Stephen de Tarczynski interviews Afghan women’s rights activist MALALAI JOYA
"The situation is like hell in most of the provinces," says Malalai Joya. "Women haven't gained even the limited rights they had in the 70s and 80s."
It is easy to understand why epithets such as brave and courageous often accompany the name of Malalai Joya. Slight of stature and serenely demure, the young Afghan woman’s past and present encapsulate the plight of her countrywomen.
Malalai Joya returned to Afghanistan in 1998 - she had spent most of her life until then in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan - as an underground volunteer educator of girls, a decidedly dangerous and difficult role given that the hardline Taliban were in power.
She came to the world’s attention in 2003 when, at a constitutional convention attended by Afghanistan’s leaders, she publicly accused many of those present of being war criminals, drug lords and supporters of the Taliban.
Joya continued to speak out against fellow parliamentarians following her election to the national assembly in 2005. While her outspoken views have gained much support both inside Afghanistan and internationally, Joya has also created powerful enemies.
She remains suspended from parliament for being openly critical of fellow MPs and has survived several assassination attempts.
In Australia to promote her book 'Raising My Voice', Joya, still just 31, met with IPS writer Stephen de Tarczynski to discuss the position of women in her country. The following are extracts from the interview.
IPS: How do you see the situation for women today in Afghanistan?
Malalai Joya: Women and children, they were the most and first victims and still there is much violence against them. And the main reason is that the Northern Alliance fundamentalists, who are mentally the same as the Taliban but physically are different, came to power.
First of all, like the Taliban, they mix Islam with politics to use against women of my country. The situation of women is like hell in most of the provinces.
It is true that in some big cities like Kabul, like Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, some women have access to jobs and education but in most of the provinces, not only is there no justice at all - even in the capital - but in faraway provinces the situation of women is becoming more disastrous. The killing of women is like killing a bird today in Afghanistan.
IPS: In your book you quote George W. Bush’s 2002 state of the union address when the then-U.S. president said that the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captive in their own homes under the Taliban and became free when the Taliban were ousted from power. Do you regard Afghan women and girls as free?
MJ: The U.S. government lies and wants to pretend to the people around the world that for the first time they brought women’s rights to Afghanistan and that women do not wear burqas.
After 9/11 the main message of the U.S government was that women were not wearing burqas anymore but today, eight years later, most women wear burqas because of security [concerns]. I wear a burqa because of security.
In these past eight years, Afghan women haven't gained even the limited rights that they had in the 1970s and 1980s. In the past it was like in western countries. Women wore what they wished, as I wear what I wish now [in Australia]. But in Afghanistan I have to wear a burqa and most of the women of my country don't like that.
But burqas are not the only or main problem for women. We are wearing it now just to be alive. Even now it is useful, we have to wear it. Wearing the burqa is the main tactic I use to be alive, the same as I used in the period of the Taliban.
IPS: You’ve become a figurehead for women's rights in Afghanistan, but are there other women risking as much as you do but who we don’t hear about?
MJ: Even more than me. Only when they have been killed, then through democratic journalists the world knows it, people know it. As I said when Sitara Achakzai [a provincial council member in Kandahar who was murdered in April], the last great woman activist to be killed, she is not the first one and unfortunately she won't be the last one.
Before Sitara Achakzai, Safia Amajan has been killed in Kandahar [the teacher and public servant was 63 when assassinated in 2006]. In the same province Malalai Kakar [a high-ranking policewoman who was murdered last year] has been killed.
In Herat province Nadia Anjaman was a great poet-activist has been killed [at 25 years of age in 2005]. In Parwan [in 2007] Zakia Zaki was a young journalist on radio who had lots of supporters, people loved her, was killed in her house.
IPS: Do assassinations of women like Sitara Achakzai indicate that there is a fear in Afghanistan of women who raise their voice? Are the Taliban and others afraid of women like you?
MJ: Of course they are afraid. That’s why they are against the role of women, half the population of our country. That’s why I say that society is like a bird, with one wing being a man and one wing being a woman. When one wing is injured can the bird fly?
For society also it's impossible. That's why they want half the population to always be in darkness, to not have education, to not play a role, just to be in the house and give birth to babies.
Women are like machines to them. They don't even see a woman as a human.
Every year around the world on Mar. 8, women celebrate International Women's Day with lots of hope and happiness. But in my country, this year three women set themselves on fire on Mar. 8. But it's even more than that. Tens of women every month commit suicide.
Thirteen years ago, the fascist commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar threw acid in the face of women and girls who were outside looking for jobs or education. But the same crimes are happening, repeating now under the name of democracy.
IPS: Are there many other individual women and groups who fight for women's rights in Afghanistan?
MJ: Let me tell you about RAWA [Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan]. This is a woman’s political organisation whose leader Meena - in my opinion she is a hero of my country, my people love her a lot - was killed by the fundamentalists. Still they have projects and underground activists too. The same problems [exist] as under the Taliban.
But only one time they had a function in public, many people came to their hall. At that time I was here [in Australia] when they invited me. They weren’t afraid even though a bomb to kill them all was possible. But they gathered openly and exposed the mask of these warlords.
IPS: What is your message for people around the world?
MJ: My message always to democratic people around the world is to educationally support people of my country, activists of my country, democrats of my country because they are the alternative for the future of Afghanistan. They are able to fight against terrorism and fundamentalism [although] they are risking their lives. As always I am saying they are my secret heroes and heroines.
I have said many times condolences on behalf of my people to those families in Australia and the U.S., everywhere that I went, who lost their loved sons and husbands in Afghanistan. I said the condolences are not enough, to cry these tears is not enough. Please raise your voice first of all against the wrong policies of your government. This is a war crime.
They [U.S. forces] bombed Farah province in May. More than 150 civilians have been killed, most of them women and children. They even used white phosphorous but they're just saying 'sorry', that is it. They don't even want to give the exact reports, just that 20 or 30 people were killed while government officials are saying more than 150 civilians dead. Some of the children were as young as three years old, but even government officials don't want to include them in the lists. Are three-year-old babies not human?
IPS: Your country continues to be ravaged by war, women's rights are still being trampled on and you face the likelihood of further attempts on your life. What gives hope?
MJ: Another gift of the U.S. government, when [U.S. President Barack] Obama took office they want to get some Taliban, like [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, to join the [Afghan] government.
But two days after that, acid was thrown on the faces of 15 girls in Kandahar. And [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai invited Mullah Omar to join the government. But at the same time when journalists interviewed those girls in a bad condition in the hospital they are saying they'll go back to school when they are healthy. It's hope. And these are steps towards democracy.
IPS: Where do you get your courage?
MJ: First, the truth itself gives courage. And also the sorrows and pain of my people, especially the condition of women. The history of my country and values like democracy and women's rights, these values give me hope. And I believe that these will not be given to us by someone.
But the U.S. government and its allies, unfortunately they have pushed us from the frying pan and into the fire. But we are the ones who firstly are responsible.
The silence of good people is worse than the actions of bad people. That’s why I don't fear death but I do fear the political silence against injustice. I'm sure that one day we will achieve these values as our history shows that we never accept an occupation and we have many heroes and heroines in our country who taught us that sitting in silence is not the way.