

I love what Maxim Gorki says: “A hungry person does not have the right to religion and faith.” I agree with that. It’s why all extremists and their bosses just want to pay money to the people but not educate them, to make them dependent. Dependent because of the suffering of their empty stomachs.

There is a very large Afghan diaspora, which has been generated in waves by foreign intervention and war. Do you find points of agreement? What role can the diaspora have in building towards an Afghanistan built on human and democratic rights?

I hope that this convergence will happen because there have been many different organisations, NGOs and individual activists supportive of democracy in Afghanistan.

Here we have another betrayal by the US of the Afghan people, because when they withdrew their troops, they also tried to take all these intellectual, well-educated people abroad. But they are the future of Afghanistan, and when the Karzai regime was installed, most previous refugees came back, and tried to play a role in the reconstruction of the country. They had tasted hunger, poverty and being second-class human beings in foreign countries: they had tasted the bitter life, the pain, of the refugee. So, they came back to Afghanistan with love in their heart, and they fought for their country. Many remain inside Afghanistan.

I was forced to go into exile because, even though up until the last moment I was determined to remain, it was impossible because of the security problem that I had in the first days of the Taliban takeover, when they were searching for me.

My colleagues also put pressure on me, and my family said: “If you die, your voice, the voice of the Afghan people, will be silenced, and it will be like committing suicide. Get out of Afghanistan to be their voice outside, as when in a war you must retreat for the good of the cause”. But tomorrow I will be back, and with the same passion.

I want Afghans first to come together here in exile, in the name of national unity and for the future of Afghanistan. To try from outside to help those inside to also be that voice for unity, and then in the future to go back to serve their country. Not to be demoralised, not to forget the Afghan people while living in this safe haven of exile.

Your country is like your mother. We must take care of her. It is not enough just to think about her. So, let’s unite hand in hand from different parts of the world, and one day I’m sure we will win.

But it is a prolonged struggle. And meanwhile we are another generation of victims. The same bitter history repeats. It is painful for my son, for example, for his generation as well. And inside Afghanistan those generations that were the victims don’t have anything to eat and don’t have access to education. So, my message is to raise our families in this awareness, and through greater awareness prepare the future of Afghanistan.

My hope is that one day all progressive forces outside and inside Afghanistan will be united and receive international solidarity. I expect solidarity and support from justice-loving people from all countries, especially those who are suffering from the same enemies as us, but also from the other people of the world, because we believe in humanity.

Does the Afghan women’s movement look to link up with other struggles for the emancipation of women, such as in Iran, Rojava and elsewhere?

Yes, from the bottom of my heart. I want the movements of these different countries to join hands because we have the same enemy, suffer from the same problems, and are struggling for the same cause. If these extremists, fundamentalists, these misogynists from different parts of the world easily join hands, why not us?

It will be our weakness if we do not unite. Yes, my voice is the voice of the Rojava women, the voice of Iraqi women, and especially the voice of Iranian women, because if we compare Iran with Afghanistan, both are dictatorial regimes, despite their different names. They have many things in common, and when they sometimes raise their voices, it is just a family squabble between them — to distract their peoples with secondary issues.

The extraordinary resistance of the women’s movement in Iran had a huge positive impact in Afghanistan, but still the Iranian regime remains in power acting as if they cannot be defeated. My message to Iranian people is never to expect foreign governments, especially a warmonger government like the US, to remove their regime.

How best can international solidarity with the struggle for a democratic and peaceful Afghanistan show itself?

At this critical time of the history of Afghanistan we need any type of support, especially support for women’s education, as I strongly believe the power of education is key to overcoming ignorance, extremism and unemployment and to achieving the emancipation of Afghanistan.

The only way to escape from our predicament is for progressive people to be organised and united, and to struggle for this goal. That’s the only cure for our pain.

[Read the full interview at links.org.au. Malalai Joya is presently active in supporting underground education for women and girls in Afghanistan. To find out more and help this work contact mj.joya@outlook.com.]

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