“War Will Never Help Women”: Standing with Malalai Joya

The story of her recent US visa denial is riddled with painfully ironic contradictions. Malalai Joya, once the youngest member of the Afghan parliament (driven out of President Hamid Karzai’s government in 2007 for her courageous repudiation of NATO-backed warlord domination and drug cartel cronyism), was denied a visa for a three-week US speaking tour earlier this month. The reasons given by the embassy? She has been “living underground” and is unemployed. Yet in the violent, misogynist reality of occupied Afghanistan, the vast majority of women are unemployed – and the primary reason Joya must lead an “underground” life are the four or more assassination attempts she has survived.

Joya is the name she goes by, an alias chosen during her time as an anti-Taliban activist to honor Afghan poet and political prisoner Sarwar Joya, who was killed for his constitutionalist beliefs. Although Malalai, a child of Iran and Pakistan’s refugee camps, co-founder of a medical clinic and orphanage, and veteran teacher in the region’s secret girls’ schools, has previously traveled to the US, her unwavering stance against the US occupation has more recently rendered her politically unwelcome. Thanks to a broad public campaign of support and protest including the ACLU, a coalition of congressional representatives, and outcry from thousands whom Joya calls “the justice-loving, peace-loving people of the US,” her visa was finally granted, and the book tour for A Woman Among Warlords began with minimal delays. (Joya’s tour schedule is available here.)

Among her first stops was Northampton, Massachusetts, where Joya spoke to a crowded auditorium at Smith College on Monday, March 28. Numerous local anti-war organizations sponsored her visit, drawing a packed audience that shifted from reverent silence to uproarious standing ovations several times during the course of her brief speech.

A small woman with a quietly commanding presence, Joya condemned in equal part the “current mafia regime of Karzai,” and the “warmongers in the White House.” The Afghan people are being crushed, she said, “between three forces. The occupation forces, who are bombing from the sky, the Taliban, and the warlords.”

The US invasion of Afghanistan was justified to the American public with stories of oppressed Muslim women, their lives endangered by the policies and practices of fundamentalist leaders originally empowered by the CIA. Despite this narrative of liberation, Joya’s ringing warning that war will never help women has proven true once again. To say that women’s lives have worsened under occupation is a grave understatement. Violence against women has grown to a point where nearly three quarters of women and girls have been victimized, girls’ schools are attacked as a matter of course, one out of four women will die in childbirth, and campaigns of intimidation are openly part of the political landscape. Last year, in Joya’s province alone, she reports that over 150 people were killed.

For the unceasing deaths of civilian men, women and children, the Obama administration has apologized. The Karzai administration has thanked them for the apology. “The blood of my people,” Malalai Joya says, “is worth more than this.” After a silent moment, she spoke of the terrible images, recently released in the US, of American soldiers posing with and mocking murdered Afghan men. “They put salt on the wounded heart of my people.”

Joya is pragmatic, and asks for pragmatic solidarity from her supporters in this country. She dismissed completely the idea that a US withdrawal will solve all of Afghanistan’s problems – “No one thinks it will be heaven … of course this is a risky struggle, a difficult struggle, a prolonged struggle.” Yet those organizing internally for democracy would have one less reason to fear for their lives in a country where US military and economic interests were not at stake in a seemingly never-ending series of bloody air strikes. Further, Joya believes that without continued US support of Karzai (whom she unceremoniously dubs a “shameful puppet”), the people – such as those organizing as the Afghan Solidarity Party – would have a chance to rise against fundamentalist warlords. That resistance is of the utmost importance, she said. “As long as the warlords are in power, there is no hope for positive change in my country.”

On Monday night, when a student rose to ask how to assist that struggle, Malalai Joya regarded her audience almost quizzically. People do not attempt to assassinate you when you join the political resistance in this country, she pointed out. “When the enemies of our people, when the fundamentalists and the warlords unite, why should we not unite?” Join anti-war groups, she said, and pressure your government to end “this disgusting, brutal war.” Make your disagreement felt and heard. Above all, she asked, stand with the intellectual resistance in Afghanistan by supporting education there, particularly through practical financial support.

A young woman from Wisconsin stood to say that she’s troubled when she hears Americans talk about promoting democracy in other countries without knowing whether it’s a viable option for those cultures, and asked whether this was truly what the Afghan people want. Many among the audience broke into audible objections against the US system as an example of true democracy worth emulating. One grey-haired woman called out her support for the student questioning cultural imperialism. Malalai Joya waited for the crowd to quiet itself. “The elementary meaning of democracy is government for the people, by the people, my sister,” she said. Democracy exists wherever people stand against oppressive regimes and will not be silent. “When women are raped, yet they stand up to make a case against powerful warlords, this is democracy. … We have no problem with democracy. Do not be deceived.” Then, leading forward with a slight smile, “And 25% of our parliament are women – more than your own parliament.”

Joya closed the evening by invoking Martin Luther King, Jr. through two quotes: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent,” she said. “And freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The second of these is from Dr. King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but the first is a paraphrase of “On Courage,” a sermon he delivered in Selma, in the month of March, forty-six years ago.

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas!

We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free.”

•   •   •

Katie McKay Bryson is Assistant Director of PopDev, a small, progressive think tank and activist organization housed at Hampshire College; working to support new global feminist voices in the intersecting fields of reproductive freedom, environmental justice, international development, and peace.  Katie is an activist and writer who has previously worked on issues of environmental justice and military contamination in Alaska, as well as access to housing and free legal aid.

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