Democracy in Afghanistan is a pretence, says Joya. Photograph: Monica Munich
Human rights are in crisis in Afghanistan, where fundamentalist warlords hold high office and child abuse and gang rapes are on the increase. When Malalai Joya, a young female Afghan politician, spoke out against the presence of 'war criminals' in the affairs of state, she was expelled from parliament among shouts of ‘whore’ and ‘communist’. The recipient of various international prizes for bravery, she speaks of her commitment to defend the rights of women and children despite numerous attempts on her life
Death threats are an ongoing feature of my everyday existence and I’ve survived four assassination attempts. I’m targeted because I defend human rights and equality for women in a country where rape, forced marriages and inhuman acts of child abuse are a fact of daily life.
Examples range from the 22-year-old woman raped in front of her children by 15 local commanders of a fundamentalist party, or an 18-year-old who hanged herself to avoid being sold to a 60-year-old man, through to a young girl kidnapped by warlords and raped in exchange for a dog, and a young teenage girl raped by three men who then sadistically cut her private parts.
I live in hiding and move from one safe house to another, never spending more than one night in the same location. It’s somehow ironic that the burqa – a symbol of female subjugation under the Taliban – has become my disguise. I describe the garment as a living shroud that affords some degree of security.
While my family are in the west of Afghanistan, I live in Kabul because I am a member of parliament. But on May 21 last year, I was censored for exercising my right of free expression. I was accused of [violating the rules of procedure and] insulting parliament.
Although the threats against my life increased after that day, the first major incident that drove me into hiding was at the Loya Jirga, the constitutional assembly, in 2003, while the eyes of the world’s press were upon us. Although I was a delegate, I was not allowed to speak. But when I asked to speak for the "young generation" of Afghanistan – I was 24 at the time – I was given three minutes. After one minute my microphone was cut because I publicly denounced the presence of mujahideen warlords, criminals and drug traffickers in the assembly. I was branded an "infidel" and there were shouts of "take her out, she is a whore, a communist".
Some fundamentalist women wanted to physically attack me, while the good democrat women surrounded me to protect me from the soldiers who had been ordered to remove me from the chamber. These women said: "She is our daughter; who are you?" I was asked to apologise by the speaker of the assembly but I only wanted to stand up and finish my speech. It was then that these democrat women stopped me from standing up because they knew I would be forcibly taken out and beaten if I did.
The UN requested that I leave for my own safety, but I said no, I would not leave until the meeting was over. They thought that I was afraid, but I was not. The UN waited and then ushered me out and whisked me away in a car with dark windows to a place of hiding.
With the entire incident filmed and reported by the international media, at that moment it appeared that democracy in the Loya Jirga had been exposed as a pretence. The warlords saw this and they saw how much support I got from outside.
As a war baby, political activism is in my blood. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979 I was four days old. My father was a medical student at the time and a democrat. By the time I was four years old, he had a price on his head and we had to flee the country. We lived in poverty-stricken refugee camps until I was 18, first in Iran and then Pakistan.
At secondary school in the Pakistan refugee camp, I volunteered to teach afternoon literacy classes. There I encountered many orphans and women living in the hope that their kidnapped fathers and husbands would reappear. But no one knew if their men-folk were alive or dead. I have many memories of their suffering. This experience had a profound impact on my life and that was when I became a social activist.
Under the present regime – that has illegally banned me from parliament – women’s rights continue to erode. The rates of self-immolation and suicide due to forced marriages, domestic violence and poverty are now higher than ever. In the first six months of 2008, 47 cases of self-immolation among women have been recorded in a single hospital in the western city of Herat. Gang rapes of young girls are reported almost every day, especially in the northern part of Afghanistan where pro-US warlords have full power and a free hand.
The perpetrators of these crimes should have to face the courts. But every day they become more powerful. Now the US wants to negotiate with the brutal Taliban and share power with them.
One of the many disturbing cases in which I have tried to help was the rape of a four-year-old girl. When small children are raped there is severe internal damage. Every few minutes she had to go to the toilet. I told as many people as possible about what had happened to her and finally some supporters and one hospital said that they would take responsibility for her and even provide her with an education. But when her father accepted money from the warlords they told him to keep his daughter at home, and he agreed. For two days I cried a lot. I told the man that he was not a good father, that he was just another kind of criminal.
A further disturbing case is that of a 12-year-old schoolgirl who was raped by three men – one of whom is the son of a member of parliament. His father is accused of using his position of power to officially change his son’s age from 23 to 16 so that he could avoid prosecution. Such MPs would not be lawmakers, but lawbreakers; they do not want to put law into practice. The police paid little attention to the case. The one policeman who did lost his job.
I have raised these issues many times in parliament, but the politicians remain silent. Even the few male and female democrat MPs don’t raise these human rights issues, especially if they involve women. I challenge them and I know that it’s risky, but it’s important. That’s why they expelled me.
The 12-year-old's father was offered a bribe by the warlords to drop the case. He refused. He is very poor but he sold a piece of land to raise enough money to fight the case. The warlords made many attempts on his life, but he survived.
He is a good father and there are many other good fathers like him in Afghanistan. They want justice, but there is no justice available. That is the problem. In one of his interviews on local Afghan TV, he said that if justice were not done he would become a suicide bomber and take revenge.
Sadly, the US seems to be giving a helping hand to these criminal warlords. In 2001 the US government invaded Afghanistan in the name of democracy, but it has betrayed our people by helping to power the bloodiest enemies of these values. The horrible regime of the Taliban was replaced by corrupt and brutal warlords and former Russian puppets.
The plight of victims such as these girls is my driving force. I will never give up my fight for justice, and I’ll continue to try to represent the millions of voiceless Afghan people – especially women and children – who are still being brutalised by fundamentalist warlords and the Taliban.
Malalai Joya was speaking to Saundra Satterlee. For further information visit Joya's website at http://www.malalaijoya.com