Book Review by Suzanne Weiss
A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, by Malalai Joya, with Derrick O’Keefe. Scribner, 2009.
Afghan social activist and writer Malalai Joya is the voice of another, hidden Afghanistan – the partisans of independence, democracy, and human rights who have no voice under the corrupt U.S.-sponsored regime of Hamid Karzai.
She has survived multiple assassination attempts for her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights and withdrawal of U.S., Canadian, and other NATO armed forces. She believes the people of Afghanistan, especially the women, can organize the struggle for fundamental rights such as health care, education, control of their bodies and their lives – but only when the foreign occupiers leave their country.
Her book challenges us all to redouble efforts for this goal. Written from the heart and from profound experience, it tells the story of war and warlordism in Afghanistan, and how it has devastated the fabric of life there.
Tradition of resistance
Joya tells us of her background as an inquisitive child in a family and community with a tradition of centuries of resistance to foreign occupiers. She was named after a national hero, Malalai of Maiwand, who rallied Afghan forces to win a decisive victory over British invaders in 1880, sacrificing her life in the famous Battle of Maiwand.
Joya chronicles her family’s suffering under the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which began in 1979 when she was still an infant in her mother’s arms. During these years, millions of Afghans fled for their lives to the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan. Most refugees settled in detention camps that, Joya says, are like “concentration camps, designed to humiliate and break the Afghan national spirit and pride.”
Joya’s father, an important influence in her life, insisted that she and her siblings be educated. This led the family to move from Iran to Pakistan, where she was able to attend the Watan School for Afghan refugees in Quetta. It was there that she first got acquainted with the Revolutionary Women’s Association of Afghanistan (RAWA) founded by Meena, a social activist who was martyred in 1987. (See www.rawa.org/meena.html)
For women’s rights and democracy
Joya, although not a member herself, champions RAWA as waging an “uncompromising struggle for women’s rights and democracy.” Today the organization operates underground within Afghanistan, for fear of retribution for their outspoken criticism of the Afghan government.
While still a student at the age of 14, Joya dedicated herself to teaching other youth in Pakistan. She received a small stipend to help her family income. She used innovative incentives to encourage women to come to her classes. Later, she became a social activist with the Organization for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities (OPAWC), a non-governmental organization seeking to ameliorate the health and education of women and girls.
During her 16 years in exile, Joya came to admire the Palestinian resistance and resolved to “become a Palestinian” in her own country.
The Taliban regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001 was widely hated for institutionalizing anti-women and brutal practices. When the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in 2001, it proclaimed the goal of releasing women from this bondage. Many Afghans hoped that conquest by the U.S. might bring a better future. But that was not to be.
The U.S. hypocritically clothed its invasion in feminist garb. “The purpose of the American invasion [is] to restore women’s rights,” said “First Lady” Laura Bush. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed, “The rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable.”
Joya counters that it was obvious from the very first days of the war that the United States had not the slightest intention of supporting the women of Afghanistan, but aimed instead “to sustain the worst enemies of women in that country.”
The U.S. supported the Northern Alliance, a vicious league of anti-Taliban warlords, notorious for the use of torture, as the Taliban before them, used rape as a weapon to dominate and terrorize the people, Joya says. “Men were also subjected to rape … even children [were] raped, as young as four.”
When the Taliban fled under U.S. bombardment, the Northern Alliance occupied Kabul. One of its first actions, in November 2001, was to ban a planned women’s march through the streets of the city. Conditions of women did not improve.
If Afghanistan is a failed state today, Joya says, “it is because the warlords who had failed our country before were once again in power.”
In 2001, Joya returned to her native western Afghan province of Farah, where she opened and directed the Hamoon Health Care Clinic under the auspices of OPAWC. It had three physicians, half a dozen nurses, and an ambulance service operated through volunteers.
The provincial government warned that they would not guarantee her safety as project director, but at the initial opening, the local people expressed their support, promising to guarantee her security themselves. Joya experienced many acts of solidarity which represent what she describes as the “quiet resistance of people who are risking their lives to rescue their fellow countrymen.”
