Afghanistan: Malalai Joya, supreme feminist courage in the face of War Lord, Taliban & US perils Print E-mail

The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Tuesday April 14, 2009

A voice of hope for Afghanistan's women

By Frud Bezhan

Sitara Achakzai ­ a women's rights campaigner ­ was gunned down in the streets of Kandahar on Sunday. FOR the women of Afghanistan, it is yet another brutal message ­ that death awaits those who choose a public life. [Scroll down to read more on the Taliban's cowardly murder of Sitara and the current misogyny faced by Afghan women]

She is among several high-profile women assassinated the Taliban have in recent years. But it is merely the most public example of the extreme violence women face in this embattled country, where rape and murder are widespread.

Malalai Joya understands better than most the oppression of Afghan women ­ and the danger of speaking out. The women's rights activist and member of Afghanistan's national parliament has lived in hiding for five years and never spends more than 24 hours at the same house. Her only contact with the world is by infrequent phone calls and, if there is electricity, the internet. She sleeps, eats and breathes in the shadow of six heavily armed bodyguards and wears a burqa to conceal her identity.

Malalai Joya's plight ­ and that of the other high-profile women ­ is symbolic of a country in turmoil. More than seven years after international forces removed the Taliban from power, Afghanistan is slipping further into violence and lawlessness.

For the 1100 Australian soldiers stationed in Oruzgan, in the south, the threat posed by growing insecurity and a resurgent Taliban is very real. Just last week, two Australian soldiers were wounded when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb. Last month, the ninth and 10th Australian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.

While deeply saddened by the increasing human toll, Shukria Khalil, a prominent member of the large Afghan community in Melbourne, praises the sacrifice and courage of Australian troops serving in Afghanistan.

"By coming to Afghanistan and defending people like Malalai Joya, Australian soldiers are giving ordinary Afghans the strength to endure their pain and the faith to believe and dream of a future without war, death and hunger," she says.

Joya's own battle is against the warlords who, she says, are running the country. These men, who Joya refers to as the "Taliban's brothers in arms", are former commanders of the various Islamist groups, together known as the mujahideen, who fought and defeated the Soviet Union and communist Afghan government in the 1980s. Soon after coming to power, these groups turned on each other, waging a brutal civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed, thousands of women and girls were raped, and millions of people were made refugees. The bloodshed only stopped when the Taliban took power.

"Today, because there is no strong central government, Afghanistan is carved up between these same warlords, who have now filled the shoes of the Taliban," Joya says. "Afghanistan is once again in the hands of rapists, murderers and extremists."

Asked why the warlords are so desperate to silence her, Joya responds: "I am the fundamentalists' most unrelenting and outspoken critic. They see women as second-class citizens and are threatened by the idea of a woman openly questioning their authority. The fundamentalists also realise that when I reveal their crimes and demand justice, it is not my voice alone but the voice of all Afghans they hear."

Joya, now 30, first spoke out more than five years ago. As a delegate at a constitutional convention in Afghanistan she publicly accused the country's leaders, many of whom were there, of war crimes, human rights violations, involvement in the opium trade and supporting the Taliban. She said they should be prosecuted in national and international courts. Her remarks were met by stunned silence and then uproar from the 300 delegates, most of them former mujahideen commanders and ex-Taliban officials. Joya was branded an infidel and "whore", while one delegate stood on the floor of the forum and demanded that Joya be taken away and raped.

Joya's stance against the warlords seemed to be endorsed when she was subsequently elected, at 27, as the youngest member of parliament in Afghanistan's landmark elections of 2005. There she continued her outspoken ways. She is nearing the end of a two-year suspension from parliament, imposed after she used a television interview in May 2007, to accuse fellow MPs of being criminals opposed to women's rights, obstructing free speech and intimidating prominent Afghan women.

In response, MPs voted overwhelmingly for her suspension, though their decision has no basis in law.

"Ever since I have started my struggle for human rights in Afghanistan, for women's rights, these criminals, these drug smugglers, they've stood against me," she says during a phone conversation. "They can kill men but they cannot silence my voice because it is the voice of all the people of Afghanistan calling for change, peace and justice."

Joya began her campaign for social and political change after returning to Afghanistan 10 years ago. Her family had fled the Soviet invasion 16 years earlier, settling in one of the many refugee camps along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Plunged into a life of poverty and uncertainty, Joya, as a teenager, began humanitarian work for various organisations in Pakistan to help provide for her family ­ two parents and nine children. During her regular visits to refugee camps she met many ordinary Afghans, saw their suffering and learned of the crimes of the various mujahideen groups vying for power.

