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Malalai Joya in Toronto: Report

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Hearing Joya was such an intense experience that I am struggling to articulate it

Laura K., We Move to Canada Blog, November 19, 2009

Hearing Malalai Joya speak last night was electrifying, inspiring, humbling, maddening and profoundly moving.

Electrifying because she fairly crackles with the energy and life-force of the people united, changing the world.

Inspiring because she is a consummate leader, and doer, and organizer.

Humbling because I was, frankly, in awe of her. She has struggled against unfathomable odds (four assassination attempts?!) and has only gotten stronger. She says, "I am not afraid of death, I am only afraid of silence." She lives for The Struggle, and she is an example to each of us whose hearts live there, too.

Malalai Joya in Parliament

Maddening because Canada - Canadians! - our tax dollars! - are supporting an repressive, corrupt, misogynist, brutal, fascist regime in Afghanistan.

And deeply moving to hear and learn from such a teacher.

I want to write about her talk more fully, but I need a little time to let things percolate, and I have a few things already on the agenda today. Unfortunately, I won't be able to report as well as I have on other events: Joya speaks in a rapid-fire delivery that defies manual recording. (When she answered an audience member's question in Pashto, the speed ratcheted up to lightning levels!) But I'll summarize as best I can, and I know there'll be video up soon.

Part 1:

I've been putting off writing about Malalai Joya's talk in Toronto. You can read my initial impressions here, but anything further is eluding me. Hearing Joya was such an intense experience that I am struggling to articulate it, knowing whatever I write will not even come close to portraying it for you.

But knowing it's better to try than to do nothing, I will use my scribbled notes to at least get something down.

* * * *

A few other speakers, all women, preceded Joya*. A huge banner served as a backdrop: BRING THE TROOPS HOME NOW - CANADA OUT OF AFGHANISTAN.

First Vicki Obedkoff, a minister from Trinity St Paul's, welcomed us to the church and briefly mentioned the church's strong history of multifaith work for peace. Although I am an atheist, I always feel honoured to be among those who view working for peace and justice as inextricable with their faith.

Next, Neela Zamani, an Afghan-Canadian activist, helped us welcome Joya in Farsi. Zamani spoke of the terrible irony of Canada supposedly waging war for women's rights, when the new laws and policies in Afghanistan are like the Taliban or worse and the Harper government dismantled the Office of the Status of Women here at home. She asked: If the Canadian government is so concerned with the rights of Afghan woman, where was Canada in 1992 when Afghan women were suffering under the mujahideen? Where was Canada all the years before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban was oppressing Afghan women? Nowhere, because the war has nothing to do with women's rights.

Zamani urged Afghan-Canadians and Iranian-Canadians to become more politically active. She was in Iran during the protests earlier this year, and compared her two communities. "Here is a country where you can be killed for protesting, and not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people took to the street to demand justice and democracy. Here in Canada, we are free, but we are also quiet."

Next war resister (and my dear friend) Kimberly Rivera told her story. Kim spoke a little about why a girl from a suburban Texas town might join the military - the lies she was told, the dead-end job prospects available to her, the pride in being part of something larger than herself, and doing something important: helping to liberate an oppressed people.

Then she told us two experiences she had while serving in Iraq. First, the little Iraqi girl, probably two years old, clutching her daddy's hand, her eyes wide, tears streaming down her little face. Kim wondered what that little girl had witnessed to freeze her features in trauma. She wondered where the girl's mother was. She wondered how she, in full combat gear with a loaded rifle, must appear to that little girl. The Iraqi girl was about the same age as Kim's daughter, back at home in Texas.

Another time, when Kim normally would have been asleep, she felt compelled to skip bed and call Mario, her husband. While she was on the phone with him, there was a mortar attack. She later found shrapnel in her bed, right where her head would have been.

Kim realized that she couldn't leave any child motherless - not Iraqi children, and not her own. Home on leave, Kim and Mario packed the children and everything they could fit into their little compact car and started driving, not knowing what to do or where to go. Eventually they realized that the reasons to stay were mostly material, plus the comfort of their known world. The reasons to leave were more important.

It's often difficult for Kim to speak about her experience, and her obvious emotion affects the audience. For my part, I don't think I ever hear a war resister speak in public without my eyes welling with tears. When Kim re-took her seat, Joya clasped her hand and the women embraced.

Next, Member of Parliament Olivia Chow recalled Malalai Joya's address to the 2006 NDP Convention, how the delegates rose to their feet with thunderous applause, how Joya "motivated us all to stand strong," and how the NDP overwhelmingly passed the resolution calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan.

