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Cairo correspondent Joseph Mayton – WNN Features

Malalai Joya visits Afghan girls school

Her name doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. But what makes Malalai Joya who she is has nothing to do with her name. It is the fact that the former Afghanistan Member of Parliament is not shy about speaking her mind. It has run her into danger, literally, with Joya being forced to bolster her security in 2006 as she continued to speak out against the corruption of the Afghanistan government in the face of death threats. Now she’s talking about U.S. troops increase as President Obama sets a brand new policy for Afghanistan.

In September 2005, at the age of 27, Joya was one of the youngest MPs voted into the Afghan Assembly (Parliament), also known as the Constitutional Loya Jirga. She gained popularity with the people from her province to the south of Afghanistan much earlier, in 1998, founding orphanages, teaching at secret “Taliban banned” schools for girls and setting up the first dedicated women’s clinic at the Hamoon Health Centre, Kandahar.

As a child Joya remembers life as a 4 year old International Displaced Person (IDP) as she, her mother and siblings escaped the 1982 conflict in Afghanistan. As a refugee family they fled to Iran, and later to Pakistan.

The road as a refugee was not easy. Malalai knows, first-hand, the ravages in decades of war in Afghanistan. Family members were hit the hardest. Her uncle was severely tortured by the Soviets in the 1980s. Later, her father lost a leg after stepping on a landmine.

New statistics show that Afghan casualties from landmines are up. In 2008, Afghan casualties numbered 982, up from 842 in 2007. Current trends also show increases in landmine casualties in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Georgia and Myanmar (Burma) as well.

Teaching literacy classes at the age of 19, Malalai dedicated her life to speak out for those who could not speak; for those who would never dare to do so. Her statements have come with a price though. She was sanctioned and later removed as a member of parliament amid a legislative exclusion (May 2007) as the Lower House of the Afghan parliament voted to suspend her for comments she made during a television interview. To date, Joya has survived four assassination attempts becoming what BBC news calls, “the bravest woman in the world.”

Only five months after Women News Network released an April 2006 story covering rising dangers for Joya with her and her family’s desperate needs for more security guards, the story reached the desk of Safia Ahmed-jan, Director of Ministry of Women’s Affairs (Kandahar). Safia was working as an advocate for many women in Kandahar Province. In payment for her advocacy she was gunned down by masked motorcycle assailants five months later as she left home for work. At the time it was, and still is, obvious. Women who speak out in Afghanistan are under a constant and haunting threat of death.

“It was too much,” Joya said during a recent WNN interview as she traveled the U.S. on book tour promoting a new memoir called, “A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Woman Who Dared to Speak Out.”

Peace in Afghanistan

In spite of continued pressures and lack of safety, Joya is speaking out now more than ever. What she has to say is not leaving many friends in the palace halls of Kabul happy though, where she says, “corrupt politicians continue to run the country.”

As Obama moves to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, specifically to the provinces in the south (including Kandahar), Joya laughs at what she calls the present White House “false optimism” created by the American president.

But President Obama is now facing much public scrutiny for his current stand. In addition, support is also shifting in the U.S. Congress. “The ratio in Helmand province, where we (the troops) were, is five Americans for each Afghan soldier. It should be reversed,” said U.S. Democratic Senator, Carl Levin, recently on CBS-TV “Face the Nation” show, Sunday, 29 November.

“…We cannot by ourselves win a war. We can help the Afghan army and the Afghan police to prevail. That’s the key, is whether our mission is to go in there and take on the Taliban ourselves?” challenged Senator Levin.

“Afghanis want hope as people talk about democracy, but this is not the reality that we live in,” says Joya in her interview with WNN. “Warlord ‘ism’ is not a sign of real democracy; it is just corruption. People should not be deceived by the elections process, especially women.”

“In 2009, women and girls are the most unprotected people in Afghanistan. Violence against women and girls is increasing,” says a recent United Nations ECOSOC issues brief.

