Q&A with Afghan Activist & Parliamentarian Visiting the U.S.
At the ripe age of 25, Afghan activist Malalai Joya received international attention and acclaim for speaking out at the December 2003 Loya Jirga (Grand Council) convention in Kabul to create the country's constitution. Much to the chagrin of the warlords sitting nearby, she gave an impassioned speech accusing them of committing crimes against humanity.
"These were those who turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars. They were the most anti-women people in the society who wanted to ... who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again," she said. "I believe that it is a mistake to test those already being tested. They should be taken to national and international court. If they are forgiven by our people, the bare- footed Afghan people, our history will never forgive them. They are all recorded in the history of our country."
Two years later, Joya won the second highest number of votes in the Farah Province and was elected to Afghanistan's 249-seat National Assembly. She also heads the non-governmental group, "Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities."
Joya was four-years-old when her family fled Afghanistan in 1982 to the refugee camps of Iran and then Pakistan. She finished her education in Pakistan and began teaching literacy courses to other women at age 19. After the 10-year Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan, Joya returned to her country during the Taliban's reign in 1998.
Joya, now 27, has survived four assassination attempts and receives death threats on a regular basis. She sits on the Assembly under the protection of government appointed armed bodyguards and is forced to travel incognito under a burqa, the head-to-toe shroud worn by many Afghan women.
With all attention focused on Iraq and now Iran, Afghanistan rarely makes front-page headlines. Joya is currently traveling the United States urging Americans not to forget her country and to discuss her ongoing fight for freedom from religious fundamentalism, women's rights, education and basic medical care. I caught up with Joya after a speech she gave in Berkeley on Thursday. This week, she is scheduled to speak in Norwich, Vermont and New Haven, Connecticut.
On International Women's Day earlier this month, Laura Bush said, "In Afghanistan, young girls go to school and women serve in government because America helped liberate the Afghan people." The Bush administration often refers to Afghanistan, particularly Afghan women, in speeches about freedom and democracy. What do you think of those comments?
What the U.S. brought to Afghanistan is not democracy. It's a mask of democracy. Instead of the Taliban, we have the Northern Alliance. There is no fundamental change in Afghanistan. The U.S. has not given us a gift. Our people are poor and they need help. The U.S. helped the warlords take power. These warlords control Afghanistan.
Do Afghans have access to electricity and clean water?
In Kabul, it's a little better. Day by day, they have electricity for a few hours, but not in the provinces. In Herat, they have electricity because of Iran and Kazakhstan, but most people don't have electricity and water. Most still don't have access to healthcare and education, especially the women who are not being educated.
What is the status of women in Afghanistan?
Women are being killed by their husbands, but no one is asking why. There is no law for justice. There is still death by stoning. A 13-year-old was raped by local warlords, but nobody talks about it.
A month ago, two women killed themselves. Why? Because their children were kidnapped. The U.S. wants to tell the people of the world that our main problem was the burqa. Taking off the burqa doesn't solve our problems. Even right now, some women, because of security, have to wear the burqa. Because of security, I have to wear a burqa. Some women, because of our culture and the male domination of society, wear the burqa, but this is not the main problem.
What about women in government? You have more women in your government than we have here in the United States.
Yes, we have 68 women in the parliament, but most of them have compromised with warlords. They like to talk about women in parliament, but those women do not have rights. This cannot bring freedom and democracy for women in Afghanistan.
Do the women in parliament support you?
No, they are afraid to support me publicly because they are under the control of the warlords. One woman threatened to kill me with forks because I speak out.
You've said you are now used to receiving death threats and risking your life. Are you heightening that risk by visiting the United States?
Yes, the warlords say I'm an agent for the U.S., but the main reason I accepted this trip is to expose those warlords. I want to leave the message of our people to the freedom loving people of this country.
I want to also expose the policies of the U.S. Why are they replacing one criminal with another criminal? Right now we have many enemies in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda has support from fundamentalists around the world. The Northern Alliance is also committing crimes under the name of jihad and Islam. The warlords that are in power are brothers of the Taliban. Who supported the Taliban? Who destroyed the domination of the Taliban? Who supported Saddam? Who destroyed the government of Saddam? Which kind of government does Iraq have? What's happening in Iraq has an impact on the people of Afghanistan, for security, for democracy and women's rights.
Where does Afghan President Hamid Karzai fit in this picture?
He has compromised with warlords. Most people of Afghanistan voted for him and he has the support of international countries. As a president of a country, he should accept some risks and bring changes to Afghanistan, but unfortunately he has compromised and day by day, he is losing the trust of our people.
What will life be like for you when you return to Afghanistan?
I will spend as much time underground as possible. I have three bodyguards, but the government said they don't have enough guns to give them. I know they have enough guns. I'm not sure about my security because the government doesn't want to help me. They are trying to force me to stop talking, but they know very well that I will never stop speaking the truth. I will continue the struggle. They can kill me, but they can't kill my words.