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A woman among warlords

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One of the most hopeful voices to emerge out of Afghanistan is Malalai Joya

By Shea Howell, The Michigan Citizen, January 3, 2010

One of the most hopeful voices to emerge out of Afghanistan is Malalai Joya. Barely 30 years old, Joya has been called “Afghanistan’s bravest woman.” Under the Taliban she risked death by running an underground school for girls. Shortly after the U.S. invasion, at the age of 24, she ran for parliament and won. She found herself one of the few women at the first constitutional assembly. Looking around, she saw a room full of the very warlords who had engulfed her country into a civil war.

Book by Malalai Joya

Unable to remain silent, she said, “I wish to criticize my compatriots in this room. Why would you allow criminals to be present at this Loya Jirga, warlords responsible for our country’s situation? They oppress women and have ruined our country. They should be prosecuted.”

Her comments provoked boos and a few scattered cheers. The chairman of the gathering threw her out, saying, “The sister has crossed the line of what is considered common courtesy. She is banished from this assembly and cannot return.”

The people who stayed in the assembly included many of those who were responsible for the most brutal actions of the civil war in the early 1990s. That civil war is rarely referred to in U.S. discussions of Afghanistan, but it informs how women think about the present and future of their country.

Malalai Joya draws on this experience when she urges U.S. withdrawal, saying: “Some people say that when the troops withdraw, a civil war will break out. Often this prospect is raised by people who ignore the vicious conflict and humanitarian disaster that is already occurring in Afghanistan. The longer the foreign troops stay in Afghanistan, the worse the eventual civil war will be for the Afghan people. The terrible civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal certainly could never justify the destruction and death caused by that decade-long occupation. Today we live under the shadow of the gun with the most corrupt and unpopular government in the world.”

Joya ran again for Parliament in 2005 and was re-elected. In 2006 she was attacked on the floor of Parliament when she again objected to the “criminals” who were included in the government.” She was again expelled.

Joya has survived five assassination attempts. She knows she has been lucky and she frequently refers to the women who have already been killed

“This list can be prolonged,” she says. “When these brave activist women get killed, mainstream (media) only report like a bird has been killed. That these warlords remain in power is not an accident. They thrive on the drug trade and are actively supported by the United States and other regional powers.”

She has written a book: A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Woman Who Dared to Speak Out, and is touring England, Germany, Canada and the United States.

Joya has hope for the future, explaining that if “these occupation forces leave Afghanistan and their governments leave us alone, then we’ll know what to do with our destiny — if they leave us a little bread and peace, because these warlords and the Taliban have no fruit among the heart of my people. My people hate them.”

She says, “Resistance of my people is a big hope for Afghanistan. That’s why my message to the great people of the U.S. and around the world is that your government must leave our country. But you are the ones that must join your hands with us: Human rights organizations, justice-loving people and intellectuals, feminist organizations — they are the ones that must not leave us alone. As much as we can, we need your support.”