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.”