Freedom hasn’t arrived, Afghan rights activist says

The Capital Times (Madison, WI)

By Judy Ettenhofer, opinion editor

Malalai Joya travels around Kabul, Afghanistan, with three bodyguards, yet she has no illusions that she is truly safe.

“I receive lots of death threats, but I will never compromise,” says the human rights activist and member of Afghanistan’s National Assembly.

Joya, wise far beyond her 27 years, speaks out for democracy and the “freedom-loving people” in her native country. “There is no fundamental change in Afghanistan” since the overthrow of the Taliban by the United States and its allies in 2001, she says. The brutal Taliban leaders were simply replaced by the brutal warlords who had battled each other during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s.

“The democracy the U.S. brought to Afghanistan isn’t working,” Joya asserts. The warlords, now in power both at the local level and in the national government, “have learned to talk about democracy and women’s rights but they don’t really support them.” The players in Afghanistan may have changed physically, she says, “but mentally they are still the Taliban” in their disrespect for human rights.

Joya brought her message to Madison for International Women’s Day, speaking on the University of Wisconsin campus Wednesday night and today. Earlier Wednesday she stopped by The Capital Times to meet with our editorial board. She fearlessly describes the hellish life that so many Afghans continue to experience under the warlords – and she blames the United States and its allies for using the warlords to defeat the Taliban but doing little to prevent them from filling the resulting power vacuum in Afghanistan.

She says life is better for Afghans in Kabul, the capital, and a few other cities, but in most of the outlying provinces, women still must cover themselves head to toe, education is discouraged to the point of schools being burned, and well-armed local warlords keep the citizens oppressed and fearful. Desperate from being repressed, many women commit suicide, Joya says.

Joya gained international prominence in 2003 when she stood up at the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan’s grand council, to denounce the warlords, calling for them to be tried as war criminals. Her speech shocked the nation but clearly resonated deeply with her people. Her home province of Farah subsequently elected her to the National Assembly by a large margin. The assembly finally was seated in December, the first such democratic parliament in Afghanistan in more than 30 years. Joya again took to the microphone to decry the presence of criminal warlords and drug smugglers among her fellow assemblymen. She was shouted down. Death threats are common, and both her home and office have been attacked.

But Malalai Joya will not stop speaking the truth she so fervently believes. When asked what the United States could or should do to improve life in Afghanistan, she responds: “Make the warlords powerless.” She says they are fortified by large caches of weapons buried in remote areas, and getting them disarmed should be a goal. She also says that U.S. monetary aid to Afghanistan has been diverted to the warlords, who use it to buy weapons.

“Day by day they become more powerful,” she says, noting that President Hamid Karzai has compromised with the warlords after promising he wouldn’t make peace with them.

Joya will spend most of March traveling around the United States to tell her story of life under the warlords in Afghanistan and why she and other Afghan women continue their struggle for true democracy and freedom. She does not back down from the fight.

“My people are with me,” Joya says. The warlords “can cut all of the flowers, but they will never stop the coming of spring.”

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Honour these feminists

Afghanistan’s most popular MPs is fearless Malalai Joya

Globe and Mail, March 9, 2006

MARGARET WENTE

Not many people are willing to put their comfort, their safety, even their lives, on the line for their beliefs. Here are three brave women who are doing just that. Their courage, and their refusal to be silenced, are an inspiration — and also a sobering reminder that for millions of girls and women living under religious oppression, equal rights remain a distant dream.

One of Afghanistan’s most popular MPs is a fearless (some say foolhardy) 27-year-old named Malalai Joya. As an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, she loathes the Taliban. But she insists on pointing out that the current government includes some unsavoury characters, too — including powerful former warlords. “Now they have a mask of democracy,” she said this week, during a speaking tour in the U.S. “But they do not believe in democracy. They do not believe in women’s rights, human rights.”

Ms. Joya has never known a time when Afghanistan was not at war. She grew up mostly in refugee camps. After the Taliban came to power, she slipped back into the country and conducted secret classes for women. Her friends have urged her to tread lightly and be cautious. But on the first day of parliament last December, she rose to her feet and denounced the “criminal warlords” with blood on their hands who sat beside her. She was shouted down by furious MPs, and showered with death threats.

The good news in Afghanistan is that a woman like Ms. Joya could be elected. The bad news is that out in the provinces, beyond Kabul, the miserable lot of girls and women hasn’t changed much since the Taliban were overthrown. She wants the world to know that: “How can a country improve when 50 per cent of its population are silenced? It’s like a bird with only one wing.”