Afghanistan was now dominated by new occupiers – the U.S. and its NATO allies. Joya accuses the new U.S.-sponsored rulers of using the “name of Islam and Jihad to make war on their own people and oppress Afghan women.”
Most people in the West believe that the “severe oppression of women there began under the Taliban regime” (1996-2001), Joya notes. “But this is a lie.” The main props of the entrenched subjugation of women are the warlords who have dominated Afghanistan both before and after the Taliban and now provide the main support for the government of Hamid Karzai. The “worst atrocities … were committed during the civil war [in the 1990s] by the men who are now in power,” she says.
Hypocrisy and deception
The widely hated burqa, or full body veil, is often seen as a symbol of subjugation linked to the Taliban. However, Joya testifies that even today, “Afghanistan women are obliged to wear the burqa for fear of being kidnapped, raped, and murdered.” Joya assures us that “many Afghan men are very sympathetic,” and risk their lives to protect women. However, the many women who are raped or abused often become despondent and fall into hopelessness and “self-immolate to escape their misery.” Joya cries out, “Afghanistan remains like a bird with one wing-women-clipped. As long as the subjugation of women persists, our society will not be able to take off and move forward.”
The U.S. is now sending tens of thousands of additional soldiers to “fight the Taliban.” But war and occupation brings only grief to the Afghan people, Joya says. Money flows freely for military expenses and policing, but funds for health care, education, or day care are scarce. Joya’s book honors the memory of many women martyred under the NATO occupation because they struggled for social services and education, women’s rights and bettering the conditions for children.
“There is nothing in Islamic religion,” Joya explains, dictating that women should be subjugated. In fact, women suffer similar religious constraints under some forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. The hijab – veil, or headscarf – is not unlike the wigs or scarves worn by women of other religions.
Voice of resistance
Malalai Joya does not stand alone. The people of her province elected her in 2005 to the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament. She received the second-highest number of votes in Farah province. Joya aimed to find a way to put an end to the rule of “the warlords and fundamentalists,” she tells us. “I knew the great majority of Afghan men and women shared this aim,” she writes. “My mission would be to expose the true nature of the Jirga from within it.”
Inside the parliament, she boldly challenged leading politicians who were drug lords and criminals of the Northern Alliance. In response, she was undemocratically suspended from the Wolesi Jirga in 2007 and threatened with sexual violence by members of that body.
Many people demonstrated against her suspension, in the streets in Kabul and other towns and cities across the country. But often the police prevented peaceful protest on the pretext that they were protecting demonstrators from potential violence. In Jalalabad, women and men marched to the UN office to demand her reinstatement. Joya found that many women had defied the odds and voted for her at tremendous personal risk. Joya recalls the words of Meena, the martyred founder of RAWA, “Afghan women are like sleeping lions who when awakened … [they] will play a tremendous role in any Afghan social revolution.”
Joya lashes out at these rulers and spits out their names like poison off her tongue, bearing witness to the anger of her people who know each one of these politicians and their crimes. These men shamefully “use the name of Islam and jihad to make war on their own people and oppress Afghan women,” she declares. They received millions from the American CIA and the Pakistani ISI [security force]. Joya also denounces the women who have been appointed to the Wolesi Jirga to rubber stamp the repression of the government, although she concedes that these women, are “themselves victims of the system.”
Joya sees the Afghans today as “trapped between two enemies: the Taliban on one side and U.S./NATO forces and their warlord hirelings on the other.” One wonders about the hopes and goals of the resistance fighters, universally labeled “Taliban” by pro-U.S. media. Are they really identical in outlook to the brutal rulers of the late 1990s? This question remains unexplored.
Joya herself is not a solitary figure. She is a bold spokesperson for a current of opinion in Afghanistan that is silenced by the Karzai regime and its NATO backers. She cites the firm convictions and courageous actions of many of her women co-thinkers in Afghanistan.
Joya is clear on the role of the United States and NATO, which “brought the warlords and druglords to power.” She views Obama’s insertion of another 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan “as continuance of the Bush policy.” As she would say: “same donkey, but with a new saddle.”
Her clarion call is for all the foreign troops to leave Afghanistan now.