A Day With Malalai Joya

A Day With Malalai Joya

A revolutionary young Afghan woman against the Taliban, the warlords and NATO.


There’s not a straight line between the revolts sweeping the Arab world and Iran and the far more difficult situation in Afghanistan. Devastated by three decades of war, occupied by the United States and NATO, and ruled by corrupt warlords and political wheeler-dealers, revolutionaries and pro-democracy activists in Afghanistan face an additional challenge: unlike, say, Egypt, there’s no online culture of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, and in many areas there is neither electricity nor electronic devices.

But that isn’t stopping Malalai Joya.

I spent yesterday with Malalai, in southern Maryland where she had a speaking engagement at St. Mary’s College, a public college in the hamlet of St. Mary’s. She’s a remarkable young woman, an activist schooled as a refugee in Pakistan in the 1990s, in part at schools run by RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She was a teacher in underground schools in Afghanistan during the Taliban era and in Farah province, her home, she set up free clinics and an orphanage. In 2003, at 25, she made worldwide news by standing up at a national council and denouncing not only the Taliban but the myriad warlords who’d emerged to take control of the country with American backing. In 2005, she was elected to Afghanistan’s parliament, dominated then as now by ultra-conservatives, warlords and corrupt politicians, but two years later she was suspended from parliament for her fierce criticism of Afghanistan’s parliament and government. Since then, she’s lived semi-underground, surviving a series of assassination attempts. In 2010, she was named by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People of the World.

Joya says that she wants the US and NATO troops to leave, immediately. “They should leave,” she says. “The future civil war will not be more dangerous than the current civil war.” She is bitterly opposed to the Taliban, but she’s equally strongly opposed to the gangsters who run the old Northern Alliance and its allies, who were backed by the United States in 2001, and to President Karzai.

She’s currently on a tour of the United States, in part to promote a new book, A Woman Among Warlords. Her trip was disrupted because initially the State Department refused to grant her a visa, in part after she told them that she’s underground and unemployed in Afghanistan, and they decision was reversed only after worldwide protests. “We know very well who you are,” said an embassy official, she recalls.

To call the circumstances under which she organizes in Afghanistan difficult is an understatement. The media, for the most part, are controlled by the government and its allies. As for the Internet, she says: “Those who have access is very, very limited. Only about 2 per cent of Afghans have access to Facebook and Twitter, mostly doctors and so on.” Not only is Karzai’s government hopelessly corrupt and leaning toward the Taliban, she says, but the parliament is hopeless. “You can count on one hand the number of people in parliament who are pro-democracy,” she says. And while there are a few parties and NGOs in Afghanistan who are progressive—meaning, in her words, “anti-fundamentalist, pro-democracy”—there are poorly organized, mostly underground or on the edges of politics. She cites RAWA, the Afghanistan Solidarity Party, the Organization for the Promotion of Afghan Women’s Capabilities and a handful of others.

Despite the almost impossible difficulties she faces, Joya says: “We have two choices. To sit in silence, or to do struggle. But I’m alive. I didn’t expect to be alive.” Still, she can’t travel inside Afghanistan, can’t visit the provinces. In Kabul, for her safety, she’s constantly changing houses.

In her St. Mary’s talk, attended by about a hundred rapt students, Malalai described her views about the war. She’s diminutive, stretching to reach the microphone, with long, brown hair and determined, flashing brown eyes. She’s dressed in a dark pants suit with a bright, pink scarf and, unsurprisingly, no head covering. At times, her voice, which carries a controlled anger, rises in volume to nearly a shout, and as I watched the audience of fresh-faced young men and women they almost seemed to flinch, but later asked a series of articulate and well-reasoned questions that showed they’d absorbed her message.

“In my country, the result of the foreign policy of Barack Obama, the surge, is more massacres,” she says. Since 2001, the United States has pushed Afghanistan “from the frying pan into the fire,” and to those who argue that the United States must stay in Afghanistan to prevent women from being victimized by the Taliban and other, socially conservative Afghanistan Islamists, she says: “War will never help Afghan women.”

Joya won’t hear talk about the need for the United States and Karzai to negotiate a political deal with the Taliban to end the war. The Taliban, she says, was created and supported by the United States and its allies in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and in the end the United States might very well once again accept a Taliban-led or Taliban-influenced regime there if it advances American interests. Besides, she says, there’s little or no difference between the Taliban and its enemies in the mostly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, whose leaders were responsible for some of most bloody atrocities of the civil war in the early 1990s. And she’s militantly opposed to political Islam in the guise of the Taliban or the warlords, who “mix Islam with politics and use it against the people.”

She’s committed to a long struggle. Her allies, she says, are the innocent people of Afghanistan who hate both the Taliban and its enemies in the government. “The women who’ve been raped, the people who don’t have enough to eat, the people being bombed by the US and NATO, they are my heroes,” she says.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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