Olivia, referring to the money Canadians have already spent on the war in Afghanistan, asked, "Eighteen billion dollars, and for what?" and reminded us that for every dollar spent on development, nine is spent on war. She referred to an Oxfam report that found appalling rates of poverty, rape, suicide and torture in the land Canada has supposedly liberated.

Then chairperson extraordinaire Nadine MacKinnon introduced Malalai Joya. She said:

Malalai Joya has been called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan." At a constitutional assembly in Kabul in 2003, she stood up and denounced her country's powerful NATO-backed warlords. She was twenty-five years old. Two years later, she became the youngest person elected to Afghanistan's new Parliament. In 2007, she was suspended from Parliament for her persistent criticism of the warlords and drug barons and their cronies. She has survived four assassination attempts to date, is accompanied at all times by armed guards, and sleeps only in safe houses.

Often compared to democratic leaders such as Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, this extraordinary young woman was raised in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan. Inspired in part by her father's activism, Malalai became a teacher in secret girls' schools, holding classes in a series of basements. She hid her books under her burqa so the Taliban couldn't find them. She also helped establish a free medical clinic and orphanage in her impoverished home province of Farah. The endless wars of Afghanistan have created a generation of children without parents. Like so many others who have lost people they care about, Malalai lost one of her orphans when the girl's family members sold her into marriage.

Malalai has risked her life to speak out about the violence and poverty brought on by occupation and corruption in Afghanistan. She will speak in Toronto about why we must end the war and let the Afghan people decide their own future.

US/Canada version of Joya's book

Her new book, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Speak Out is the account of her fight to liberate Afghanistan after 30 years of war.

About that book, Noam Chomsky said: "Malalai Joya leaves us with hope that the tormented people of Afghanistan can take their fate into their own hands if they are released from the grip of foreign powers... we owe to her, and to her people, to listen carefully, to learn, and to act." Chomsky also said: "The Nobel Peace Prize committee might well have made truly worthy choices, prominent among them the remarkable Afghan activist Malalai Joya."

After the applause died down and Joya stepped to the podium, something extraordinary happened. Joya thanked Kimberly Rivera for refusing to become a war criminal. Facing Kim, Joya choked back tears. Kim tried to speak, then put her hands over her face and cried. My campaign friends and I were all weeping.

For the rest of the night, Joya spoke with strength, power and eloquence about appalling conditions, and never once shed a tear - except for that moment, face to face with one person whose actions said no to war.

Now for the hard part!


* I use first names when I know the speaker, and last names when I don't presume that familiarity.

Part 2:

Joya speaks with great strength and forcefulness. And she talks fast. Allan said when she spoke in Pashto, you could practically see the words tumbling out of her mouth, and you were half-expecting the words to start tripping and falling on each other, but they never did.

I'm a great notetaker, but this time my notebook is a bunch of crazy fragments. Here are some of them.

* * * *

First Joya explained why she wrote the book. She became famous, she said, for standing up to the warlords and drug lords, who are just a copy of the Taliban, wearing the mask of democracy. "And sometimes through your own life, you can write about other lives." She noted that in a war, the first casualty is truth, and she wrote the book to tear the mask off the warlords who are deceiving people with propaganda, and to shine a light on the tragedy of Afghanistan's 30 years of war.

She is part of the pro-democracy, anti-misogynist, anti-fascist movement in Afghanistan, and this movement wants the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Since October 2001, 65,000 Afghanistan civilians have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

In some big cities, women have access to education and to jobs. But the vast majority of Afghan women live "in hell," with rape, abuse, violence, suicide and poverty as facts of everyday live. And it's worse than it was under the Taliban, because now democracy has made these crimes legal.

Karzai is a "shameless puppet" who passes misogynist laws. Women cannot see a doctor without their husbands' permission. Marital rape is legal. If a woman refuses her husband's sexual demands, he can legally withold food and shelter from her. [Remember, Canada knew about this law before it was passed.]

Young women have been raped by the sons of MPs, with complete immunity. Joya gave many examples, including the rape of girls as young as 8 and 10 years old.

She said: "Most women in my country are living in hell." There is widespread rape and other violence against women, and the laws make it legal.

There are some female members of Parliament, but they are "dinosaurs" who accept and internalize the oppression. These women say, "The Taliban is my father, the Taliban is my brother". So their presence is window dressing, if that.

