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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

The bravest woman in Afghanistan visits BC

By Derrick O’Keefe

Malalai Joya, the outspoken 29-year-old elected politician and activist from Afghanistan, has just completed a whirlwind tour of British Columbia. Appearing at a number of rallies, meetings, and forums, Joya has spoken out strongly against what she views as a terribly wrong-headed policy that Canada and its NATO allies are following in Afghanistan.

Elected from her home province of Farah to the new Afghan parliament in 2005, Malalai Joya has been the most vocal critic of the strong presence of warlords and war criminals who, according to Human Rights Watch, have a dominant presence in the parliament.

Because Joya has denounced these known criminals, many of whom have been promoted to key posts in Hamid Karzai’s western-backed regime, she has been a constant target of these antidemocratic forces. Since coming to international attention in 2003, when she spoke out against the presence of warlords at the Constitutional Assembly, Joya has survived four assassination attempts, and lives in constant danger. Joya has continued to receive threats, and must live and travel clandestinely, using the burqa to hide her identity in addition to always being accompanied by bodyguards.

Joya was the featured speaker at peace rallies in both Victoria and Vancouver on the weekend of October 27–28, and she also spoke to audiences at the University of Victoria, the Vancouver Institute, Langara College, the University College of the Fraser Valley, Simon Fraser University, and at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. She addressed a number of union and community meetings, including a forum co-sponsored by the BCTF in Port Moody on October 29. Her Canadian tour continues in November, with stops in Toronto and Halifax, before she heads on to Finland. Prior to visiting Canada, Joya was in Germany and Italy, where she received numerous honours for her work on behalf of women’s rights and democracy in her occupied country.

Joya has also made clear that women have not achieved any substantial improvement in their conditions after more than six years of war. "In my crying Afghanistan, we have been pushed from the frying pan into the fire," Joya explains. "The West has put in power the Northern Alliance, who are every bit as dark-minded and antiwomen as the Taliban." Joya notes, for example, that rates of female suicide are as high as ever, and that the life expectancy of Afghan women is a mere 45 years.

More than just enlightening Canadians about the realities of the war and about the unsavoury and corrupt government that NATO is currently backing, Joya has been inspiring people from all walks of life with her message and her courage. A typical response came my way from a UBC student who had heard Joya speak on his campus, "She made me cry, and to tell you the truth I’m very worried about what may happen to her as I can’t but think that she is an extremely important historical figure." UBC professor Dr. Michael Byers, head of the Liu Institute, described Joya as "the bravest person I have ever met."

In May of this year, Joya’s situation took a turn for the worse as she was suspended from parliament on the pretext that she had insulted the institution. Despite this, she continues to use any and all means to speak out against the warlords that dominate Afghanistan’s government.

Despite living under constant physical threat, Joya shows no sign of being silenced. She explains, "They may kill me one day, but they cannot silence my voice. You can cut down the flower but you cannot stop the coming of the spring." She is fond of saying that "the silence of good people is worse than the actions of bad people," and it is clear that no menace or intimidation can silence Joya.

Sadly, Canada’s Conservative government has remained silent regarding the case of Malalai Joya, and this puts her at even greater risk. Joya’s message stands in sharp contrast to the position of the Harper government, which claims that waging counter-insurgency war until 2011 and beyond will bring democracy, women’s rights, and stability to Afghanistan. For her part, Joya urges, "If Canada cannot change its role in Afghanistan and stop following the wrong policy of the US, then it is better that you [the Canadian military mission] leave."

Try as they might to ignore her, as more and more Canadians come to know the story of Malalai Joya, her plight and her struggle for justice will inspire many more good people to speak out and to take action for social change.

Malalai Joya’s tour of Canada has been organized by BC Labour Against War, in conjunction with the StopWar peace coalition in Vancouver. Fundraising has been an important goal of her visit, as Joya is a director of a non-governmental organization called Organization Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilites (OPAWC). All donations to this group go toward health and education projects in Afghanistan, as well as to covering the costs of Joya’s personal security. Cheques can be made out to the Vancouver & District Labour Council and mailed to #20-1880 Triumph Street, Vancouver, BC, V5L 1K3. Please include a note indicating that the donation is for "Malalai Joya tour" or "OPAWC".

Derrick O’Keefe is the editor of www.rabble.ca and the co-chair of the Vancouver StopWar Coalition.

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