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An Afghan Politician Pushes for a Comeback

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Her confrontational approach has made her the scourge of many of the powers that be in her country.

By Caroline Brothers, New York Times, March 15, 2010

Malalai Joya, the youngest elected politician in Afghanistan, in Canada in 2009.
Malalai Joya, the youngest elected politician in Afghanistan, in Canada in 2009. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

PARIS — The people who want to silence Malalai Joya, the youngest elected politician in Afghanistan, are doing a pretty good job of it in her own country.

She has been expelled from Parliament. She has been barred from appearing in the Afghan media after denouncing the role of the warlords in politics.

What is more, she has received so many death threats that she now lives what she calls a fugitive’s life, changing safe houses every night under the protection of her bodyguards and her burqa. Even the flowers at her wedding were checked for bombs.

But Ms. Joya, 31, is speaking out nonetheless, hoping to engineer a political comeback in legislative elections scheduled for September.

Long an activist for democracy and women’s rights, Ms. Joya has survived at least four assassination attempts.

“My agenda is clear,” she said last month while in Paris for the French publication of her memoir, “A Woman Among Warlords.” “I’m risking my life to one day bring these criminals to court.”

Her confrontational approach has made her the scourge of many of the powers that be in her country. But it has also divided those who might be considered her allies. Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, called her “a populist” during a newspaper interview last year, and said that “this is not always helpful.”

By law, 25 percent of seats in the Afghan Parliament are reserved for women. But Samira Hamidi, country director for the advocacy group Afghan Women’s Network, said she feared that security problems, and a lack of education and experience, would block the fulfillment of that promise.

Moreover, planned amendments to Afghan electoral law, including one that stipulates that any vacant seat be filled, will erode female representation, Ms. Hamidi said during an interview by telephone last month. “If we don’t get women from remote provinces, that means those seats will be filled by men, and that will decrease the number of women in Parliament,” she said.

In Ms. Joya’s case, security will be an overriding concern. “Just moving from house to house is a very big risk for me,” Ms. Joya said. Still, she has no lack of potential platforms. Supporters in five jurisdictions have asked her to represent them. They include Jalalabad, Nimroz, Takhar, Kabul and Farah — the western province that sent her first to the loya jirga, or traditional assembly, that ratified the Constitution, then elected her to Parliament, at age 27, in 2005.

She originally rose to prominence in 2003 for denouncing the presence of the warlords at the assembly in a speech cut off after 90 seconds. In response, she was called a communist and a prostitute and was mobbed and finally escorted from the building by supporters and U.N. officials, who installed her in a safe house. Later that night, she recounts in her memoir, a crowd came looking for her, threatening to rape and murder her, and tore apart the room she had vacated.

Her banishment from Parliament in 2007 followed her renewed criticisms of its warlord members and their allies. Her microphone was routinely cut off whenever she tried to speak, and members of Parliament hurled water bottles and sandals at her when she denounced what she said were criminal mujahedeen in the house. She was finally expelled when her opponents seized on inflammatory comments she had made in a broadcast interview — even though the expulsion process did not follow constitutional rules.

Now, preparing her political comeback, Ms. Joya said she would prefer to run as a candidate in the capital. “Security is much better in Kabul,” she said. “In the northern areas, the warlords have the upper hand, and they can eliminate me easily.”

Even if she gets the votes, Ms. Joya, whose supporters have grown to include groups of doctors and university students, says she may not be allowed to win. “What matters is not who is voting, it’s who is counting,” she said.

Lacking access to broadcasters and the media within Afghanistan means that her message “for women’s rights, for human rights, against injustice and occupation,” can be spread only by telephone, by clandestine meetings in safe houses and through a poster campaign.

Apart from the obstacles thrown in her way, some say she has done little to build political alliances with others who share her vision of a secular democracy.

“No one can question Malalai Joya’s courage,” said Jonathan Steele, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper and a former correspondent in Afghanistan. “But she needs to be part of a movement, not just a voice,” he said.

Ms. Joya counters that she has been invited to join some of the few democratic parties in Afghanistan but does not want to restrict herself to any one of them.

The United States cited the status of women among reasons for its intervention in Afghanistan. Yet Ms. Joya, who taught girls in secret basement schools during the Taliban years, argues that the situation of women has not improved.

Pointing to the 1920s, when Afghan women traveled to Turkey to study without head scarves or male relatives to accompany them, and to the 1950s, when Afghan women had professional careers, she said that the decline of women’s rights in her country was above all an issue of power.

Levels of domestic violence, rape, forced marriage and suicide make the condition of women today “worse than hell,” she says. For that she blames what she calls President Hamid Karzai’s “corrupt, misogynistic government and his circle of warlords” and on his appointments to Afghan courts.

Hamed Elmi, deputy spokesman for Mr. Karzai in Kabul, discounted Ms. Joya’s accusations. “The government is not corrupt, but we have some corrupt people in government — we try to identify and tackle the issue,” Mr. Elmi said by telephone.

He added that Afghanistan had made progress in involving women at all levels of government and that it could not be ascertained that there were warlords in Parliament since the courts had not proven them guilty. “We have an independent judiciary system,” he said. As for whether the government was misogynistic, he said simply: “She is wrong.”

Back in her homeland, Ms. Joya said, the NATO forces were perpetuating the repression of women by propping up warlords she described as interchangeable with the Taliban.

She called for the immediate departure of foreign troops, even if it would lead to more violence in the civil war. “It is better to leave us alone,” she said. “We will know what to do with our destiny.”