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The woman who dared to raise her voice

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Afghan MP Malalai Joya has risked her life to speak out against violence, poverty, corruption and foreign occupation

By Marlo Campbell, Uptown Magazine, November 21, 2009

A Woman Among Warlords

Malalai Joya has been called the "bravest woman in Afghanistan." It's easy to see why.

The 31-year-old has spent her life fighting for the rights of her people, and her story is a testament to courage in the face of oppression.

Joya grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. It was here that Joya received her education and became an activist - after classes, she held literacy courses for other women, including her mother, who she taught to read and write.

When she was 16, Joya returned to Afghanistan, then under Taliban control, and set up a clandestine school for girls, smuggling books under her burka. At 19, she became the director of a free medical clinic and orphanage.

Joya was catapulted her into the international spotlight in 2003, when she was elected to speak at a national constitutional assembly. Just 25, she was the youngest delegate there.

She used her speech to denounce the presence of the corrupt, misogynistic warlords in the room, calling them criminals and suggesting they should be prosecuted in international court.

Ninety seconds in, her mic was cut, men began screaming threats at her and she was forcibly removed (you can watch it here:

Two years after that pivotal moment, Joya was elected to the Afghan Parliament. She continued to speak out against the inclusion of corrupt warlords in what was supposed to be a secular, democratic government - and in 2007, after she compared it to a zoo full of animals, she was suspended from Parliament for three years.

True to form, she refused to apologize - except to the animals.

Joya was in Winnipeg last week on a cross-country speaking tour organized by the Canadian Peace Alliance to coincide with the release of her new book, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice.

The event was billed as an opportunity to hear a different perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan - something many Canadians remain complacent about. More than 200 Winnipeggers packed into the U of W's Convocation Hall to hear what Joya had to say.

They got an earful.

Joya said U.S. and NATO policies - including the 2001 invasion and subsequent occupation - have wreaked havoc on her country. The situation has not improved in eight years, she said; it's become worse. There is no food and water, and no security - even in supposedly secure areas such as Kabul. The majority of Afghans live on less than $2 US a day. Women sell their babies for $10 because they can't afford to feed them. Rape is rampant.

"In Muslim parts of Afghanistan it is like hell," she said. "Killing a woman is as easy as killing a bug."

She repeatedly referred to former U.S. President George W. Bush as "Criminal Bush," and said the majority of Afghan politicians are puppets to foreign interests or local Taliban-backed warlords, if not criminals themselves.

"Those who are in power, they do dirty business with politics," she said. "They sit in their suits and ties, talking about democracy with bloody hands."

Democracy and liberation cannot be forced upon another nation, she said, and the presence of foreign troops - who she said were also victims of their governments' bad decisions - has resulted in ordinary Afghans being "sandwiched between two powerful enemies.

"It's much easier to fight one enemy than two," she said, arguing for the immediate withdrawal of NATO forces. She dismissed the idea that doing so would result in a civil war; civil war, she said, is already happening.

"I think the blood of my people is not worth as much as the blood of Westerners," she said. "Afghans are fed up now. We don't want to listen to you anymore. We want an end to this so-called 'war on terror.' We want this occupation to be over."

Westerners need to help the people of Afghanistan, Joya said, but not through military action.

"The silence of good people is worse than the actions of bad people," she said. "Raise your voices as much as you can against the wrong policies of your government... Stop wasting your money and the blood of your soldiers."

Joya has been the target of four assassination attempts and numerous other plots to silence her. Yet she refuses to be quiet or to seek sanctuary in a safer country.

"I don't fear death," she told the Winnipeg crowd. "I fear political silence against injustice."

One can't help but wonder what could be accomplished if the rest of us could be so brave.