If you’re a Muslim, it’s dangerous to be labelled an apostate, even if you live in the West. Ask Salman Rushdie. Or ask Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American woman from Syria who has chosen to go head to head with Islamist clerics on Al-Jazeera. Two weeks ago, in Arabic, she argued, “The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. . . . It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings.”

“Are you a heretic?” demanded her adversary. “If you are a heretic, there is no point in rebuking you, since you have blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran.”

After her TV appearance, according to a news report, she was denounced by an imam in Damascus who said she was harming Islam “more than it was harmed by the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.” But this forceful woman will not be silenced. Here is how she rebuked the cleric: “Brother, you can believe in stones, as long as you don’t throw them at me.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was once such a devout Muslim that she demonstrated against The Satanic Verses. Born in Somalia, she emigrated to the Netherlands, where she became an advocate for immigrant Muslim women abused by their husbands and families. Eventually, she was elected to parliament. Her life changed after her colleague, filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was assassinated by a Dutch-born Muslim fanatic because of a movie the two had made that attacked Muslims’ treatment of women. The brutal murder rocked the nation. Now she, too, has been branded an apostate, and lives in seclusion under armed guard.

“I have come to the conclusion that Islam can and should be reformed if Muslims want to live at peace,” she says. She has spoken out passionately against sharia, and, like Salman Rushdie, has blasted the European politicians who bowed to Muslim pressure groups over the Mohammed cartoons. She, too, knows that speaking out could cost her life. “If I don’t [survive], well, I’ve lived my life as I want to live it,” she says. “So be it.”

These are feminists of the most courageous kind. They have courage to speak the truth in dangerous times to those who do not want to hear it. We should honour them.

Read original article here.

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Don’t forget us

Afghan freedom fighter and Assemblywoman Malalai Joya comes to Pasadena to speak for a nation still on the brink

By Joe Piasecki

Hearing her tiny voice and polite but limited English over a crackly international cellular connection, it’s hard to picture Malalai Joya as her reputation precedes her – as one of the bravest and most powerful women in Afghanistan.

But it’s not how her words sound; it’s what this 27-year-old is saying that’s so powerful.

In Joya’s lifetime, Afghanistan has seen two military invasions, a bloody civil war and the rise and fall of the Taliban. Leader of a feminist organization and health clinic, she was elected to serve on the country’s 2003 Loya Jirga, or grand council, to form yet another new government. There she shocked everyone with a short speech decrying other representatives who are some of the most powerful men in the country as war criminals who should be tried for crimes against humanity. Several members of the Assembly are said to have very bloody pasts, including a militia leader accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch, which reports warlords as having undue influence over and access to government affairs, and a former Taliban militia commander.

“They made our country the center of national and international fighting,” she said to the council, a place where young women were traditionally banned. “They were the people who put our country in its current condition, and want to again. Even if our people forgive them, history will not.”

It’s an alarming statement, not only for the Afghans who have to live with it, but also for Americans who hope their government is living up to the values it espouses.

The speech itself prompted angry shouts and even death threats, which have now become routine in her life, from many on the council. But her constituents loved it, and in September voted her into the Afghan National Assembly. Hoping that her people will some day be safe and free, she says she will continue to try to expose those who work against gender equality, human rights and democracy – even if nobody else will.

As part of a nationwide tour sponsored by the Afghan Women’s Mission, an advocacy group founded by KPFK 90.7 FM radio personality and Pasadena resident Sonali Kolhatkar, Joya will speak at 7 p.m. Monday at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 663 S. Berendo St., Los Angeles. For information, call (626) 676-7884.

Then at noon on Tuesday, Joya will speak at Caltech’s Avery Hall, 332 S. Michigan Ave. in Pasadena. To RSVP, call (626) 395-3221.

Sometimes relying on a translator, she spoke to the Weekly on Friday from Canada.

PW: In America, being a member of Congress is considered a pretty cushy job. For you, being a national Afghan leader has been downright dangerous.

Joya: Several times I have received death threats. After my speech at the Loya Jirga, my life completely changed. When people became aware I was one of the candidates for parliament [the national Assembly], they started threatening me more. Before my election to parliament they attacked my office and my house. I do not feel secure, especially when I come to Kabul.

What is it about Afghan politics that would allow you to become such a target?

Members of parliament have links to warlords, and some of the leaders are warlords. Some of them have links with mafia. Every time I have a speech I receive lots of support from the innocent people outside parliament. Inside parliament, some warlords and people in power with links to warlords shout against me every time I speak because I’m telling the truth.

Why are former warlords back in power?

