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The bravest woman in Afghanistan

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From the sky, these occupation forces bombing civilians, from the ground, Taliban warlords.

Sonia Verma, Globe and Mail, Nov. 19, 2009

Malalai Joya in Toronto
Afghan politician Malalai Joya defies warlords and death threats to speak out against Canadian troops in her country (Photo: Charla Jones/Globe and Mail)

Malalai Joya, was the youngest person elected to the new Afghan parliament in 2005, but she was suspended two years later for condemning top government officials as warlords. Now 31, she argues Western-led efforts to bring democracy to Afghanistan are futile and is calling on foreign military forces to pull out.

Ms. Joya, now 31, has survived at least four assassination attempts, and has been called the bravest woman in Afghanistan, where she still lives. She spoke to The Globe and Mail in Toronto, while promoting her book A Woman Among Warlords .

Hamid Karzai has just been sworn in for another term as Afghan President. What are your feelings?

He promised during the first election he would not make deals with the warlords. He lied. The main problem with Afghanistan is that the warlords are in power. They are photocopies of the Taliban, maybe even worse. Afghans voted for Karzai during the first election because they thought he was bad, but he was not worse than these warlords. Then he started dealing with them. He betrayed the vote of my people. That's why this time millions of Afghans did not vote in the election. Warlords can't run for office under our own constitution. Nobody – not the U.S not Canada, nobody – raised their voice against this illegal act.

Why do you think the international community wasn't more critical of Karzai getting a second term? Some say that the election – even a faulted one – is at least some sign of progress.

The U.S. government has invested millions of dollars in Afghanistan. They have needed these warlords since the Cold War. Now, after 9/11, the U.S. government and NATO have put them back in power. Foreign powers occupy Afghanistan through the warlords under the banner of democracy and women's rights. Their only interest is a geopolitical one. They want easy access to the gas and oil of the Central Asian Republics. They are not there for my people. They are there for themselves.

Do you think that when the West says we are in Afghanistan to increase security for everyone that it is a lie?

Of course it's a lie. Under the banner of women's rights they occupied my country. Now, even in Kabul we do not have security. Security in Afghanistan is worse than it has ever been.

So if the West pulls out, you think Afghanistan will suddenly become a peaceful place?

Now my people are squashed between two powerful enemies. From the sky, these occupation forces bombing civilians, from the ground, Taliban warlords. It is much easier for us to fight one enemy instead of two. We want the soldiers to withdraw as soon as possible. Your government says it's leaving in 2011. You have to leave now because for eight years Canada has just followed the dirty policy of the U.S. government. The U.S. is there for their own interests, not for the interest of my people.

Do you really think that if the troops pull out, Afghanistan will become more secure for Afghans?

I am not saying that peace is coming and that everything will be okay. These warlords were mice when the Taliban were in power, in their holes. But after 9/11 these mice became wolves. They must stop arming them. The foreign occupiers are not honest with my people about their motivations. They are not honest. It's better to leave my country. As long as the troops are there [there] will be war. Your government says the Iraq war is a bad war, the Afghan war is a good war. I don't know what the difference is between these wars.

You argue in your book that the Western occupation of your country is being conducted under the banner of women's rights. What do you mean by that? Do you feel women face deeper dangers today than during Taliban rule?

Today killing a woman is like killing a bird. The situation for women today is as catastrophic as it was under the Taliban. The only difference is all of these crimes are happening under the name of democracy. They cut off noses and ears of women to punish them. Men cut women to pieces.

But why do you say this is being done in the name of democracy? That is a very bold claim.

Because your government, the Canadian government, says you are trying to bring democracy. But these people are sworn enemies of democracy. It's impossible to bring democracy this way. In Kabul, it is true, women have some access to jobs and education. There are women in parliament, more than in your country, but most of them have symbolic roles. And these women are outnumbered by warlords and drug lords who sit beside them in parliament.

What is your life like now in Afghanistan?

I am living underground, in safe houses. I travel with armed guards. I have survived many attempts on my life. My family is not with me. Joya is not my real name.

Do you see hope for your country?

My message to peace-loving activists is to educate my people. My message to Canada is to build schools, shelters, literacy courses, build hospitals.

Canadians are doing that.

Your government has built some schools, yes, but in the meantime they are supporting the enemies of the school who destroy the school. Now they support Karzai. How can they support an undemocratic leader if they say they are fighting for democracy?

What was your reaction to the news today regarding the torture of Afghan detainees?

It is an open secret that this happens. The Canadian government is still supporting this. The U.S. is building another Guantanamo Bay at Bagram. This is not new. It is no surprise for my people. Exposing it is not enough.

There have been a number of attempts on your life. In Afghanistan, people have threatened to beat you and rape you for saying what you say. Are you afraid?

I fear political silence. I do not fear death.