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Battling on

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Malalai’s voice holds out the promise embedded in the very core of the human spirit.

Rahul Banerjee, The Statesman (India), 22 March 2010
Part two, read part one here

A woman among warlords

DESPITE becoming a household word in Afghanistan after her defiant Loya Jirga address, Malalai Joya was disappointed as far as the constitution was concerned because she believed an Islamic nation would find opportunities to continue its oppression against women and minorities. Ever in support of the adoption of a secular constitution, she maintained that religion belonged to the realm of private personal belief and should be kept distinct from the public administration of justice.

That life for her had changed was evident a few months after her speech at the Loya Jirga, when Malalai faced the first attempt on her life. Returning from a meeting at Ziken village, a bridge was blown up before her entourage and she barely escaped. Actually, Afghanistan had again degenerated into private fiefdoms of warlords with their private militias, private jails and rampant corruption. Apparently Hamid Karzai was either promoting these men or was helpless before them. But events had begun to move fast and Afghanistan was to have its first parliamentary election after 33 years, set for 18 September 2005. After due deliberation, Malalai decided to contest a parliamentary seat.

It was by now amply clear that the version of democracy installed in Afghanistan left a lot to be desired. Given the limited funds at her disposal, the word (of Malalai’s candidature) was spread by dedicated supporters on a door-to-door basis. Campaigning must have been a harrowing experience, given the constant threats on her life. The murder of one of her brave and ardent supporters was especially heart rending but it is to her credit that she dissuaded her supporters from acts of retaliatory violence. The struggle, she maintained, would be non-violent. And when the results were declared, jubilation broke out as she had won a parliamentary seat.

But when the newly-elected parliament convened on 19 December 2005 it was a re-enactment of the Loya Jirga of 2003. At least 60 per cent of its members were either warlords or their allies, men who had wrested their seats with violence or bought them with the dollars doled out by the CIA. This apart, even the administration and judiciary had been taken over by the very same men whose brutality, corruption and violence had ruined the country. And Malalai was unrelenting in her efforts to expose their crimes against the Afghan people. Each time she spoke (and the microphone was conveniently switched off) she did not mince words in her criticism. Both inside and outside parliament, she demanded that the administration be purged of warlords and they be brought to justice. Her speeches would invariably be accompanied by vehement protests by vested interests and once even water bottles were hurled at her.

Her stand against the US/Nato-led occupation forces was also trenchant and clear. The influence of the superpowers (the USA and the erstwhile Soviet Union) on political developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to say the least, had been extremely negative, especially the USA’s responsibility for nurturing a proliferation of militant fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan. This resulted in all genuinely democratic and progressive forces having to suffer from the continuing military presence of US/Nato forces. Malalai put the matter in a nutshell. “We need security and a helping hand from friends around the world, but not this endless US-led ‘war on terror’, which is in fact a war against the Afghan people,” she said.

Because she refused to compromise and be browbeaten by the warlords and their vested interests, matters came to a head when, during a TV interview, she remarked, “To refer to this second group of representatives in parliament, who are criminals, as a stable or zoo is even not adequate – because in a stable we have animals like cows which are useful in that they provide milk; and donkeys that can carry a load; and dogs that are the most loyal of animals. But they are dragons.”

Much was made of these remarks by her opponents and after a short and acrimonious session (wherein she was not even allowed to defend herself) she was illegally suspended for the rest of her term in 2007.

The story, or rather the tragedy in Afghanistan, continues to unfold. Between the Taliban, the warlords, the US/Nato occupation forces and the singular ineptitude of Hamid Karzai’s administration, the plight of ordinary Afghans continues to be compounded by violence and suffering. In the face of widespread corruption and a virtual breakdown in administration, recent times has seen a further escalation in the war, with US President Barack Obama ordering a surge in combat troops, which has resulted in more Afghan civilians dying in the bombardments.

For the past several months the security situation in the subcontinent continues to plummet, but yet Malalai’s voice holds out the promise embedded in the very core of the human spirit. Amidst the barbarity and brutality, the duplicity and deceit, the desolation and despair, there still remain those like her who stand up for the truth, much like a sunflower turns to the sun.

“But if I should die,” she concludes in her book, Raising My Voice, “and you choose to carry on my work, you are welcome to visit my grave. Pour some water on it and shout three times. I want to hear your voice.”

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