Women of Afghanistan find a leader

From the UK’s New Statesman, Sept. 19, via the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA):

As the country wakes up from 25 years of conflict and despair, a young female politician is taking on the warlords and winning. F Brinley Bruton reports from Farah Province
August temperatures in Farah Province, on the border with Iran, can hit 50 C, beating residents into a submissive slouch. But on a Friday in Farah’s capital, the offices of Malalai Joya, who is running for parliament, crackle with life. All activity focuses on a woman who is slumped in a chair, her head bowed and the side of her face swollen. Her mouth hangs slack and her tongue worries at her crooked teeth.

“This is the women of Afghanistan,” says Joya. She pulls off the woman’s black veil, exposing a nest of hair and blood about the size of a golf ball on the top of her head. Another bloody clump sits just behind her right ear. Joya then peels off the woman’s clothes, revealing a lacerated right arm, bruised left leg and parallel marks slashing a thin breast. Only when Joya tugs at the woman’s trousers does she grunt and cover herself.

Her parents say they have come to Joya’s offices to save their daughter from a brutal husband. They complain that village police ignored repeated pleas to restrain him. The woman’s father, a baker, says he is too poor to feed his six grandchildren. Just two days after the official start of campaigning, Joya misses an important appearance at Farah’s Independence Day celebrations in order to shepherd the beaten woman through the system.

“Do you know she has been raped? And not only raped: her husband burned her,” Joya says, large eyes flashing beneath long eyebrows that touch her temples, pointing at the woman’s groin. “This is the women of Afghanistan.”

Joya is unusually candid for an Afghan, but then again she is an unusual candidate in the parliamentary elections, which take place on 18 September. She is female and only 26 years old in a country that places great value on the wisdom of “white-beards” and where many believe women have no role outside the home. And unlike the vast majority of female candidates, who struggle to gain recognition from female voters outside their own families, Joya can count on broad male support. These factors, coupled with her criticism of the government for including warlords, seem destined to land her with a seat in the landmark elections. Beyond Farah, other Afghans are taking up her cause as their country wakes up from 25 years of war and despair.

Joya has spent only a few weeks campaigning officially, but she has been a serious contender for more than a year and a half, thanks to a two-minute event that changed the course of her life and could prove seminal for Afghanistan’s future. In 2003, as Afghanistan worked to regain its footing after United States-led forces toppled the Taliban, Joya’s community sent her to Kabul to the constitutional Loya Jirga, a meeting of about 500 prominent Afghans from all over the country empowered to draft the nation’s new founding law. Joya, a women’s literacy and health worker, says that soon after arriving she began to chafe at the “undemocratic attitude” of those running the meeting. She asked for permission to speak.

“I criticise my countrymen for allowing the legitimacy and legality of this Loya Jirga to be questioned by the presence of those criminals who brought our country to this state,” read the transcripts of what she said. “It is a mistake to test those who have already been tested. They should be taken to the world court.”

Uproar ensued and Joya’s microphone was turned off. Some participants leapt from their seats and the call of “Allahu akbar” resounded through the tent. Those in charge demanded that Joya be expelled and punished, or at least that she apologise. She remained, did not apologise, and was called an infidel, a rude little girl and a communist.

Westerners might find it hard to understand how courageous her speech was. Without mentioning names, Joya had taken aim at the most powerful class of Loya Jirga participants: mujahedin and “holy warriors” revered for fighting and expelling the Soviets. After they ejected the Communists in 1989, many turned savagely on each other with no regard for civilians. It is estimated that 50,000 residents of Kabul died between 1992 and 1994 as ethnic militias fought each other; countless more were raped and maimed. Human rights groups blame these and other atrocities on forces including those of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Pashtun leader with ties to Saudi Arabia, the northern Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, and the deceased Tajik hero Ahmed Shah Massoud. Later, the US depended on these same mujahedin to help defeat the Taliban. Despite being implicated in human rights abuses, several leaders now hold ministerial posts.

The speech made Joya powerful enemies and she has survived at least four assassination attempts since then. She often travels incognito and she employs armed guards. Yet her outspokenness won her international awards and recognition from her government. She also became a hero to many ordinary people. It was all excellent preparation for a successful run for office.

Simply being a woman makes Joya part of a select group competing for a seat in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament. Under Afghan law, there has to be at least twice the number of women MPs as there are provinces, of which there are 34. The reserved seats are distributed to the provinces in proportion to the seats each has, with a minimum of one each. So, with 38 men and two other respected but relatively unknown women running in Farah, Joya, with her fame, her strong network and formidable reputation, stands a good chance of winning.

Joya’s short speech at the Loya Jirga still resonates on Farah city’s main avenue, which is lined with stores selling lengths of Iranian fabric, CDs, motorcycles and chickens. Campaign posters blanket the walls. The few women on the street wear all-encompassing blue burqas, or black veils that hide everything but hands and face. Men dominate the road, yet the single most obvious campaign poster is for a woman: Malalai Joya.

Mirwais Amir, 23, owner of the Today’s Woman clothes shop, displays his two Joya posters. “In the middle of all those great men, she said something that opposed them. As a citizen of Farah, I am proud that one of our sisters has done that,” he says. “I’m impressed that a woman said this in Afghanistan, where even men haven’t spoken such things.”

Despite Joya’s popularity on the street, hers is not an easy battle. The most immediate problem is security. She employs about 12 guards, regularly receives death threats and rarely visits far-flung regions of Farah Province, out of fear. When she does travel, she wears a burqa and is accompanied by at least one other woman wearing an identical flowing blue garment.

In such fears, she is not alone. “Violence against women and girls in Afghanistan is pervasive; few women are exempt from the reality or threat of violence,” an Amnesty International report said in May. “Afghan women and girls live with the risk of: abduction and rape by armed individuals; forced marriage; being traded for settling disputes and debts; and they face daily discrimination from all segments of society as well as by state officials.”

Shocking statistics bear this out. Female life expectancy is 45 years, placing the country close to the bottom of international indices. Maternal mortality is 60 times higher than in industrialised countries, with one Afghan woman dying every 30 seconds from a pregnancy-related disease. It is estimated that between 3 and 14 per cent of all Afghan women can read and write.

See also WW4 REPORT #94

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