Canada: Bravest woman in Afghanistan spearheads anti-war movement Print E-mail
 Toronto ~ Saturday November 21 2009
Also at:  Sunday November 22 2009

Saturday interview: Afghan activist Malalai Joya

'Bravest woman in Afghanistan' spearheads anti-war movement

By Peter Goodspeed, National Post

Malalai Joya, a former MP from Afghanistan, poses for a portrait in Toronto (Tyler Anderson/National Post)

In Afghanistan ruling politicians have publicly called Malalai Joya a "prostitute," "infidel," "traitor" and "communist."

Some, whom she calls "criminals," "killers," "warlords" and "mafia drug lords," have threatened to rape her and, on four occasions, tried to kill her.

But overseas, the tiny 31-year-old political activist and former school teacher has been hailed as "the bravest woman in Afghanistan" and compared to Burma's jailed democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The youngest person elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005, she was expelled from the legislature two years later for repeatedly denouncing her enemies and calling parliament a "zoo" filled with corrupt criminals.

Now, she is rapidly becoming a celebrity spokeswoman for a growing international anti-Afghan war movement.

For the last few weeks Ms. Joya has toured North America, promoting her book, A Woman Among Warlords, speaking on university campuses and attending church meetings.

When she was in Toronto this week, accompanied by a documentary filmmaker, a publicist and her co-author, Derrick O'Keefe, a Vancouver writer and anti-war activist, she sported two protest buttons on the lapel of her jacket.

A blood-red button with black letters read, "Canadians Out of Afghanistan." A larger black-and-white one said, "U. S. Out of Afghanistan. Now".

The white button was presented to Ms. Joya by Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst turned anti-Vietnam war protestor who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971.

"She wore it when she was interviewed on CNN," Mr. O'Keefe explained with glee.

But Ms. Joya doesn't need props to get her point across. She speaks with the blunt indignation of a victim.

"The U.S. government and the Canada government are just war criminals," she said.

"They are worse than war criminals because they support those who are war criminals.

"Your government lies that they brought democracy and women's rights to Afghanistan. The U.S. government and its allies have pushed us from the frying pan into the fire.

My message to democratic people around the world is to please raise your voice against the wrong policies of your government.

"Democracy never comes by occupation. You cannot give it with cluster bombs."

"My people are crushed between two powerful enemies," Ms. Joya adds in a voice that tends to become urgently shrill and passionate.

"From the sky, occupation forces bomb and kill civilians and on the ground the Taliban and warlords continue their crimes.

"It is better that the foreign masters leave my country.

"If they let us have a little bit of peace, we know what to do with our destiny. It's your government that supports the mafia-corrupt system of [Afghanistan President] Hamid Karzai. Canada is just a tool in the hands of the U.S. government.

"For eight years they followed the wrong policy and it makes a mockery of democracy. It's a mockery, the war on terror; it is a war crime. They have destroyed my country under the banner of human rights."

Born in 1978, just four days before a Soviet-backed coup plunged Afghanistan into three decades of bloodshed, all Ms. Joya has known is war.

Her father was a medical student, who abandoned his studies to join the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. He lost a leg to a land mine and his family fled for refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan.

At 20, Ms. Joya returned to Afghanistan as a human rights activist and defied the Taliban by running an underground school for girls.

When the Taliban were toppled, she cast off her burka, took on the religious fundamentalists and ran for parliament.

She first came to international attention in 2003, when she was selected as a delegate to the Loya Jirga, or constitutional convention, that ratified Afghanistan's constitution.

"I was shocked and appalled to see warlords and other well-known war criminals seated in the first row at this important assembly," she writes in her book.

"All my life I had heard of the horrible things they had done ... in my home province of Farah, the orphanage I ran was full of children who had lost their parents to these men and their families.

"It was terrible enough to hear about these men and their crimes, but seeing them in person running this Loya Jirga, and listening to their speeches, was like torture for me. I had to speak out."

When she did get to a microphone, she angrily asked Afghans, "Why would you allow criminals to be present here? They are responsible for our situation now. It is they who turned our country into the centre of national and international wars!"

"I raised my voice to be heard," she explained later.

And she hasn't stopped.

Elected to parliament, she repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of Afghanistan's government, saying the country is ruled by warlords who are unfit for public service.

"There were two kinds of mujahedeen," she once told reporters. "One kind fought for independence, which I respect, but the other kind destroyed the country and killed 60,000 people in Kabul alone."

Her denunciations were greeted with threats, jeers and insults. More than once she had to be protected from angry MPs who tried to punch her and who hurled plastic water bottles at her while she spoke in parliament.

Showered with human rights and peace prizes overseas, Ms. Joya lives the life of a fugitive in Afghanistan, occasionally hiding under a hated burka, staying in safe houses and having a permanent security detail led by one of her uncles.

She rejects Mr. Karzai's government as corrupt and illegitimate and predicts things will only get worse in Afghanistan.

Those in power today are simply the Taliban in another form, she says, pleading with Barack Obama, the U.S. President, to reconsider ordering a troop surge to Afghanistan.

"There will only be more disaster and more blood," she said. "They send more troops and my people are going to be innocent victims."

A hardcore Afghan nationalist, Ms. Joya talks frequently about "my people."

She broke into tears and started sobbing while talking about civilians recently killed in NATO aircraft bombing raids against suspected Taliban hideouts.

Then, just as quickly, she pulled herself together saying, "I'm sorry. I must not cry. I am telling others, 'Change your tears to strength.'

"In the world of hopelessness, we have lots of hope. First of all, the history of my country is enough to give us hope, because we have a powerful history of never accepting occupation.

"We gave a good lesson to the Russians in the past -- a superpower country who faced the resistance of my people. We gave good lessons to the British and we will give good lessons to the U.S. and Canada and NATO, if they do not stop this so-called war on terror, which is war on innocent civilians.

"It will take time. We must be tireless. We must be more fearless. As I am always saying, I don't fear this. I fear political silence against injustice."