In 2003, a 25-year-old woman, all of five feet tall, stood up in front of warlords and war criminals who were determining Afghanistan’s future constitution and said:
“My name is Malalai Joya from Farah province… Why would you allow criminals to be present here? They are responsible for our situation now… It is they who turned our country into the centre of national and international wars. They are the most anti-woman elements in our society who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again.”
Since then Malalai has been famous in Afghanistan and abroad. She was elected to the new Afghan parliament in a landslide but was suspended after appearing on a television show where she compared the parliament to an animal stable. She has survived four assassination attempts and has received countless death threats.
Malalai, who ran an underground girls school during the Taliban years, was in Australia last week and her message was clear – all troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan now.
Civilian casualties jumped 24 per cent last year, and the ceaseless airstrikes are drawing focus away from the fight against the anti-democratic elements in the government and general populous.
I met with Malalai, as NATO was discussing her country’s future in Lisbon.
“In the dark period of the Taliban, these terrorists publicly killed the people. There was no law, just jungle law,” she said. “But now, not only on the ground killing them, from the sky also bombing, cluster bombs coming, killing the people, these troops bombing, killing them. We are between two enemies.”
“That is why we want the withdrawal. Then we will fight one enemy – the internal one, the warlords, the Taliban who are photocopies of each other – instead of two.”
While a war is being waged on those who truly want a free, secular and stable Afghanistan, our own government is training militants allied to powerful Oruzgan warlord, Matiullah Khan. It was revealed last month that our defence force flew these fighters to Australia where they spent time at the Cultana and Holsworthy military bases.
The Dutch refused to work with Khan because of his alleged links to murder and extortion and yet we have chosen to help him. The defence force said at the time:
”It is important the ADF works within the cultural norms of Afghanistan. Therefore in some areas where influential local Afghan leaders still operate, their co-operation can be crucial to maintaining security and stability.”
However, when the international community is helping to cement the power of warlords, we have to ask ourselves what our young soldiers are dying for? It is people like Malalai we should be supporting and protecting in Afghanistan, not the people who want her silenced.
The Taliban’s brutal oppression of women was repeatedly used as justification for the war. However, Malalai says the situation for women hasn’t improved since US and NATO troops moved in nine years ago.
The NATO-backed Afghan parliament has passed laws allowing Shia men to deny their wives food if they refuse sex and requires them to get permission from their husbands if they wish to work. Hundreds of women have been imprisoned for ‘moral crimes’, including women who have been raped.
A high-ranking regional security officer, Colonel Ghulam Ali, told The Independent in 2008 that he supports the punishment of women for illicit sexual relations, even if it was against their will.
“In Afghanistan whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is,” he said. “I think it is good. There are many diseases that can be created in today’s world, such as HIV, through illegal sexual relations.”
On top of these government sanctioned brutalities, the Taliban still rules many areas and is freely committing crimes against humanity. Bibi Sanubar was pregnant when she was lashed up to 200 times and then shot for adultery in Badghis province. And last month in Kunduz province an unmarried couple were stoned to death for their ‘illicit’ relationship.
Women are also facing barriers to education. Girls who go to school are being poisoned, or their schools are being burnt down, acid attacks and rapes are still extremely common and suicide by self-immolation is at epidemic levels.
Meanwhile, those who have tried to stand up for freedom have been routinely targeted and killed by warlords and Taliban. Malalai says, this is all happening while NATO is active in the country and it doesn’t justify their presence.
“As long as the troops will be there bombing, and their government giving dollars and also power to these terrorists it will be more easier for [the terrorists] to eliminate the democratically minded people of Afghanistan who are the alternative for the bright future,” she said. “The few democratic parties we have, modern parties, intellectuals we have – they are eliminating them. So leave Afghanistan.”
The Afghan government has been in face-to-face peace talks with Taliban leaders, with NATO securing their passage to the capital. This is leaving many Afghans to wonder what kind of peace they can expect.
A group of around 350 clerics, who met in August this year to discuss reconciliation, called for Hamid Karzai to establish strict Islamic law with punishments similar to those implemented under the Taliban. In a 10-point resolution they said: “The lack of implementation of sharia hudud (punishment) has cast a negative impact on the peace process.”
Malalai knows it will be difficult in the future when foreign forces withdraw but that Afghans need to secure their own freedom.
“It is not easy to fight against them,” she said. “We are trying to achieve our rights. You know history shows that only nations can liberate themselves. It’s a long and prolonged struggle. Slowly, slowly Afghanistan goes toward disaster but we are the ones who push to go toward democracy and take these risks.”
“If the will is alive anything is possible and we are hopeful, we are optimistic.”
For information on how to donate to Malalai Joya’s security visit malalaijoya.com
Any funds Malalai has left over after paying for her security guards, she uses to help people and projects in her community, such as schools, clinics, hospitals or employing disadvantaged people.
First published on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed