Afghanistan’s soft-spoken rebel

The voice from the back of the room Malalai Joya is only 32, but she has been an exile, a refugee, a teacher of girls in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and now that country’s youngest member of parliament. She’s still on the run though, and still threatened with assassination
by Andrew Oxford

Afghanistan is a young nation ravaged by old conflicts. This does not refer to
the new government created after the 2001 invasion (or the violent battles
between different tribes that have carried on into the new millennium). Its
youthfulness is a statistical fact buried in UN and World Bank reports: 60% of
the country is under the age of 25, and many may not live much beyond that (1).
Nearly a decade has passed since Nato troops, led by the US, “liberated”
Afghanistan. But there is little to show for the occupation, the billions of
dollars of aid money, and the thousands of soldiers and civilians killed. Not
much is heard from the young majority. The political discourse in Kabul neglects
their future; it is dominated by the usual suspects, bearded bureaucrats and
provocateurs of wars past.
“They are law brokers not law makers,” says Malalai Joya. At 32, she is
Afghanistan’s youngest member of parliament (and has adopted the name Malalai
after the Afghan nationalist hero Malalai Maiwand). She is an outspoken critic
of the fundamentalists who subjugate the women of her country. Now she is
internationally prominent as the voice for an independent Afghanistan. Her
message – end the occupation and the Karzai government – is refreshing and
daunting, a manifesto for what the West should really be fighting for.
Her parliamentary career began with the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, of 2003,
which sought to shape the “free” Afghanistan. As Afghan politicians fought for
their place in the new government and hammered out a constitution, interest
groups jockeyed for power. Malalai Joya lobbied just for a chance to speak,
shouting “We kids can’t get a word in!” from the back of the room. She’s tiny
and has a frustratingly soft voice, so it is hard to imagine that she is a
formidable opponent of warlords. But when she takes to the microphone, it’s
clear how easily she makes enemies.

A tired chairman allowed her to speak for three minutes because she had “travelled far”. Ninety seconds proved too much. Denouncing the “warlords and criminals” present at the Loya Jirga, she blamed them for the terrible state of their country and called for them to be jailed and prosecuted rather than given positions of power. “They might be forgiven by the Afghan people but not by history,” she said before the microphone was cut. A small burst of applause was drowned by jeers of outrage as delegates leapt from their seats and charged towards her.

The chairman demanded that security remove her for “crossing the lines of common courtesy”.

We saw nothing but war
“We are the war generation,” she recently told me after addressing supporters at
the City University of New York. “We saw nothing in our lives but disaster, war,
violence, and all these catastrophic situations.” As the classroom began to
empty and those who remained clustered around the refreshments table, she
drifted between English and Persian, shaking hands, and posing for pictures as
any good politician would. Her appearance does not betray the refugee camps, the
safe houses and the five assassination attempts.
She is the daughter of a medical student who left school to fight the Soviets,
and her life has been lived on the run. Four days after her birth, the Communist
government took power and prepared for the Russian invasion. She has lived in
exile in Iran, Pakistan and any number of refugee camps, and she grew up among
the forgotten casualties of war who would later be her proudest constituency:
the widows, the orphans, the displaced. After the Soviets fled, civil war
engulfed Afghanistan, and the Taliban emerged victorious, a chauvinist and
extremist government took hold of her homeland and turned Malalai Joya into a
quiet rebel. At 15, she began work as an underground teacher for a women’s
rights group. Teaching girls how to read, she constantly dodged the watchful
authorities; and in the austerity of her fugitive existence, among the
illiterate and oppressed, she became a committed activist.
With the feminist Organisation for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities,
Malalai became a prominent voice for women in the shadows of subversion. In
2001, when Nato ran the Taliban out of Kabul, she and her colleagues were poised
to seize the opportunity of building a new nation. “After 9/11, they occupied my
country under the banner of women’s rights and human rights and democracy, but
they bring into power this photocopy of the Taliban,” she told supporters in New
York. “That’s why today, the situation in Afghanistan is a disaster.” Malalai is
quick to point out the reality of occupation for average Afghans. Poverty
remains endemic (2), corruption is flourishing thanks to the billions of dollars
foreign governments and NGOs have poured in, and the recent election was, she
says, “a ridiculous drama … just rubbing salt in the injured heart of my
people”; for despite a few legal and political benefits, women are still treated
like property.
“The situation of woman is a disaster and just as catastrophic as under the
domination of the Taliban,” she said. Having lived through the Taliban’s rule as
an underground teacher, Malalai has been an eyewitness to the terror of the
fundamentalists. The liberation, she says, has brought little change.
Considering the rise in self-immolation and rape in recent years, Malalai says:
“Women are the most victimised because women are a big power, one wing of the
bird. When one wing of the bird in society is injured, how can the bird fly?”
The burgeoning opium poppy trade has underscored what Malalai had always
suspected about the occupation. “In the last eight years, they have turned my
country into the centre of drugs.” It was not unexpected. “They are saying to
the poor farmers ‘stop planting poppies’ but the governors of these provinces
are drug traffickers. Four persons who have high posts in Karzai’s cabinet are
famous drug traffickers.” The US complicity in the multibillion dollar drug
trade, as evidenced by Hamid Karzai’s brother’s close connections to both the
CIA and the heroin underworld (3), have made it clear that poppies are not just
a convenient cash crop for the struggling farmers. They are a new natural
resource and the drug lords and their occasional allies in the occupation forces
are the new colonialists who mean to prosper in the market that leaves most
Afghans living in dire poverty.
Geopolitics have defined Afghanistan from the ancient trading routes through the
mountains to the British, Soviet and US expeditions and occupations. Its
location has been a blessing and a curse. “They invaded my country to have
access to the gas and oil of the Asian republics,” Malalai said. “And now the
people of my country are crushed between three powerful enemies: the occupation
forces bombing and killing innocent civilians, most of them women and children;
and the Taliban and these warlords.”
Truth is the first casualty
As a member of the parliament representing the rural Farah province, Malalai was
suspended by her colleagues years ago for making remarks considered too
critical. She says this suspension was a plot by the fundamentalists to silence
her. So she travels widely, in her country and the world. “The first casualty in
war in a country like Afghanistan is the truth,” she says. “The truth itself is
political.” But it could be her best weapon.
“They say a civil war will happen in Afghanistan if the troops leave but nobody
wants to talk about today’s civil war. As long as these soldiers are in
Afghanistan, there will be civil war.” The US and Nato soldiers are seen as just
another enemy in a nation that prides itself on ferocious independence. The
British, the Soviets and the US and its cohorts cannot tame Kabul or the Khyber
Pass; even the native forces of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance struggle
to restrain a population historically inclined to buck occupation.
Malalai hopes democracy can replace decades of colonisation and strife. She is
quick to acknowledge how naive she seems; yet she is an unwavering believer in
the power of her own people, who are their only agents of action. “No nation can
donate liberation to another nation. My people can liberate themselves if they
let us live in peace. Over these 30 years, we lost almost everything. But we did
gain one important thing and that is political knowledge. The resistance of my
people is day by day increasing.” “When the people stand up, they can defeat
them.”

(1) United Nations World Population Prospects
(2) The UN Development Project ranked Afghanistan last in their poverty index
and found that over 70% of the population had no improved water source.
(3) “Brother of Afghan leader said to be paid by CIA”, The New York Times, 27
October 2009.

 

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