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A defiant woman won’t be silenced by the warlords or fundamentalists

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She was invited to Australia by Deakin University to be the keynote speaker

Adele Horin, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 18, 2010

Malalai Joya
Malalai Joya ... critic of the Karzai government. (Photo: Steve Christo)

A LOT of people have tried to silence Malalai Joya. When she spoke in the Afghan parliament as its youngest elected member, the microphones would be turned off. When that didn't deter her, her fellow parliamentarians expelled her.

She has survived four assassination attempts, and still she speaks out, denouncing the warlords, the ''criminals'' in the Hamid Karzai government, the terrorist Taliban, and the occupying troops.

Words pour out of Ms Joya, 32, in a rush, as if she must tell everything she knows in case someone tries to shut her up again.

The democracy activist and campaigner for women's rights is in Sydney to deliver an uncompromising message: ''Democracy never comes by war, by occupation, by cluster bombs and white phosphorous,'' she says.

She wants foreign troops out of Afghanistan because that would mean one less enemy to fight. ''We are sandwiched between two enemies, the Taliban and warlords on one side, and the foreign troops on the other,'' she says.

She says more than 8000 innocent civilians have been killed during the nine years of US and NATO occupation, with a spike under the Obama administration's troop surge; opium production has flourished again, and even the heralded gains for girls and women are a sham.

''The situation in most provinces is as catastrophic as under the domination of the Taliban,'' she says. ''A few schools are built in big cities to justify the occupation but it's the law of the jungle for women in the provinces.''

In the album she carries, mostly photos of shockingly injured civilians, are also pictures of smart Afghan women in the 1960s in modern dress, stepping out. Today women were being whipped, stoned and shot in public for alleged illicit affairs, she said, and rape cases were skyrocketing.

''This is a caricature of democracy,'' she said.

She is unrelenting in her criticism of the Karzai government and sees its recent overtures to moderate Taliban as ''one terrorist group inviting another terrorist group to join the government, and both are misogynist''.

Ms Joya was born four days after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Her family fled to Pakistan in 1982, where she went to school in the refugee camps. She returned when the Soviets retreated, and taught girls in secret basement schools under the Taliban.

She was elected to the National Assembly in 2005 and expelled two years later. She decided not to run in the recent election, partly to protect her supporters whose lives would be endangered, and because ''any hope I've had for positive change through the ballot box is gone''.

She was invited to Australia by Deakin University to be the keynote speaker at the World in Crisis/ Business as Usual conference and spoke last night at The Sydney Institute.

''I'm an optimist about Afghanistan,'' she said.

''If I was negative I would come to the West and enjoy my life. But while hope is alive, anything is possible.''