By Sonali Kolhatkar
Contrary to her small stature, Afghan activist Malalai Joya is a towering figure among ordinary Afghans. At the tender age of 25, she openly challenged her country’s notorious U.S.-backed criminal warlords at the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga (popular assembly) in Kabul.
She thundered, “It is a mistake to test those already being tested. They should be taken to national and international court. Even if they are forgiven by our people, the bare-footed Afghan people, history will never forgive them,” before her microphone was abruptly cut off. Today, after a decade of narrowly escaping numerous assassination attempts as a result of that infamous public confrontation, she remains politically active underground and continues to call out the warlords. She also demands the U.S. government immediately end its war and occupation.
It is hard to believe that 12 long years have passed since Operation Enduring Freedom was launched on Oct. 7, 2001. As the first wave of bombs fell on Afghanistan, I spent sleepless nights thinking about the Afghan women with whom I had started to work only a year and a half earlier through a newly formed nonprofit organization called the Afghan Women’s Mission. How could any of us have foreseen that the U.S. had entered the longest war it would ever wage?
But to Joya, war is a part of life, literally woven into the fabric of Afghan society—Afghanistan’s famous war rugs traditionally feature tanks, guns and other military paraphernalia. All her life, Joya and her fellow Afghan 30-somethings have known only war, beginning with the Soviet occupation of the ’80s, then the U.S.-fueled civil war of the early ’90s, then the Taliban rule of the late ’90s, and finally the present-day U.S. war. She yearns for a peace she has never known and risks her life each day to realize it.
In an interview on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. war, Joya made it clear to me that the American occupation had been marked by far too much blood. She blamed the media for “putting dust in the eyes” of the world by parroting the government’s claim that many of the civilians killed were “insurgents.” Indeed, according to Joya, “the atrocities of the occupation forces are not new for my people.”
She went on to list just a handful of incidents: “In my own Farah Province, American troops bombed 150 civilians. They bombed our wedding parties in the past in Nangahar and Nuristan. Recently in Kunar Province through their blind bombardment, 65 civilians were killed. In the same province in another village, nine children were killed.” The endless lists of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are numbing enough to read in the newspaper. But coming from the mouth of an Afghan who is living in the middle of the war, it was almost unbearable to hear.
And yet we must hear what Joya has to say. She has chosen to risk her life to say out loud what other Afghans cannot say.
I first met Joya in 2005 in the remote Farah Province of Afghanistan while researching a book about the war. Already a legend for standing up to the warlords, she spoke softly, in halting English, about how the warlords denounced her as an “infidel, prostitute, and communist.” She implored “democratic-minded people” to tell her story to Americans and added that she was just one person, representative of many. She said, “I am a member of the young generation of this country. Now I accept this risk because of my people. They [the warlords] killed a lot of democratic people. Maybe one day they will kill me. But I will never be afraid.”
Later that year, Joya was elected with overwhelming support by residents of Farah Province to represent them in Afghanistan’s new parliament. But within two years, the warlords dominating that governing body kicked her out, striking a blow to Afghanistan’s fledgling democratic experiment. Joya was accused of insulting criminal MPs during a TV interview and was physically attacked in Parliament. Thousands of ordinary Afghan women marched on the streets in a nation where such a thing is generally unheard of demanding her reinstatement.
Joya had refused to remain silent in Parliament, and now, out of office, with her life more in danger than ever, she continues to speak for her people. In 2009, at the insistence of her supporters, she published her memoir, “A Woman Among Warlords,” where she laid out in clear terms her twofold struggle against fundamentalist oppression and foreign occupation. She wrote, “The United States has tried to justify its occupation with rhetoric about ‘liberating’ Afghan women, but we remain caged in our country.” Joya is clear about the war’s goals, writing in her book, “This endless U.S.-led war on terror ... is in fact a war against the Afghan people.”
Joya’s life, like most ordinary Afghan women, is marked by quiet destitution. In a 2006 documentary about her parliamentary campaign called “Enemies of Happiness,” scenes of Joya sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and washing her clothes by hand reveal the typical day-to-day hardships of ordinary Afghans struggling to survive grinding poverty. It is precisely because Joya has eschewed the luxuries that foreign funded nongovernmental organizations could easily have brought her that her people love her and see her as one of their own.
But Joya’s life, like all Afghan women who have taken a courageous stand, is also marked by constant danger. She represents everything that extremist fundamentalists like the Taliban and mujahadeen warlords despise. Hundreds of Afghan women have been murdered for a fraction of what Joya has said and done. For example, in recent years women TV presenters such as Shaima Rezayee and Shakiba Sanga Amaj were assassinated. This summer alone, two high ranking female police officers, Islam Bibi and Nigara, were also killed.
Joya’s outspokenness has also ruffled some feathers here in the U.S. In 2011, during a routine visa application for a national speaking tour in the States, she was denied entry. While it was never clearly understood why her visa was denied after many years of visits, a major public campaign involving members of Congress and the ACLU finally shamed the State Department into granting Joya a late visa.
When I interviewed her after she entered the U.S., she speculated over the reasons why she was initially denied a visa, saying “I think they are so afraid of what I am saying. I always expose the wrong policies of these warmongers. Their troops are killing civilians in my country. I also inform Americans of their tax dollars—that billions of them are going into the pockets of these warlords, druglords and even indirectly to the Taliban.”
I have met Joya nearly a dozen times since that first encounter in Farah Province and over the years our friendship has evolved into a deep love. My organization, Afghan Women’s Mission, has arranged a number of national speaking tours for her in the United States and this month, she is once more on a national tour organized by the United National Antiwar Coalition making the case for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan on the 12th anniversary of the war (click here for a complete listing of her tour stops).
Each time I see Malalai Joya at the airport, I breathe a quiet sigh of relief at the fact that she is still alive and healthy. My desire to see her live out her life into ripe old age clashes internally with my admiration for her courage. I want her to be safe even as I understand that her safety can be bought only by her silence, a bargain Joya has never been tempted by and likely never will.
Malalai Joya, a female Afghan lawmaker and activist, has made many enemies by fighting corruption and war.