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Why Afghan War Is About Women – and One in Particular

Whether people support Malalai Joya, or passionately disagree with her, few would challenge her right to speak – and it is this right that is being ignored, with impunity, by an administration whose actions indicate no will to respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it is a party.

Afghan Minister of Parliament Malalai Joy

Afghan Minister of Parliament Malalai Joya

Inter-Parliamentary Union: Committee On The Human Rights of Parliamentarians.
Case No AFG/01 – Malalai Joya – Afghanistan)

The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians holds its next session 27 March to 01 April in Bangkok. That will be its last chance to call for the reinstatement of suspended Afghan MP Malalai Joya whose term of office ends in September.

Joya has been in an administrative wilderness since her expulsion in 2007, but has not been silent – and as news broke that NATO’s much publicised Operation Moshtarek had already claimed the lives of 12 Afghan civilians, she repeated her claim that ‘defenceless and poor people’ would be its principalvictims.

Parliamentary sketches are fun and functional. They remind us that politicians are human and shouldn’t take themselves too seriously - or the electorate too lightly. Recently one of them targeted the Commons Defence Select Committee for making the plight of Afghan women “one of its chief concerns.” The Committee was berated for avoiding any mention of equipment, casualties or logistics . . . while fretting about “the burqa-clad memsahibs.”

A point nicely made by its (male) author, perhaps, but one that struck a jarringly discordant note.

There is nothing funny about having to wear a burqa. And those same ‘memsahibs’ are the mothers and widows whose disaffected offspring make it so easy for the Taliban and other private militia to recruit.

Sixty percent of Afghanistan’s population is under the age 25; anecdotally, around 70,000 widows are believed to be begging on the streets of Kabul and more than half its 37,000 street children have widowed mothers.

These children have grown up knowing nothing but the grinding poverty or abuse that Afghan women without a male protector have to endure.

The unintended consequences of ignoring these women are legion and frightening. What the Afghan Government, NATO and a plethora of NGOs operating in Afghanistan fail to address, others will.

It’s hard to grasp the bigger picture or make informed lifestyle choices when you are homeless and starving.

Far from ridiculing MPs for “raising worries about Afghan wimmin” (sic) with the CDSC, parliamentary sketch writers might be better occupied reflecting on how effective ‘asymmetrical targeting’ of the country’s youth and female population might be if addressed strategically.

Malalai Joya is one of the more notable ‘memsahibs’; a woman whose polemic speech in the 2003 Loya Jirga made her both a marked woman and thorn in the flesh of the unreconstructed warlords and drug traffickers she would join in Parliament just two years later, as the country’s youngest MP. She despises the burqa and wears it only for her own safety.

Joya may have been the people’s choice for Farah Province but her persistent attacks on her fellow parliamentarians earned her only death threats and, in May 2007, suspension from Parliament.

Three years later she inhabits a dangerous limbo, despite repeated calls by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) to reinstate her. During that time, many of the things Joya predicted have come true:

  • civilian and military casualties have mounted,
  • corrupt elections have further eroded Afghans’ faith in the democratic process and
  • apparently only one Afghan woman was invited to the recent London Conference.

Joya said recently “The Afghan Government begs for funds from the so-called international community in the name of Afghan people, but the billions of dollars poured into the country are looted by warlords, drug-lords, national and international NGOs and government officials, and much of it goes back into the pockets of the donor countries.

“According to US Government sources, since 2001, over $60 billion in aid has been given to Afghanistan. Such a huge amount could change Afghanistan into a paradise if it was properly spent. However little of it reached the needy people, so I am sure any other amount sent to Afghanistan in the future will have no impact on poor Afghans. Instead it will only widen the gap between rich and poor.”

Joya is a controversial woman. A correspondent from the IPU asked her Defence Committee if she planned to stand for re-election in September adding “This would certainly be a very perilous exercise for her.”

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Against the wider background of the war on terror, elections, conferences and troop surges the fate of one woman may well seem irrelevant, but the ‘Joya effect’ is seismic. She is a bellweather for Afghanistan’s future and those who have mocked or ignored her would do well to consider this.