NATO says now, for the first time, women in Afghanistan have rights. THIS IS A LIE. Women may not be wearing burqas, but they'd rather wear the burqa and be alive.

Women and men in Afghanistan suffer from the same horrors: poverty, injustice, violence, joblessness. And in addition to those, women suffer rape and violence on a daily basis.

Joya mentioned the revelations, only that morning, that Canadian troops were complicit in the torture of prisoners. [The Harper Government has already said it will not order an investigation, but that may change.] As bad as that is, she said, this is what women and all civilians in Afghanistan face, all the time.

The money that pours into Afghanistan - our tax money - lines the pockets of warlords and drug lords, while Kabul has become a city of beggars. People are now squashed between two powerful oppressors: the occupying forces led by the US and NATO on one hand, and the warlords on the other.

Since October 2001, about 2,000 Taliban fighters have been killed. 65,000 civilians have been killed.

Joya expressed deep condolences to Canadian mothers who have lost sons and daughters in Afghanistan. She said, "Your tears are not enough. You must raise your voices to stop the war!"

She recounted ceaseless bombings by NATO forces: bombing of wedding parties, more than once, where even the bride and groom were killed. "The White House apologized, and Karzai the mafia puppet said, that's okay. But people don't want apologies. They want the occupying armies OUT!"

In foreign policy, Joya said, Mr Obama is much like war criminal Bush. "If Mr Obama stood for peace, he would bring George Bush to international criminal court. But one of the first things he did when he took power was to rain more war upon my people."

Joya said the recent election in Afghanistan was "the most fraudulent and most ridiculous election in the world. It was nothing but a showcase of the US government's puppet regime. Everyone knew the winner would be picked by the White House. There is a saying in my country: it's the same donkey with a different saddle. And I hope that is not an insult to those very good and hard-working animals.

"Of course the US puppets won. Most people wanted nothing to do with the ridiculous election, knowing it was not real, they wanted no part in it. Because it's not important who is voting, it's important who is counting the votes."

The Western media, Joya reminds us, presents Abdullah Abdullah as an independent, and a rival to Hamid Karzai. But in reality Abdullah and Karzai are both puppets, both misogynists, both mouthpieces for the corrupt drug lord mafia. There is no different in policy between them. Their "competition" is only about power.

Over and over, Joya referred to the "corrupt misogynist warlord drug lord mafia", often describing them as "photocopies of the Taliban". She told of rapes and murders of women, not punished, not even considered crimes. Women denied health care, education, jobs, and all basic human rights.

She said the picture she painted for us was but the tip of the iceberg of the sorrows and tragedies of her country. "We need your help. But not by occupation. Occupation has never brought about liberation."

Joya emphasized that education is a key component to the Afghan liberation struggle. Now, people who are not educated, who have low literacy and few skills, are still out there in the streets, doing struggle, making resistance. But with education, they could do so much more!

"We know what to do with our own destiny. Our freedom is our own responsibility. Canada says it will leave in two years. But we don't need this kind of so-called help. If Canada wants to help us, it must leave my country NOW!"

* * * *

Tip of the iceberg, indeed. That's all these notes are.

After Joya finished, she asked her co-author, Canadian peace activist Derrick O'Keefe to speak.

O'Keefe reminded us that this extraordinary woman, who became a secret teacher of girls at age 15, and the director of a women's health clinic at age 25, was donating all the proceeds of this book to humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

Joya herself cannot return to her home province, because of the extreme danger to her life. The Afghan puppet government cut off her security budget before expelling her from Parliament. Stephen Harper was in Afghanistan at the time. He said nothing about it then. He has said nothing about it since.

The drug lords have Blackwater security and well-organized armed guards. Supporters of Joya's raise money for her guards, and a trusted uncle vets them. Her life is in constant danger.

During the question-and-answer portion, Joya said, "I do not fear death. I fear political silence."

Meanwhile, our tax dollars build mansions for drug lords, and pay staff salaries for phony NGOs who are puppet-fronts for the warlords.

O'Keefe said that the Canadian Peace Alliance is raising money for Joya's health clinic. On her last trip to Canada in 2006, Canadians sent her home with $20,000. This time they are trying to double that. (You can send a cheque with "Malalai Joya" in the memo area.)

"We have two choices. We can sit in silence. Or we can do struggle. Raise our voices. Make resistance."

* * * *

Recommended by Malalai Joya:

I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan by Kathy Gannon

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Alex Berenson

Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar

RAWA: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

Her most recent book:

A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice by Malalai Joya