Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Four Days with Ousted Afghan Parliamentarian and Human Rights Activist Malalai Joya

The action of evil-doers is better than the inaction of good people.
--Malalai Joya (March 17, 2008)

Although she is a marked woman at home and has survived numerous death threats and assassination attempts, Malalai Joya arrives at Logan airport alone, holding a rain coat a supporter in California gave her and a small black, leather pocketbook with a copy of "Three Cups of Tea" peaking out. All five-foot three-inches of me towers over her small frame, and I might have mistaken her for a foreign undergrad student if I hadn't spent the morning watching her fiery speeches on YouTube.

Joya is 29-years-old, but already she seems to have lived a thousand lives. She was four-years-old when her father lost his right leg during the Soviet invasion, and her family fled Afghanistan. It was in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan where her social activism flourished, and she returned home during the Taliban's reign of terror to help lead the underground fight for women's rights. She tells me that it was during this time that she fell in love with Langston Hughes poetry, opened an orphanage, and taught her mother to read and write.

The moment the word "mother" crosses her lips, a brilliant smile envelopes her face. "My mother is coming to meet me when I go home," she says as her voice giggles but her eyes turn sad. "I haven't seen her in over a year." It's nearly impossible for Joya to visit with her parents, six sisters, three brothers and friends. Because she is being hunted by anti-democratic forces in Afghanistan, she is constantly on the run, sleeping in different places nearly every night, and hiding under the burqa. She's even on a list of about 300 people who are forbidden to leave Afghanistan. Every border guard, airport worker and immigration official has her name. And to confirm her status as political prisoner, officials did one of the things she feared most: they took away her passport.

So, it's somewhat of a miracle that Joya is here now, sitting in the passenger seat beside me as we drive through downtown Boston. It seems to me that nothing scares her. Because nothing stops her: Not being threatened with rape by a fellow colleague in parliament (he was angry when she exposed his ties to the opium trade); not the bomb that exploded 5 seconds early, saving her from certain death; and certainly not the "loss" of her passport. Avoiding official channels, she asked her province to issue another passport, and even though her name is misspelled and there's no birth date or expiration date, she has now criss-crossed the globe with it.

Days later, as I watch a beefy Massachusetts State Police officer turn the passport over and over in his hands and stare at the pretty Dari script, I wonder if he'll be the one to put an end to this unlikely journey. But he hands it back to the Delta ticket agent, "Looks fine to me," he says as he walks away.

Joya is in Boston to participate in the International Women's Day celebration I helped plan for the International Institute of Boston. At this event--and at three others over the course of her stay--I hear her deliver the same damning message: the United States is helping to return fundamentalism to Afghanistan. (Click here for a trancsript of her speech.)

Although her English is broken, it is excellent, and she speaks like someone on borrowed time—-fast and with a sense of urgency. The current U.S.-supported Karzai government, she says, is just the latest corrupt regime to disappoint the Afghan people and suppress their human rights. For women, the dreams of equality anticipated after the fall of the Taliban and demanded in the new Constitution, have never been realized. In fact, life for Afghan women today slips further into darkness. “We are treated not like humans. We are treated like animals. Worse than animals.”

“Do you want some examples?” she asks the audience. Without waiting for an answer, Joya rattles off stories from every corner of the country: a 22-year-old woman whose husband cut off her hands and poured boiling water over her body; a 14-year-old girl who was gang-raped by three men, but because one of the men was the son of a parliamentarian, police did nothing; an 18-year-old who committed suicide after being sold to a 60-year-old man. “Do you want me to continue?” she challenges us.

Since I started writing this blog entry, two women have died in Afghanistan while giving birth (that’s one every 28 minutes). Depression and suicide rates among women—already alarmingly high—are growing. And forced marriages are still the norm, accounting for nearly 90% of all unions.

This is the reality, Joya says, of the War on Terror. The Afghan people have watched the United States pump $15 billion dollars into the country, yet still only 2percent of the people have access to electricity, and more than 60% of Afghans are unemployed. All the while, the Taliban resurgence gains momentum.

“This is not democracy,” she pleads. “This is only teaching Afghans to have a negative view of democracy. It is a mockery of democracy. The Taliban and the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance are now the leaders of our country. They are killers and criminals. And they may fool the rest of the world with their shaven faces and their neat ties, but they cannot fool the Afghan people.”

It was her reference to the parliament as a “zoo” on Afghanistan’s ToloTV that ultimately led to her ousting from the legislature. Stripped of her salary and bodyguards and wary to put family and supporters in danger by being seen with them, Joya leads an increasingly solitary life.

But it is a life infused with meaning. She was engaged on Afghanistan’s Freedom Day and married on International Women’s Day. She rarely sees her husband, but, as you might expect, their relationship defies any Afghan tradition. Recently, he told her he was ready to have a baby. “I told him no,” she confided. “I love babies. They make me so happy. But it’s not my time. I told him if he wanted a baby he could take a second wife and have one with her.” He told her, “I waited 8 years to marry you. I only want you as my wife.”

She has been called the “bravest woman in Afghanistan” but as I drive her to the airport before the sun comes up, I can’t help wondering if it is naive of her to go back. I have so many questions I want her to answer: Wouldn’t you be more effective outside the country? How can you accomplish anything inside Afghanistan when you’re running for your life? And, ultimately… What good is all this if you’re dead?

Her answer is a quote from The Little Black Fish, a children’s story by Persian writer Samad Behrangi’s. “Beth, My Ever-loving Sister,” she wrote to me on a beautiful note card embossed with Picasso’s Dove of Peace, “Death could very easily come now, but I should not be the one to seek it. Of course, if I should meet it and that is inevitable, it would not matter. What matters is whether my living or dying has had any effect on the lives of others.”