Malalai Joya has been called “Afghanistan’s bravest woman.” When the Taliban ruled her country, she braved death, running an underground girls school. When the US military overthrew the Taliban she ran for parliament.
But that doesn’t mean she’s a supporter of the U.S. military, or President Obama’s decision to double the number of American troops in her country.
“Unfortunately, President Obama’s foreign policy is a lot like [the] criminal Bush,” she said in a sit-down in interview during a recent visit to San Francisco. “He follows war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan.”
Joya’s opposition to the U.S.-NATO occupation of Afghanistan began shortly after foreign troops arrived in 2001.
Immediately “after the 9/11 tragedy, my people thought maybe this time the US government will be helpful for our people,” she said. “They were hopeful that Taliban domination has been destroyed maybe this time they will give a chance to justice-loving, democrat-minded people of my country. At least to people who don’t have bloody hands!”
But Joya found that hope dashed quickly – as early as December 2003 – in the first meeting of Afghanistan’s newly-elected constitutional assembly. She looked around the room and saw the United States and NATO had invited a who’s who of the warlords who had destroyed her country to form a new government.
She was 24. And she couldn’t stay silent.
“I wish to criticize my compatriots in this room,” she said amid boos, catcalls and scattered cheers. “Why would you allow criminals to be present at this Loya Jirga, warlords responsible for our country’s situation? Afghanistan is the center for national and international conflicts. They oppress women and have ruined our country. They should be prosecuted. They might be forgiven by the Afghan people, but not by history.”
The chairman responded by throwing her out.
“The sister has crossed the line of what is considered common courtesy,” he said, banging his gavel. “She is banished from this assembly and cannot return. Send her out! Guards, throw her out! She doesn’t deserve to be here.”
But Joya did not give up. She ran for Parliament again in 2005 and was elected a second time.
In 2006, she was physically attacked on the floor of the Parliament, when she said:
“There are two types of Mujahidin” – freedom fighters – “one who were really Mujahidin, the second who killed tens of thousands of innocent people and who are criminals.”
Joya was again expelled from Parliament. One law-maker Jebel Chelgari said that wasn’t enough. She should be punished with a gun, he said. Like many members of post-Taliban Parliament, Joya says Chelgari has a reputation for brutality.
“This cruel man, this non-educated, ignorant man,” she says, “is famous in his province as a head eater. Because he has killed so many people they do not even mention his name. They call him ‘head eater.’”
All together, Joya has survived five assassination attempts. But at least she’s still alive. Other women’s rights advocates have not been so lucky.
She breathlessly rattles off a half dozen prominent women who have been killed by the U.S. and NATO, U.S.-backed warlords, the Taliban and general lawlessness since September 2001.
There is Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s most prominent policewoman, who headed up Kandahar Province’s department for crimes against women, who was shot and killed while driving her car on September 28, 2008.
Also among the dead is Sitara Achakzai, who spent the years of Taliban rule in Germany and returned to Afghanistan in 2004 to join women working to promote their human rights and struggling to secure peace. For International Women’s Day on March 8, 2009, she played a major role in organizing a national sit-in of more than 11,000 women in seven Afghan provinces. On April 12, 2009, she was gunned down in broad daylight in front of her home.
“This list can be prolonged,” she says. “When these brave activist women get killed mainstream only reports like a bird has been killed. That is it.”
That these war-lords remain in power is not an accident, she said. They thrive on the drug trade and are actively supported by the United States and other regional powers.
And that arrangement has gotten worse under Obama than Bush, she said, because certain warlords deemed too brutal to take part in the Afghan government under Bush have been invited to the bargaining table under Obama.
One example she cites, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a 61-year-old veteran of Afghanistan’s three decades of war who gained infamy for rocketing his own capital during a brief stint as prime minister in the 1990s.
Bush had put a $25 million “price on his head” for participating in terrorist actions with Al-Qaeda, she notes, and in 2003 the State Department designated Hekmatyar a “Specially Designated Global International Terrorist”.
This April, however, U.S. officials began meeting with Hekmatyar’s representatives in hope that he would join the government.
So Joya has taken her fight directly to the occupiers. She’s written a book – A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Woman Who Dared to Speak Out – and is touring the very countries that occupy Afghanistan – England, Germany, Canada, and the United States.
Joya says she has hope for the future. If the NATO and the US military leave Afghanistan, she says life will gradually improve.
If “these occupation forces leave Afghanistan and their governments leave us alone then we’ll know what to do with our destiny – if they leave us a little bread and peace, because these war lords and the Taliban have no fruit among the heart of my people. My people hate them.”
In this way, she sees the weakness of Hamid Karzai’s government as a strength, not a cause for concern.
“Resistance of my people is a big hope for my people of Afghanistan. That’s why my message to the great people of the U.S. and the around the world is that your government must leave our country, but you are the ones that must join your hands with us: human rights organizations, justice-loving people and intellectuals, feminist organizations—they are the ones that must not leave us alone. As much as we can, we need your support.”
New America Media, Interview, Video, Text: Aaron Glantz// Video: Cliff Parker and Aaron Glantz