Many of the women who have put their heads above the parapet have been threatened; others like activist Sitara Achakzai and policewoman Malalai Kolkhar have already paid with their lives. Women are much needed in the Afghan National Police force (ANP) which, alongside the Afghan Army, is seen as a key element of post-Moshtarek ‘re-building’.

Joya’s views on this are, as ever, unequivocal: “They are very weak and ill-equipped. And more importantly the former warlords are the main actors in both forces so in fact this is an army of warlords. The Chief of the Afghan, Army General Bismullah Khan, is a former Jehadi commander - a key man in the Northern Alliance who has placed many former Jehadi warlords in key Army posts. And recently (President) Hamid Karzai reassigned the infamous Rashid Dostum as the Army’s Chief of Staff.”

She describes a scenario where ANP members watch helplessly while historical artifacts and drugs are trafficked into Pakistan – too ill-equipped or corrupt to intervene. “The Afghan police force is the most corrupt institution in Afghanistan. Bribery is common and if you have money, by bribing police from top to bottom, you can do almost anything. In many parts of Afghanistan people hate the police more than the Taliban. In Helmand, for instance, people are afraid of policemen who commit violence against people and make trouble. The majority of the police force in this province is addicted to opium and cannabis.”

Whether people support Malalai Joya, or passionately disagree with her, few would challenge her right to speak – and it is this right that is being ignored, with impunity, by an administration whose actions indicate no will to respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it is a party.

Publication of her book, where she characteristically ‘names names’ at the international level, has sparked a new wave of threats and anti-Joya articles in web sites and publications of the warlords. If assassinated she will become a martyr, if allowed back into parliament she will once more have an official platform from which to accuse. Many feel it is far better hobble the process of reinstating her until her appeal is timed out.

The IPU’s exhortations to expedite Joya’s case have achieved little. Over the period of her suspension they have:

Recalled that parliamentary colleagues who called her a prostitute and a whore and called for her to be raped or killed were neither suspended nor asked to apologise to her.

Drawn attention to the fact that Article 34 of the Afghan Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and that in accordance with Article 101 members of the assembly should not be prosecuted on account of opinions they express.

Deplored the fact that she has not been reinstated. In filing to do so the House of Representatives has prolonged a situation that infringes its own Standing Orders and continues to violate her right to exercise the mandate entrusted to her by her constituents and their right to be represented in parliament.

Some Afghan MPs have gone on record in media interviews saying Joya’s suspension is illegal and contrary to the rules of the house. Among others she cites Ramadan Basherdost, Gul Pacha Majidi, Dr. Mohammad Ali Stegh, Saima Khogeani, Shukuria Barakzai, Ahmad Behzad, Mir Ahmad Joenda and Sardar Rahman Ogholi.

Quietly confident that media coverage of one woman’s appeal will have no chance of deflecting media attention from wider NATO activity, all Joya’s enemies have to do is sit and wait. And most Afghans are good at waiting; even Joya, whose impatience and frustration frequently erupt into passionate outbursts.

In paragraph three of its January summary the IPU expresses its fear that “her prosecution has not so much to do with a quest for justice, but rather the forthcoming election campaign and effort to eliminate her from the political process in Afghanistan.”

So what does the future hold for Malalai Joya? Supporters in Afghanistan urge her to her to stand for re-election and she says she will announce her decision soon.

She is resigned to the fact that her reinstatement is highly unlikely and is contemptuous of the recent presidential election - “A game full of fraud and double-dealings.” The parliamentary election may also be the same.”

Warlords are much more powerful and have the upper hand in all official posts of the State so they will strongly influence the votes and there will be large scale fraud in the coming election.


If Joya is not re-elected she will continue her fight for justice and against the warlords in other ways. Many of her Afghan supporters ask her to form an organised party in Afghanistan so they can formally join it and work together.

“Whatever it is,” she insists, “I want something practical not just something existing in name only.”

Glyn Strong

Republished with permission from the UK Progressive.