"The experience had a profound impact on me," says Joya, who is still haunted by stories of women being raped, of children being kidnapped in the middle of the night, and of men being beaten, tortured and killed. When Joya went back to Afghanistan in 1998, the country was under Taliban rule. With the help of a non-government group, Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, she opened an orphanage and a health clinic for women. Risking death, Joya defied the law against educating girls by opening an underground school in Herat, in western Afghanistan. "Today, more than seven years after the ousting of the Taliban, most women are still too scared to take off their burqas," Joya says.

She claims that although liberating women was one of the main moral arguments for invading Afghanistan in 2001, the situation for women has continued to deteriorate. "Ninety per cent of women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic violence, 80 per cent of marriages are forced, and the average life expectancy for women is 44 years," she says.

Joya recounts the harrowing stories of two women she has met. Fatima, the daughter of a poor shopkeeper, was sold to a man, 50, who raped and beat her and then traded her for a dog. Her father did not have the money to buy back his daughter, 23. Shabnum, seven, was kidnapped and raped by three men, who cut her genitals.

"The plight of victims such as these girls is my driving force," Joya says. "I will never give up my fight for justice, and I'll continue to try to represent the millions of voiceless Afghan people ­ especially women and children ­ who are still being brutalised by warlords and the Taliban. While ordinary women and girls face rape, forced marriages and inhuman acts of abuse daily, women who stand up for their rights and take a public role in society risk being killed or silenced.

Shukria Khalil says Sitara's murder is an assault not on one individual, "it is an attack on every woman's fight for justice, freedom and equality in Afghanistan".

Azra Jafari, who was elected Afghanistan's first female mayor this year, says women's rights have worsened since the progress made during the transitional government between 2002 and 2004, when education for girls was promoted and women became ministers and received 25 per cent of the seats in parliament. "We had three or four women ministers during the interim government: now we have one," she says.

In another blow to women's rights, Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month signed a law for the Shiite minority that reportedly rules women cannot refuse sex within marriage, and cannot leave home, seek work or visit a doctor without their husband's permission. Opponents of the law claim Karzai is desperate to retain the support of fundamentalists in presidential elections to be held this year.

Following international condemnation, Karzai ordered a review of the law and said amendments would be made if it contravened the constitution.

Despite the pressure brought to bear by the world community and while acknowledging the contribution of international forces in Afghanistan, Joya believes the US and other foreign powers are making a mockery of democracy and the liberation of Afghan women by empowering the warlords and fundamentalists.

"The US talks about thousands of girls flocking back to school, but the fundamentalists in power are encouraging the destruction of schools, the killing of teachers and the kidnapping of students," Joya says. "The US also talks about the improving situation for women, but they are committing suicide more than ever. They would rather die than live."

Although she believes her days are numbered, Joya is not fearful for the future. "I am not frightened because we will all die one day," she says. "What matters is that we fight despite the risk and we sacrifice despite the cost. Only then can we succeed."

Frud Bezhan
is a freelance journalist.

Toronto ~~ Sunday, 12 April 2009

Targeted killing of women's rights activist shocks Afghans


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN ­ In the hour before her killers pulled up beside the rickshaw and shot her at close range, Sitara Achakzai turned to a female politician riding beside her with a strange look.

“I'm not afraid of death,” said Ms. Achakzai, a well-known women's rights advocate and one of three elected women sitting on Kandahar's provincial council. “I can go and get killed and it's no big deal.”

Ms. Achakzai's friend, a provincial councillor who narrowly escaped death in a bombing at council headquarters less than two weeks ago, was so stunned by the comment, made just before the rickshaw pulled up to her stop, she got out without asking what prompted the revelation. Not long after, news came yesterday that she would never have another chance.

Ms. Achakzai, a dual Afghan and German citizen who returned to help rebuild her country in 2004, was shot at close range by gunmen on motorbikes before her rickshaw could finish the slow crawl back to her home.

The late Sitara Achakzi, one of four female members of the Kandahar Provinical Council, attends a council meeting in Kandahar City on March 11, 2009. (Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos)

Within minutes of the killing, news of Ms. Achakzai's death had spread like wildfire across Kandahar. The killing has both horrified and terrified many educated women in the city, who looked up to the councillor as a role model.

“She is someone who was very well educated and understood what she was doing,” said a prominent businesswoman in Kandahar who has known Ms. Achakzai since her childhood.

“As I woman, I was proud to see someone who was so proud of herself. In any meetings, even when there were men around, she just put her head up so high with such pride it made me proud to be around her,” the businesswoman said.

Although outspoken about women's rights in the past, Ms. Achakzai's friend asked last night that her name not be published for fear publicity would increase threats to her own life. Gulping for air at times and choking back tears, the woman was audibly struggling with disbelief over Ms. Achakzai's death, which has already renewed fears among the burgeoning class of progressive women in this ultra-conservative city. “I want the world to understand how every person in this crazy place is feeling because this is a wake-up call to all of us that we could be next,” the woman said, sobbing. “The sad thing is nobody cares, it seems.”

