Malalai Joya: an inconvenient truth

Activist, writer and a former Afghan politician Malalai Joya is currently touring the country.

She hasn’t yet had the ear of the Prime Minister or the Minister for Defence to discuss the plight of her people or the reality of the war in Afghanistan, but perhaps if Prime Minister Gillard broke bread with Joya she might gain some real insight into the consequences of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.

I took the opportunity to catch up with Joya in Hobart. She was travel-weary but willing to share her experience and knowledge of the reality of life in Afghanistan.

In the first place, rather than be characterised by ethnic or tribal links, Joya prefers to be called Afghan “in the interests of national unity”.

She describes her Dad as “democratically minded”. Her parents always stressed the importance of education and her father in particular inculcated in her the fact that her brothers were no better than her. She is pleased to describe her mother as a housewife, although through Joya’s education her mother later became her student.

Her background reminded me of Ann Jones’ article ‘Women at risk from the Demon within’:

We might do well to consider that every Afghan woman or girl who still goes to school does so with the support of a progressive husband or father. Several husbands of prominent working women have been killed for not keeping their wives at home, and many are threatened. What’s taking place in Afghanistan is commonly depicted as it is on the Time cover, as a battle of the forces of freedom, democracy and women’s rights (that is, the US and the Karzai government) against the demon Taliban. But the real struggle is between progressive Afghan women and men, and a phalanx of regressive forces‚Ķ

Joya spoke candidly about the books that have influenced her. Kathy Gannon’s “I is for Infidel, From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years in Afghanistan” gets an honourable mention. Kathy’s history of Afghanistan from 1986 to the present is available here and is a ‘must watch’.

Joya also laughed about how she really enjoyed Charlie Chaplin films: some things are universal.

She says she doesn’t think about death, only the hopes she has for her country. She doesn’t fear death; she fears political silence. But if she were to face death, “I would have no regrets because I have spoken the truth, the truth of my people”. Her people inspire her. Her approach to life and death accords with that of Khalil Gibran.

I asked her what sparked her interest in activism and politics. She describes herself as being “of the war generation”. Her family fled to Iran when she was four, then to Pakistan when she was seven. She was lucky to receive an education and after high school became a social activist. She returned to Afghanistan in 1998. She read lots of books and asked lots of questions of her father and her teachers because she couldn’t understand how criminals were permitted to run the country. Questions like: Who did that, and why?

Although she prefers to be a social activist she was in a political situation and couldn’t sit in silence. She knew that her speech to the Loya Jirga was an opportunity to share her views, and those of justice-loving people both in her country and abroad, with the international community.

Many in parliament didn’t dare speak out, she says. It still may cost her her life but she wanted to expose the crimes of the rulers. She has no regrets, but she still asks: “Why are they still in power and why are Western governments supporting them?”

She rattles off a list of names in the current and previous parliaments. One is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. A former member of the Northern Alliance, Sayyaf is reputed to have first invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan. Also renowned for repeated atrocities (human butchery), to many Afghans he is “affectionately” known as “head-eater”.

Western leaders often spruik that the existence of a free media in Afghanistan is a result of the intervention, but there’s no free press for Joya: she is completely banned from the media scene. The media, she says, has two faces. She also describes the death of many journalists who have dared to report the truth.

I asked her about the recent WikiLeaks cable which says:

While former MP Malalai Joya is touring the United States and Canada promoting her new biography and calling for the removal of all US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, women in Kabul are sending a different message. Most women with whom Embassy officers have spoken over the past two months – from NGO directors to the residents of shelters for victims of domestic violence – support the US military and civilian presence in Afghanistan. Kabul women have told Embassy officials repeatedly that the US and international community presence in Afghanistan gives women opportunities that they would never have been granted under the Taliban… the protection the international forces provide allows women and girls to attend school; to work outside the home; to serve in the government; to be protected from domestic violence; and generally participate more fully in their society‚Ķ

Her initial reaction to mention of any cables is to remind me that there are 92,000 WikiLeaks cables in the form of the ‘War Diary: Afghanistan War Logs’ that reveal the brutality supported by Western countries and outline the general malfeasance of all governments involved.

Turning to the cable referring to her, she confirms that life is different for women in Kabul to that of women in rural areas. She points out that some female political appointments are women hand-selected by warlords and druglords and are mere mouthpieces for them. Those appointees seek fame and wealth, whereas Joya prefers to be the voice of the women living in misery, the voice of the massacred. Tens of thousands of people have been massacred during the occupation she says, and there are many people without food. The US and NATO use women’s rights and human rights as an excuse for occupation, “yet they blindly bombard my people from the sky”. There is no democracy, she says: “It is the same donkey with a different saddle. It doesn’t matter who votes, it only matters who’s counting”.

I note that our political leaders often put forward as one of the many reasons for remaining in Afghanistan that the country may again become a “safe haven for terrorists” if our troops leave. She is familiar with that line, immediately responding that “Afghanistan is already a safe haven for terrorists” and commenting that our presence doubles the misery of her people. She knows it won’t be heaven after the troops leave, but she says that “if you withdraw your support for warlords and drug lords, like Matiullah Khan in Uruzgan, then it will help to break their backbone. Redirect your support to democratic institutions, to women’s organisations, to peace movements, to education, certain NGOs or the Solidarity Party of Afghanstan.”

She is concerned that the talk about foreign troops leaving Afghanistan in 2014 will prove to be a lie, a lie peddled because of forthcoming US elections. She says there are moves afoot to set up permanent US military bases in Afghanistan, a prospect which is deeply resented. She speaks about the geopolitical element of the occupation of Afghanistan and how the corporatisation and privatisation in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion parallels that occurring now in Afghanistan.

Joya only wants justice. Justice for her people, both the living and the dead. Justice for the perpetrators of atrocities in her country. Justice for the youth who have been destroyed by the opium production which has escalated since the occupation of her country. She wants Australians to open their eyes and put pressure on our Government to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan. But ultimately, she wants what we all want: peace.

When you hear what is really happening “on the ground” in Afghanistan you know deep down that we should be throwing our weight behind people like Joya, people who are prepared to risk their lives and their freedom for the benefit of their country and all of its people. If we make ourselves heard our government just might listen. Australians tempted to lapse into moral and philosophical apathy, which is easy to do when you are distant from the slaughter and side with the powerful and know your single voice doesn’t count anyway, might be encouraged by the latest release of WikiLeaks cables which confirms that political leaders can be concerned about public opinion. An example is the WikiLeaks cable titled ‘Australian Defence Chief’s Concerns Over the McChrystal Report’:

Australian Defence Force Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston told Charge on August 20 that he planned to call Admiral Mullen, General Patraeus and General McChrystal in the next few days to explain that it will be important that General McChrystal’s upcoming assessment on the situation in Afghanistan not inadvertently undermine Prime Minister Rudd’s attempts to maintain public support for Australia’s participation in the conflict.

Putting to one side the question of the propriety of an Air Chief Marshall managing military information for political purposes, what is this saying about the military having to support politicians trying to engineer an illusion of public support that doesn’t really exist? Those of us who oppose the perpetuation of the Afghanistan conflict and support the right of Afghans to self-determination need to make our position clear to our elected representatives. Supporting people like Joya is an easy way to start.

Thanks to the dedicated work of Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan, Stop the War Coalition, Overland Magazine and others, Joya’s tour of our country includes appearances at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and a series of talks in Sydney.

Join her struggle.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email