Ultimately, the discussion on whether Afghanistan can or cannot accomplish its objectives may better be left to the Afghani people themselves. The debate outside the country is definitely divided.

U.S. Army troop soldier talks with Afghan child

U.S. Army soldier talks to Afghan child with mother and friends. Image: MEDCAP

If an observer were to look into the streets, “they would see resistance to what is happening in the country,” says Joya. Women are now “leading this role to speak out where men have failed.”

From 2007 to 2008 U.S. troop deployment rose dramatically from 26,480 to 48,250 troops. It rose again sharply in 2009. According to Reuters News, current 2009 numbers have reached approx 95,000 U.S. troops and 93,000 Afghan police on the ground. Strategies for increasing these numbers are now in process as President Obama outlines his new directive. But the cost in lives, money and good will may not be worth it.

“The past has given an education to our people. We understand what is at stake. Even, more so, the women who have been forced to live under the Taliban, along with the corrupt government and ‘cronyism’ of Karzai, are not fooled. It is the same donkey, with a different trainer as Obama, who should understand and know better than to put more troops on the ground.”

If Washington continues the same policy which Joya says is, “little different now than the policy of Bush,” Afghanistan will continue down a circular path that could see a return to the lawlessness that has encompassed the nation for decades.

“People demonstrate against the American occupation and the Taliban on a regular basis,” says Joya, noting that Washington’s efforts have done little to “improve the average Afghan citizen’s life.”

The Future and Women’s role

“As long as troops remain in the country Afghanistan has no future. Our women suffer the most because of the occupation,” continues Joya. “Nobody is honest with women about the future,” she adds. “It is not a hate for America that drives us to oppose the continued occupation, it is the idea that we, as Afghanis, can choose our own future for ourselves without a foreign power being there.”

The unstable conditions in Afghanistan are not new. In 1983, Soviet policies, in attempts to flush out Mujahideen forces in rural areas, caused massive “migratory genocide” in over one third of the country as food and shelter became scarce to the point of endangering all local life. Afghanis flooded into Iran and Pakistan then as displaced families. Malalai Joya’s family was one of them. Soviet troop levels peaked in 1983 at just over 100,000 troops, although the campaign failed.

“It didn’t work for the Soviets and it won’t work for the Americans, especially if they continue to support a corrupt government in Kabul,” Joya believes.

“If Obama is honest, he must end his support for Karzai and move toward supporting the Afghani people. There is no need for more troops. What we need are people willing to support Afghanistan,” the former MP relates. “We need ‘justice-loving’ people to join hands with the Afghanis working toward a better future.”

Women, Joya believes, can play a vital role to a sustainable future for Afghanistan. Placing women in key protected roles can bridge “the violence and corruption of the past few decades,” says Joya. In spite of efforts to improve Afghan society, many women advocates inside the country face constant and ongoing battles for dignity and basic rights.

“There is no chance for (any) women to get their rights yet, because there are not even human rights for everyone,” Joya says with conviction. “Criminals go to jail and then pay money and then go free. This is not a fair system, or a country where most people would want to live.”

The public justice system for women in Afghanistan has an abysmal record of not protecting women when they face crime. Women who report rape are not immune. If a woman is raped by someone not her husband, she is charged with adultery under the law, a crime seen in Sharia law as punishable in death by stoning. Executions under this sentence have been documented as recently as 2005 in Afghanistan. “Executions even by stoning are still common in the countryside,” said Afghanistan war expert, Dr. Antonio Guistozzi, in a 2006 UK Home Office, COIS – Country of Origin Information Service report.

U.S. President Barrack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai

U.S. President Barrack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Image: The Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington, D.C.

Highlighting the ongoing struggle for women in a country that has lived through the Taliban and various country occupations, Malalai Joya has called for the corrupt Afghan government and its “American puppet” (Karzai) to be pushed out in a coordinated move to improve the state of the nation.

