Afghanistan’s soft-spoken rebel


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

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."

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