Because they have two faces. They deceive people. Some think if we vote for this person they will help once again. [Many “warlords” are credited with the defeat of Soviet invaders.] They have the support of foreign countries; lots of money. That is the reason they found their way into the parliament. Now they have a mask of democracy but … they do not believe in democracy. They do not believe in women’s rights, human rights. And those people destroyed our country. This is the reason we are now really worried about the situation in our country, and the main reason most people in Afghanistan didn’t attend the parliamentary election. … They want to vote for a person who doesn’t have blood on their hands.

If it’s so far gone, what can the government hope to achieve?

The last hope of our people – they hope this parliament will help us. But these same people, you will see in the future, will never help our people. There are those people, you know, who would like to be in power forever.

There is no fundamental change in the situation in Afghanistan. You should not see only Kabul; you should see the faraway provinces. Not only does the situation of women become worse day by day, there is no security. All of the people are very poor. They do not have health and education facilities. Instead of the Taliban, now [leaders] are brothers of Taliban. But I do not want to say all of them; some of them are good people. They do not have a bloody hand in the history of Afghanistan.

Do they also hate you because you are a woman?

Yeah. Of course. On one hand they cannot suffer – tolerate – me because I’m a woman and I expose them: two reasons against me.

Have women’s rights improved since the Americans arrived?

Unfortunately, there is no fundamental change in the situation of women. Women, even in Kabul, they do not feel real security, and women do not have real liberation. You should see faraway provinces. For example [a woman] has been killed by her husband in Herat. Maybe you heard in the media?

No.

Nobody will ask why he did [it] because he understands the head of justice is a person who is against women. Maybe you hear about Amana? She has been killed by local warlords, but nobody asks. Maybe you heard about Musca? They raped her. And today, today we received another report in a province in Afghanistan that a woman committed suicide. In the western provinces of Afghanistan women, day by day, they are killing themselves. They prefer to die than be alive. People in power do not believe in women’s rights and did lots of crimes in the past. Now they do not want that our women should be liberated.

What’s America doing wrong?

On one hand I am really happy that the people, the democracy loving, freedom-loving people support us. We need their support and we’re proud. On the other hand the [Afghan] people really have suspicion about the help from the government of the United States. There are those people who did lots of crimes on our innocent people. Every person in Afghanistan knew about those criminals then, but now they have learned how to speak about democracy.

So if it’s all going wrong, why do what you do?

To my life I will defend and be in Afghanistan because I will not betray the innocent people. On the other hand, why I decided to be a member of parliament is because of the people who trusted me and came to my office and supported me and said, ‘Please, on behalf of us, you should be in parliament. We just trust you.’

I know very well about all the risks and all of the sacrifices and all of the problems, but I wanted to be the voice of suffering people. If they try to make laws against the people of this country, I will stand up and expose them.

Why come to America?

My message to the United States: Do not forget the people of Afghanistan.

Read the original article here.

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Leading Afghan Parliamentarian Visits US to Bring Attention to Increasing Violence, Warlord Domination, Oppression of Women

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MEDIA ADVISORY: March 1, 2006

CONTACT: Sonali Kolhatkar – 626-676-7884 – info@afghanwomensmission.org

Leading Woman Member of Afghan Parliament Makes Rare Visit to US to Bring Attention to Increasing Violence, Warlord Domination, and the Continuation of Oppression of Women in her Country

Will be welcomed by local Afghan American Community at LAX to Launch a Nation-Wide Speaking Tour Celebrating International Women’s Day Events

Los Angeles, CA – Afghan Parliamentarian and one of most famous women in her country, Malalai Joya, will arrive in Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 1st at 8 pm, to begin a nation-wide tour of the United States.

She will be welcomed United States and greeted at the LAX airport by prominent members of the Afghan-American community of Southern California.

Who: Malalai Joya, Member of Afghan Parliament

What: Afghan Community welcomes Malalai Joya upon her arrival to the United States.

When: 8:20 PM, Wednesday March 1st.

Where: Los Angeles International Airport, Terminal 5, Delta Airlines Flight 2012, arriving from JFK.

“Ms Malalai Joya is a brave woman who has rightly criticized the warlords – she did so even before she was elected to the Parliament, said Dr. Sayed Hashemyan, editor of the “Afghanistan Mirror,” a monthly magazine for the Afghan community. “She has proved her love for her country, and we in the Afghan community have great respect for her.” Dr. Hashemyan will be among those welcoming Ms. Joya at the airport.

Also present will be a representative from the Afghan Women’s Association, and the Pasadena-based Afghan Women’s Mission.

Upon her arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, Joya will be speak to her supporters about the on-going oppression of Afghan women and the increasing instability and violence across Afghanistan.