Regardless of the small, but real, hope created by Obama’s election win nearly one year ago, “There is now no hope for Afghan women,” continues Joya. “There is also no security for rights advocates. We need major change to happen. If women are to be the driving force for the future, they can be with help; by (a cooperative effort in) cracking down on the corrupt powers.”

Women and Afghan Law

Like the Taliban, Karzai has passed a series of legislations restricting women’s rights. “These laws are almost identical to the Taliban’s,” admits Malalai. “Some (laws) even say women cannot go out of their homes alone,” she presses. One recent controversial law requires women to have sex with their husbands whenever they desire or face punishment for disobedience. These and other laws have been approved by hardliner Shia cleric Ayatollah Mohseni, who has been influential inside Afghanistan in gathering a large Shia voting base. These votes were needed by Karzai during the election. “This is not the country promised to us. We are working hard to get through these struggles.”

“Many women in my country just don’t get any justice,” the former MP and women’s rights advocate reveals. “We continue to work hard to make our voices heard, but when we do, there are major security issues for us. We go to demonstrate and show our faces and our voices. Then, the militants and the government try to cut them off,” she outlines. “This is horrible and is the major problem. In the end, what are needed are not more American troops on the ground but an apology by Obama for the way the ‘so-called’ war on terror has progressed.”

President Barrack Obama is currently suffering from a swift decline in public ratings as he nears his final decision in U.S. policy actions for Afghanistan. “It is my intention to finish the job,” said the president. The policy may be rejected by most Americans though. Only 32 percent of U.S. citizens currently support a continued war in Afghanistan.

Recommendations made to enlarge troop numbers by the President’s top advisor, NATO Army General Stanley McChrystal, include plans to increase U.S. troop numbers by figures that may eventually top 40,000. As NATO members begin to doubt the efficiency of increased troop levels, other Obama advisors, like retired Army General Colin Powell and General George Casey Jr., counter McChrystal’s ideas with concerns that additional troops may not reach the budgetary or philosophic goals for improvements in Afghanistan.

“The Afghan people must protect themselves, but it’s a job that we’re not sure can be met,” admitted the President.

Former Afghan parliamentarian, Malalai Joya, does not agree that Afghanistan’s problems will never be solved. She believes Obama should not support Karzai and that improvements will only come by allowing agents inside the country, especially women, to redirect policy.

“He (Obama) must apologize for what has happened and end the so-called war on terror,” states Malalai. “Obama should not negotiate with the Taliban. We have international activists and women advocates. These are the people who must be supported. If they (can) do this slowly, democracy will come to Afghanistan and we will take responsibility for our own country.”
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[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7jAT0FAGBc]
As President Obama presses for more troop numbers, Afghan women’s rights are going backwards due to the rising influence of Sharia laws, Taliban extremism and the suffering of life under the ongoing conditions of war. Some former war lords (known as the Mujahideen) are also working closely with the Afghan parliament as cabinet members with direct ties to the Taliban. This searingly honest video tells of the rising attacks against women, increasing cases of domestic violence and the expanding loss for the rights of women inside Afghanistan as the U.S. military campaign continues and expands. This is a July 2009, 10:51 min, Rethink Afghanistan video production by BraveNewFilms.
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Women News Network -WNN correspondent, Joseph Mayton, is based in Cairo, Egypt. He is also editor/founder for online publication, Bikya Masr, covering news from Egypt and the MidEast corridor. Joseph has also reported for The Guardian (UK), Middle East Times, The Middle East Magazine, The Media Line, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Newsweek Turkey as well as other publications.

Lys Anzia, of WNN, has also contributed to this report.
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Additional sources for this article include ReliefWeb, Oxford Research Group, CBS News, US CRS Report for Congress, US Department of State, Journal of International Women’s Studies, Handicap International, NATO – Afghanistan Report 2009, The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Afghan Women’s Mission, The Nation, NY Times, Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs – Princeton University, Brave New Foundation – Rethink Afghanistan, Reuters News, CNN, Columbia University Press, Global Fund for Women, Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) and International Center for Transitional Justice.
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©Women News Network – WNN 2009