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‘The bravest woman in Afghanistan’ talks about peace, justice and women’s rights

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Why Canada must leave Afghanistan now

Haseena Manek, The Ryerson Free Press, February 3, 2010

Malalai Joya was just 27 years old when she became the youngest person ever to be elected to Afghanistan’s parliament. That was in 2005. Four years later, she is also an author, a teacher, a peace activist, a women’s rights campaigner and a survivor of multiple assassination attempts.

Joya was recently in Canada to promote her memoir, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Speak Out, and to appear at numerous peace events across the country.

In May 2007, Joya was suspended from parliament, a result of her relentless criticism of Afghanistan’s corrupt, warlord government. To this day, Joya continues to face death threats, and must sleep in safe houses. She is constantly aware of her enemies, both inside and outside of parliament.

Joya shares these experiences as she meets and engages audiences across Canada. The topic of her speaking tour hits hard, since the first deployment of Canadian troops joined American soldiers in Afghanistan in early 2002. Military leaders still claim that the purpose of the mission is to rebuild Afghanistan, assist development and provide security.

But Joya sees things differently: “These occupation forces, they are victims of the wrong policy of their own government that sent them to a bad, costly war. Democracy will never come by war, by cluster bomb or by the barrel of a gun.”

In May this year, over 150 civilians were killed by US air strikes in Afghanistan; most victims were women and children. Eleven bodies are still missing. In September, another 200 civilians were bombed.

Between NATO air strikes from above and the dangers of warlords and drug lords on the ground, the people of Afghanistan are caught in the middle of a bloody war that is supposedly being waged for their own liberation. At least that’s the line according to NATO leaders, including Stephen Harper.

Joya has also been fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan, from the early days of the Taliban until now. She says: “The situation of women was, without a doubt, the best excuse for the US government to occupy our country—under the banner of women’s rights… But they pushed us from the frying pan into the fire.”

Afghan women face more hardship today than in 2001 when the war began. They have less security, and largely only enjoy human rights on paper. They are the primary victims of NATO’s bombing campaigns, and are often threatened with rape and murder by the warlords.

This is far from the image of women’s rights in Afghanistan peddled by the Canadian government and NATO leaders. For instance, one article on NATO’s website describes a meeting between 13 female members of the Wolesi Jirga (Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament) and NATO officials, citing “the progress made in recent years to integrate Afghan women at all levels of society” and “the current historic political empowerment of women in Afghanistan, with 68 women parliamentarians in the Wolesi Jirga…”

It is true that the percentage of female parliamentarians in Afghanistan is higher than in Canada, but Joya explains how many of these women either support the warlords or have no real power. “Most of them have only a symbolic role… They are just a show-piece.”

During one of Joya’s appearances in Toronto, she asked Canadians for their “helping hand, [their] honest, practical, helping hand.” She went on to say that this helping hand does not mean nearly a decade of foreign occupation, or the farce of democracy in the Afghan government. “There is a huge difference,” says Joya, “between ordinary people and policy-makers […] between the people and their government.” It is the people Joya calls for support, not the military.

“As a great people, as anti-war people, as human beings … [you] should raise [your] voice against the wrong policies of [your] government.”

There are many ways that people in the West can support the people of Afghanistan, and none of them require ammunition, says Joya. International solidarity, educational support and moral support are just three examples of what Afghans need and seek from allies in Canada. In her memoir, after describing three decades of turmoil in Afghanistan, Joya says that the last thing the Afghan people need is more war.

“Education is the key to our emancipation” says Joya. The job of Canadians, she continues, is to learn, to educate themselves and each other, and to become aware of the real situation in Afghanistan.

NATO troops, including Canadian soldiers, are sent to war in the name of democracy, says Joya. But Canadians must recognize that the war in not about democracy, which can only come about through the struggle of the people of Afghanistan themselves.

“The US government, Canada and NATO: they play chess with the destiny of my people… If they left us a little bit in peace, then we would know what to do with our destiny.”