In September 2005 Malalai Joya ran for election to the 249-seat Afghan National Assembly as a representative of Farah Province and won the second highest number of votes in that province. In a recent profile the BBC called her, “the most famous woman in Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan is becoming more dangerous with each passing year. In fact, 2005 was the bloodiest year since the fall of the Taliban, with 91 US soldiers, and 1,600 civilians killed. There have also been dozens of suicide bombings in recent months – a phenomenon never before seen in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s military and political institutions are dominated by local and regional warlords and drug lords. Instead of being disqualified from running, many warlords won seats in the Parliament through elections which were wracked by intimidation, fraud, and poor attendance.

According to Malalai Joya, her task as an elected representative is: “exposing the real nature of the current parliament and informing the Afghan people from within the Parliament that the criminals … make laws for the benefit of the rich, the drug traffickers, warlords, and high level bureaucrats.”

Today Malalai Joya is one Afghanistan’s most popular elected leaders. At age 27, she is also one of the youngest. She first rose to international prominence in 2003 when she openly denounced the warlords at a gathering to adopt the Constitution. Since then she has received numerous death threats and survived four assassination attempts.

# After her election to the Parliament, she continues to speak out and remains Make a Donation
undaunted by the danger facing her: “They will kill me but they will not kill my voice… because it will be the voice of all Afghan women. You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring” (BBC, January 2006).

Malalai Joya is named after “Malalai of Maiwand” – one of Afghanistan’s greatest heroines, who ran onto the battlefield at Maiwand in 1880 and rallied the Afghan forces to defeat the British.

Malalai Joya’s first speaking event of her nation-wide tour is on Monday March 6th at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church (663 S. Berendo) in Los Angeles at 7 pm. Visit www.afghanwomensmission.org for more details. Her trip to the United States is designed to coincide with Women’s History Month (March 2006).

NOTE: Malalai Joya will be available for a limited number of interviews during her stay in Los Angeles. Contact Sonali Kolhatka 626-676-7884 to schedule an interview.

Organized by Afghan Women’s Mission, www.afghanwomensmission.org.

PAST PRESS RELEASES

CONTACT
Voice: 626-676-7884
E-mail: info@afghanwomensmission.org

February 13, 2006

Nationwide Tour of Afghan Woman Activist and Parliamentarian

Los Angeles – 27 year old Afghan women’s rights activist and MP, Malalai Joya, will kick off a nationwide speaking tour across the United States on March 6th, 2006. In a recent profile the BBC referred to her as “the most famous woman in Afghanistan.” Joya first gained international attention when she publicly denounced warlords at the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga (traditional grand assembly) in Kabul.

Since then she has survived numerous assassination attempts and is routinely threatened by the powerful men she criticizes. She now requires armed security guards and travels incognito inside Afghanistan. Her courage in standing up to the warlords has earned her great popularity among the people of Afghanistan. In September 2005 she ran for election to the 249-seat Afghan National Assembly as a representative of Farah Province and won the second highest number of votes in that province.

For the first time since her election to the Afghan Parliament, Malalai Joya will visit the United States on a multi-city speaking tour to share her experiences with Americans. Her primary message is that, contrary to media reports and White House officials, Afghan women are far from liberated. In fact, warlords, supported over the years by the US, are among the greatest threats to women’s freedom today. According to Joya, “[U]nder the name of Islam, these criminals did a lot of crimes against our people, especially against the women of Afghanistan.” For more information, visit www.malalaijoya.com.

If you are a member of the media and would like to schedule an interview with Malalai Joya, please call 626-676-7884. Or email info@afghanwomensmission.org.

Please note, interviews can only be scheduled after March 5, 2006, when Ms. Joya is in the US.

If you would like to interview Malalai Joya in studio, please check our event calendar to see if she will be in a city near you.

BACKGROUND:

Malalai Joya is the daughter of a former medical student who was wounded while fighting against the Soviet Union (which invaded and occupied Afganistan from 1979 – 1989). Malalai was 4 years old when her family fled Afghanistan in 1982 to the refugee camps of Iran and then Pakistan. She finished her education in Pakistan and began teaching literacy courses to other women at age 19. After the Soviets left, Malalai Joya returned to Afghanistan in 1998 during the Taliban’s reign. During that time she established an orphanage and health clinic, and was soon a vocal opponent of the Taliban.

Joya currently heads the non-governmental group, “Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities” (OPAWC) and administers Hamoon Health Clinic in Farah, Afghanistan. She is married to a Kabul-based student of agriculture and has six sisters and three brothers.

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