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September 27, 2010

'The Voice of the Voiceless’: Malalai Joya and the struggle for democracy in Afghanistan

SS Editorial

Malalai Joya

On September 18, 2010 Afghanistan held parliamentary elections. At this point, in a potential voting pool of 12 million people, perhaps 3 million voted. Of the 3 million votes, the Afghanistan Election Commission estimates that one third of these votes are fraudulent – as bought or coerced, through stuffed ballot boxes, and, in Kandahar, with the winning list announced before the election by Ahmed Walid Karzai, provincial council leader, the second-most powerful politician in the country, and, not coincidentally, the president’s brother.

The result has been to produce an even narrower set of warlord parliamentary blocs to carve up foreign aid and prevent even minimal democratic expression in this Western-backed government.

Declining election turnouts and an ever-growing warlord state is exactly what Malalai Joya predicted in her autobiography, A Woman among Warlords.

Malalai Joya has been described as the ‘bravest woman in Afghanistan’ after being elected in the first parliamentary election in 2005 and publicly denouncing the Karzai government as a state based on war criminals. For her bravery, she was banned from parliament, even after having survived four assassination attempts. She now lives in Kabul and works to represent the needs of ordinary Afghans and to expose the criminal elites on both sides of the civil war.

How did such a democratic voice emerge? Malalai Joya, a pseudonym, is a product of the struggle for Afghan women’s liberation. At the age of 14 she became a literacy teacher in Pakistan refugee camps and then as an underground teacher during the Taliban in Herat. By the age of 23 she was the underground coordinator for three western Afghan provinces. In 2003, after the Taliban were driven out of power, she founded the Hamoon Clinic in her home province of Farrah, on the border with Iran. Hamoon was a combination of medical clinic, school, and orphanage.

Based on her record of courageous service in bringing education and services to her people, Joya was elected to one of the one-quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for women representatives. At the time she took her seat in 2005, however, Human Rights Watch estimated 60 percent of the parliament was made up of warlord representatives, that is, civil war commanders with records of war crimes and corruption. The Vetting Commission, which supposedly exists to screen out such candidates, in fact, screens out only enemy combatants, who can, of course, run for office if they declare support for the government.

In her autobiography, Joya documents a number of confrontations with these individuals, including her opposition to the amnesty law for warlords, and meetings with president Karzai and the US State Department who denied her voice and vote repeatedly. Joya circumvented government and imperialist stonewalling, however, by holding media events when she wanted to raise an issue. By 2007, however, the government moved to suspend her from parliament and to restrict her media access.

Since her suspension, Joya has travelled the world to educate outsiders about the true state of Afghanistan and to demand that NATO states and non-governmental organizations leave. Five provinces asked her to run for office in the 2010 election but she decided that she would be more effective in political work by living in Kabul and addressing national affairs outside parliament.

In the conclusion to her autobiography, Joya makes some basic arguments that few Canadians hear:

One, end the war of foreign intervention now. The US-anchored military effort has only deepened civil war, resulting in greater chaos, corruption, and death.

Two, send real humanitarian aid. Aid has to be untangled from American imperialist goals.

Three, make democracy possible by disarming warlord forces and prosecuting all the warlords before the International Criminal Court.

These critical goals do not fit Western aims. The Obama administration has made it very clear that the US does not do ‘nation-building’. In this imperialist reality, a question Malalai Joya reflects on needs a more decisive answer: should there be a party of Afghan democrats, and not just heroic individuals?