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Afghanistan's Malalai Joya speaks in So Cal

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Her targets were warlords and corruption at home first, but it was her unflinching criticism of American policies

Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2009

Malalai Joya speaks
Photo: Malalai Joya speaks. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

At age 27, Malalai Joya was the first woman elected to Afghanistan's parliament. She's an outspoken advocate for democracy -- so much so that she's been suspended from her job in the National Assembly for allegedly insulting her colleagues on television (the suspension has been criticized by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch). She's survived five assassination attempts and stays on the move to keep safe, although her friends will tell you that her car has been breaking down a lot lately. She's been the subject of a documentary and now has released a memoir, "A Woman Among Warlords"; tonight, she'll speak at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Thursday afternoon, more than 50 Angelenos packed into a front room of a Beverly Hills home to hear Joya, who is fluent in English, speak about her experiences. About half were activists affiliated with the antiwar group Code Pink, and they were supportive of Joya's criticisms of the Obama administration's policies toward Afghanistan. "We must end this continuing occupation," she said to a round of applause, with all the conviction and modulation of a practiced politician.

Speaking with an accent that thickened as she gained momentum, Joya, who stands less than 5 feet tall, held the room in her sway. Her targets were warlords and corruption at home first, but it was her unflinching criticism of American policies that found traction with this peace-activist audience. "Democracy cannot be won by war," she said, to more applause. 

When she noted that a new report by the UNDP rated Afghanistan 181st out of 182 countries, one woman raised her hand. "What is UNDP?" she asked. About two-thirds of the crowd responded without hesitation: "The United Nations Development Program." Some women in the room had traveled to Afghanistan recently, and Joya appealed to their sense of connectedness. "The silence of good people is worse than the action of bad people," she urged, to more applause.

The cars parked on the street near the Beverly Hills home were an equal mix of middle-class sedans and high-end sports cars, with a generous smattering of KPFK stickers throughout. Southern California may be one of the few places in the country where dedicated peace activists dine within arms' reach of original art by modern masters. If Joya noticed any incongruity, she kept it to herself. She is a politician, after all.