On October 16, the University of Minnesota hosted a lunch, lecture, and conversation with the famed Afghan politician and ex-member of parliament Malalai Joya, who has inspired many both at home and around the world with her courageous political activism. She has been a trailblazer in Afghanistan for the causes of women's rights, political transparency, and democratic reform, and her outspoken opposition to the Afghan government's tolerance for terrorism and violence has led to her expulsion from the government as well as six assassination attempts.
The first and most enduring message raised by Joya during the conference was her passionate opposition to what she referred to as American imperialism and colonialism in her country. The vaguely-defined objectives of the US "War on Terror" has led to a prolonged period of chaos and destruction in the Islamic world with a seemingly endless amount of collateral damage, of which the civilian population of Afghanistan has been a primary constituent.
During the period of American occupation, standards of living and safety of life for women has gotten worse, said Joya. This flies in the face of the frequently-repeated mantra that the war in Afghanistan is somehow justified by the abysmal rights of women in that part of the world. Exemplifying this hypocrisy, Joya presented the infamous time magazine cover of Bibi Aisha, a woman with her nose cut off, bearing the text "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan." Ironically, the crime was committed during the period of US occupation; even worse, Joya argues that the United States presence there only empowers those extremist groups that are the greatest threat to women's safety.
Joya disparagingly described this relationship between the United States and its Islamic fundamentalist enemies in the region as "playing Tom and Jerry." Indeed, the American military's seemingly endless campaign to root out terrorist groups and neutralize them has proven to be like cutting heads off a hydra; more reappear faster than they can be cut off. Furthermore, the prolonged US military presence--exceeding all of the official predictions--only strengthens these groups ideologically and grants them credibility and support in the eyes of many desperate individuals, who see them as the only force resisting foreign encroachment.
Even more worrying, said Joya, is the significant infiltration that terrorist groups and regional Afghan warlords have achieved within all arms of the Afghan "puppet government," its civil service, and its military. The close collusion and revolving door between the administration and its supposed enemies make enforcement of law and justice within the country impossible, and further discredit the American occupation as it is in actuality propping up the very power structures it ostensibly seeks to destroy. If the US presence were to evaporate overnight, Joya concedes that these warlords and terrorists would have even more freedom to reign over the population of Afghanistan; however, the increasingly detrimental effect of the US presence is so damaging that the only solution is for the United States to withdraw completely and as soon as possible.
Joya went on to describe the grave problems in her country's nominally democratic system, and the way this term is used to give an air of legitimacy to a completely defunct and corrupt administration. Contrary to the spirit of democracy, Joya was kicked out of the Afghan parliament simply for speaking freely and calling attention to the government corruption that systemically endangers Afghanistan. Although she was not the only female Member of Parliament, she expressed her dismay that she received no support from her female peers--most of whom are affiliated with or on the payroll of Afghan warlords, and often are only present as "showpieces" to further strengthen the appearance of democracy in the country. Regarding the fairness of the elections in Afghanistan, Joya opined: "It's not important who's voting, it's important who's counting."
Despite expressing a long list of problems with governments that are labeled as democratic (including that of the United States, which she described as a "warmonger regime"), Joya is clearly a very strong supporter of democracy in general. She praised the recent US whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, who she lauded as "heroes" who dared to speak out about the ever-growing global surveillance apparatus that is the pet project of the US National Security Agency. Speaking directly to the "great" and "justice-loving" people of the United States, she emphasized that the corruption and criminality of governments can and must be subordinated to the will of the people, who will always find solidarity with one another in their quest for justice and prosperity no matter where they may live.
In the question-and-answer session, Joya was respectfully challenged by an audience member who asked what should be the appropriate course of action when the international community is threatened by a near-failed state like Afghanistan, which continuously hemorrhages opium, extremists, and undocumented refugees across its borders. The speaker, an Iranian national, expressed the danger posed to neighboring countries and the entire world if order is not imposed in such a chaotic region. Joya retorted that US military presence does more damage than it does good, and insisted that the portrayal of Afghan nationals as drug and arm smugglers is simply Iranian government propaganda. She also urged the speaker to show his solidarity to the Afghan people by supporting civilian and democratic organizations within Afghanistan, as well as by speaking out against his own government, which she described as tyrannical. This exchanged touched on several very pertinent international disputes between Afghanistan and its powerful neighbor.
The event was sponsored by Women Against Military Madness (MADD); the U of M Human Rights Program; the U of M Human Rights Center; the Amnesty International Legal Support Network; the Women Student Activist Collective; Students for a Democratic Society; and Students for Justice in Palestine. More information about Malalai Joya and her international advocacy for human rights can be found at http://www.malalaijoya.com, and her critically-acclaimed book A Woman Among Warlords can (and should!) be purchased at local bookstores.
Written by Erik Randall