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Suspended Afghan parliamentarian to visit Canada

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There are no honourary citizenships on offer for those who deviate from the script that justifies Canada's war in Afghanistan.

by Gina Whitfield, Rabble News, October 24, 2007

Joya in NDP Convention
Joya's speech in the NDP convention in Sep.2006 was responded by the audience warmly.

In the Throne Speech, Stephen Harper included a promise to give honourary Canadian citizenship to Aung San Suu Kyi, a move that was whole-heartedly endorsed by all parties. Who could argue, after all, against highlighting the courageous efforts of a woman who has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy against a repressive regime?

Too bad such a posture by our government stops in Burma. In Afghanistan, where Canada plays a direct military role in backing the government, the Conservatives have remained completely silent about the plight of Malalai Joya, the outspoken 29 year-old who was banned from parliament and lives under constant threat for criticizing the presence of warlords in the Karzai regime.

Five months ago in this space I noted that Harper had not a word to say about Joya's initial suspension, and nothing has changed in this regard. Efforts by NDP critics to get a word on the matter out of Conservatives in parliamentary committees have been met with evasion and silence.

A typical example was this recent frustrating exchange in the Foreign Affairs committee:

Ms. Alexa McDonough: Mr. Speaker, if I could, we wouldn't want the record to show that once again five ministers remained dumb as an oyster in the face of Malalai Joya's plight, so I wonder if I could ask for a response around the status of Malalai Joya and whether it is still the government's position that they have no comment on this grotesque, undemocratic, arbitrary suspension for having criticized the corruption and the ineffectiveness of parliament?

Hon. Peter MacKay: Some oysters have pearls, Mr. Chair. I'll allow my pearl to the left to respond to that question.

Some hon. members: Oh, Oh!

Hon. Josée Verner: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate being given the opportunity to remind all of my colleagues of the degree of commitment of the Canadian government and my department to women and to girls. Within our world of communications, news travels fast and we have perhaps forgotten what the Taliban regime meant for women…

Mr. Verner, of course, never did respond to the question about Joya, which is pretty typical behaviour by government spokespeople.

Grassroots organizations and women's groups around the world have, for their part, had a response to Joya's suspension, and have mobilized in solidarity with her case. On June 21 an international day of action was organized, with rallies held in cities around the world to demand Joya be reinstated to her elected position.

Since her suspension, Joya has made a number of tours at the invitation of international supporters. In Germany last month, she gave her view of how Afghans see the foreign troops in their country. “Today we need security and liberation, but in the name of security, the foreign troops deprived us of our liberation. We need international support, but we don't want occupation,” Joya explained.

Here in Canada, the shameful silence of our government is one of the reasons that the peace movement and feminist activists have decided to organize a visit by Malalai Joya herself. She arrives in Vancouver on October 26, and will participate in a number of events in British Columbia before visiting Toronto in early November. She will, in fact, be the featured speaker at peace rallies in both Vancouver and Victoria this weekend.

In this case as with so many before, it's women's rights activists themselves – already up to their necks fighting Conservative funding cuts – who have had to organize to raise awareness and to defend the basic rights of a woman under attack in a country that Canada is currently occupying. While in Ottawa government officials share some banter and a laugh, the threats against, and suspension of, a brave advocate for her people are ignored.

There are no honourary citizenships on offer for those who deviate from the script that justifies Canada's war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, especially during her visit over the next couple of weeks, the people of Canada have a chance – indeed a responsibility – to welcome Joya and to hear firsthand from someone who has inspired women both in Afghanistan and around the world.

Living in constant danger these past few years, Joya has remained defiant. In response to the assassination attempts, she has said, “You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring.” Harper and his government are, with their silence, in utter complicity with those who would cut down this woman's voice. It's up to the rest of us to help ensure that it gets heard.

Joya in NDP Convention
Jack Layton, Stephen Lewis and Malalai Joya in the NDP convention (September 2006).