In recent months, security in Kandahar has markedly deteriorated – even international forces working to secure the province have admitted the city is experiencing a low point. In addition to regular kidnappings of locals and foreign contractors, the downward spiral in the city has had a particular impact on women. In recent months, many prominent women, including famous policewoman Malalai Kakar, have been brutally murdered in public by assassins on behalf of the Taliban. Shortly after Ms. Achakzai's killing, Qari Yousef Ahmedi, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. Ms. Achakzai's husband, a German chemistry professor who has been teaching at Kandahar University, confirmed his wife's death to friends and fellow councillors.

In a sad twist of fate, the couple, growing weary of dangers in Kandahar, had just purchased tickets for a May 1 trip to Toronto, where Ms. Achakzai's ailing mother lives.

“They both said they were tired of this place because it's so violent and so messed up. They were just taking a trip to get away, but they were going to see after the elections if things were going to get better,” Ms. Achakzai's friend said. “Now she's gone forever.”

In her short absence, hope for a renaissance in Kandahar has severely dimmed. “Obviously, we've had a brain drain. … Now when we're slowly trying to think for the future of the country …this is how our country repays people,” Ms. Achakzai's friend said. “I have no faith in my government. I have no faith in the Taliban. I have no faith in the international community.”

 Winter 2009

Lives on the Line

Facing a resurgent Taliban, Afghan women have had to cover up and take cover

By Alisa Tang

Last September, Malalai Kakar, police chief for the department of crimes against women in Kandahar­the former Taliban stronghold in the south­was fatally shot while on her way to work. Less than two months later, several girls were walking to school in Kandahar when two men on a motorbike sprayed them with acid. Two of the girls were blinded. Ten Taliban members were charged in the crime, with one reportedly confessing that a high-ranking Taliban member had offered a large sum of money for each girl burned.

In 70 percent of Afghan provinces, the Taliban is back, accompanied by a skyrocketing death toll across the country and an increase in attacks targeting women and girls.

“Four years ago, when I visited Kandahar, the security situation was very good … everything was normal. Everyone could work and women could move around freely,” said Mehbooba Qasimi, a 32-year-old poet who left Iran to move back to Kandahar nearly two years ago. “Now the situation for women in Kandahar feels the same as during the Taliban times.”

The growing Taliban-led violence has had a huge psychological impact on everyone in Afghanistan. When I first landed in Kabul in November 2006, expatriates were already nervous in the wake of antiforeigner riots earlier that year. Since then, the security situation has taken a nosedive, with Taliban attacks and criminal kidnappings­targeting foreigners and especially wealthy Afghans­on the rise. These days, I rarely venture out by foot much farther than a few blocks, and when I do I try to blend in as an Afghan by wearing a headscarf, walking with my shoulders hunched and avoiding eye contact with men.

Afghan women have suffered tumultuous changes over the past three decades. Prior to Soviet rule, women­primarily affluent urbanites­ enjoyed basic rights, access to education and employment. It was a time when fashionable women walked around Kabul in miniskirts. Then came decades of political instability and civil war, followed by the Taliban takeover in 1996. For the next five years, the Taliban beat women on the streets, publicly executed those accused of adultery and denied them a life outside the home. After the Taliban, a number of women’s liberties were restored, but since early 2006 a Taliban comeback ­accompanied by attacks against women and girls­ has renewed fears among women and their families.

The strategy behind these assaults seems clear: A day after the acid attacks in Kandahar, 1,500 students at the girls’ school stayed home.

The struggle for progress is also up against a male-dominated society that is resistant to change with regard to the treatment of women. Even seemingly progressive and liberal men will make comments like “My wife likes wearing the burqa” or “She does not want to work.”

Karzai’s proposed talks with the Taliban, meanwhile, concern human-rights officials such as Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “I hope there will be no compromises with women’s rights while talking to the Taliban,” Samar said.”

Nonetheless, Afghan women have made some social and political advances. As the new post-Taliban government was formed, women fought for and won the right to hold a quarter of the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. Karzai’s Cabinet includes one woman­ the minister of women’s affairs­and women’s participation in sectors such as health care, education and media has improved. Many women are now breadwinners ­repairing mobile phones or selling baked goods, solar-powered lamps and handicrafts­and can thus assert themselves more strongly.

There are many brave Afghan women who continue to fight for their rights. Some like Samar are vocal. Others surreptitiously push forward women’s rights within a male-dominated society. There is a sense of urgency among them, because with the Taliban back in strength and potentially at the negotiating table with the government, their lives are on the line again.

(The full text of this article appears in the Winter 2009 issue of Ms., now available on newsstands and by subscription from

ALISA TANG is a U.S. freelance journalist based in Kabul and Bangkok, Thailand. She worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press in Kabul from 2006 through 2008, covering social issues, women and children

Photos by David Gill