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'Bravest woman in Afghanistan' tours Canada

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She wants to live to see her people "strong and free." But she is prepared to die for her democratic beliefs.

By Bruce Ward, The Vancouver Sun, November 20, 2009

Malalai Joya
An outspoken Afghan MP, activist Malalai Joya is on a speaking tour of Canada to launch her memoir, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. (Photograph by: Bruce Stotesbury, Victoria Times Colonist)

Malalai Joya talks quickly, barely pausing for breath.

Her words pour out in a rushing stream, as if she is speaking for the millions of Afghan women who are denied a voice. As if her time is running out.

Killing a woman in Afghanistan is "like killing a bird," she says over the phone from Toronto.

Despite U.S. rhetoric about liberating Afghan women, "we remain caged in our country, without access to justice and still ruled by women-hating criminals," Joya writes in her new memoir, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice.

"Fundamentalists still preach that 'a woman should be in her house, or in her grave.' In most places, it is still not safe for a woman to appear in public uncovered, or to walk on the street without a male relative. Girls are still sold into marriage. Rape goes unpunished every day."

Joya, who is on a speaking tour of Canada to launch her book, will take part in a public forum in Ottawa on Thursday.

Joya knows she is a target.

She has survived four assassination attempts and lives like a fugitive in Afghanistan, protected by bodyguards and moving to safe houses almost nightly to stay ahead of her enemies. Even the flowers at her wedding were checked for bombs.

"To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burka, which, to me, is the symbol of women's oppression," she says, "like a shroud for the living."

At 27, Joya became the youngest person to be elected to Afghanistan's new parliament. Two years ago, she was banished from her seat for speaking out about government corruption. She said President Hamid Karzai was a puppet and that warlords and drug barons ran the country.

Karzai began his second five-year term this week by promising to crack down on corruption, which has blighted his government.

"We have a saying in Afghanistan: 'Same donkey, different saddle,'" Joya says. "Karzai operates a Mafia system and he is a shameless puppet man, backed by the U.S., trying to deceive people around the world. My people will never trust him. Karzai does dirty deals with the warlords. He has betrayed us, which is why millions of people did not vote in the election."

Although she has no proof, Joya accepts the account by Richard Colvin, a top Foreign Affairs official, in his appearance before a House of Commons committee this week. Colvin alleges the federal government was aware the Canadian military routinely handed over detainees to Afghan authorities, knowing prisoners would likely be tortured.

"That's why, day by day, Afghans believe that the Canadian government and NATO are tools in hands of U.S. You are sending your troops, your money. Why are you not raising your voice against these illegal acts?

"Canada is spending taxpayers' money and the blood of her soldiers on a corrupt regime that mocks democracy," she adds, her voice rising on the phone.

She says Afghans see Canadian troops as no different from U.S. troops — "an occupying force, not as liberators or peacemakers of any kind."

Joya is 31. Her country has been at war her entire life. If the Taliban gets its way, Joya won't see her next birthday. "Most Afghans my age or younger have known only bloodshed, displacement and occupation."

She was a baby when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, barely four when her family fled to Iran to live as refugees, like millions of other Afghans.

When the Russians left, the country was plunged into civil war among vicious fundamentalist warlords. That led to the rule of "the depraved and medieval Taliban," followed by the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Joya was raised in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan, where she was allowed to attend school. As a young woman, she became a teacher in secret girls' schools. Classrooms were a series of basements.

She also helped set up a free medical clinic and orphanage in Farah, the impoverished province where she was born.

Almost eight years after the invasion, the situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening, she writes.

"We are caught between two enemies — the Taliban on one side and the U.S./NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other. And the dark-minded forces in our country are gaining power with every allied airstrike that kills civilians, with every corrupt government official who grows fat on bribes and thievery, and with every criminal who escapes justice."

Joya wants all troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, although she concedes another civil war may follow withdrawal. But she believes the longer foreign troops stay, the worse the eventual civil war will be.

"The terrible civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal certainly could never justify, after the fact, the destruction and death caused by that decade-long occupation."

So the withdrawal of troops must be accompanied by other measures, she argues, including disarming the warlords and their militias.

When she was a girl, Joya was especially close to her grandmother, who would tell her stories. When her grandmother died, she told Joya she wanted her to visit her grave, pour water on it and shout three times. "I want to hear her voice," she told her granddaughter.

Joya writes that she wants to live to see her people "strong and free." But she is prepared to die for her democratic beliefs.

"But if I should die and you choose to carry on my work, you are welcome to visit my grave. Pour some water on it and shout three times. I want to hear your voice."

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