April 6th, 2011 | Interviews

Malalai Joya—also known as Joya—gave a voice to the women, children and men of Afghanistan for the world when at the age of 25, while representing her region at the Loya Jirga (Afghanistan’s constitutional convention in 2003) in front of an international audience, she called out members of the newly elected Parliament as warlords, narco-terrorists and war criminals. Her life has been in constant danger ever since, but she continues to speak out against the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Afghanistan and against America’s involvement in the enforcement of the warlords’ continued positions of power over Afghan citizens.

A women’s rights activist since her youth, she would risk her life as a teenager, covertly educating girls and women at Afghan refugee camps. Currently living in hiding in her native country, she routinely has to change safe-houses and has to travel at all times with an armed guard due to constant assassination attempts. Last month, Joya was initially denied a visa to enter America for a tour promoting her autobiography A Woman Among Warlords and to speak out against what she calls the American occupation of Afghanistan.

L.A. RECORD’s Scott Schultz met briefly with Joya after her speaking engagement at Harvard University, where more than 1,200 people greeted her with multiple standing ovations. She agreed to answer his questions by e-mail, and she explains why she feels President Obama’s Afghanistan policies are hurting the women and men of her country, the current brutal realities for Afghan women, and how songs of freedom help give the downtrodden people the power to overthrow regimes. She will speak tomorrow and Friday in L.A. and Orange County.

Your visa for your current tour was initially denied when you applied to visit the U.S. to promote your autobiography, A Woman Among Warlords and to discuss the humanitarian crisis in your native Afghanistan. Have you received a true explanation from the US government?
Yes—the reason they stated was that I am ‘unemployed’ and ‘live underground.’
When you made your famous 90-second speech at Loya Jirga, what were you thinking? What did that reaction feel like?
At that time all I could think of was to somehow grab an opportunity to raise my people’s voices in a gathering of infamous warlords and criminals. When I made the speech, I felt at peace because I said everything I wanted and got a fierce reaction from them, showing that my words planted a seed of anger in their minds. Even if I would’ve been killed at that time, it really didn’t matter to me. If I had not made the speech, I would’ve been ashamed and held myself guilty in front of my people.
Many Americans have been led to believe that our nation is helping the residents and women of Afghanistan, but they really don’t know what our role is there. We are however familiar with our country’s history of siding with nefarious leaders, in order to further an American agenda. Can you explain how the American occupation has affected the citizens of Afghanistan?
Firstly, the U.S. is not in Afghanistan to fulfill their empty promises of ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ but for their own political, economic and regional interests. They installed a fundamentalist, criminal and corrupt regime which is mainly the root cause for many problems of my country—particularly the women’s rights catastrophe—and they continue to nurture them till this minute. Since 2001, more than 8,000 civilians—mostly innocent children, women and men—have been killed in their military operations, such as the massacre of 152 innocent women and children in Balabaluk village, 65 innocent women in children in Kunar province and over 140 villagers in Kundoz province. As the result of bringing such a treacherous government in power, Afghanistan is facing a women’s rights disaster; it is the second most corrupt country in the world and is the highest opium producer of the world, the outcome of which is extremely dangerous as now my homeland has fallen prey for drug mafias, who are far more deadly than terrorists. Afghanistan is suffering extreme poverty—over 80% of people live below the poverty line mainly because of the U.S. imposing globalization system on free market economy which only greatly widens the gap between rich and poor. This disastrous situation is gaining momentum under the very nose of 47 foreign nations present with more than 93,000 US troops and 39,000 NATO troops.
What are some subtle ways that Afghans rebel against the fundamentalists and what are some of the subtle ways they rebel against American occupiers?
Afghans are facing such extreme hunger and unemployment that they cannot think of rebelling against fundamentalists and U.S. occupiers. But people speak against both of them. In the first years of occupation, no one spoke against the US and there was some ray of hope. But now after 10 years, they have realized that this invasion only pushed them from the frying pan into the fire and are fighting against both these evils. People believe that the only way for them to get rid of this catastrophic situation is to rise against the U.S. occupation and its lackey regime, particularly after the wide uprisings in the Middle Eastern countries that turned out fruitful for the oppressed people of those nations.
You speak on a lot of college campuses and some have offered you scholarships. I know that education is such an important part of your life, but your immediate circumstances won’t allow time for it. When you’re on campuses and you see students your age walking past you, do you ever wonder what it would be like to be a university student?
Many of my friends and I have always loved to be able to go to the university and despite the huge passion I have for pursuing higher education, my security condition and work do not allow me to do so.
You’ve referred to George Bush and Dick Cheney as war criminals in your book and in speeches. How does President Obama compare to the former American regime?
Obama may have brought changes for American people but for my people, he is just a more dangerous Bush. It was during his tenure that civilian casualties increased by 24%. A surge of 30,000 troops was executed which only results in more bloodshed, disasters and mourning and wide military and intelligence bases of the US are being built all over the country. A few days ago Obama said: ‘Those around Qaddafi have to understand that violence that they perpetrate against innocent civilians will be monitored and they will be held accountable for it.’ I say, yes, you are right—but based on this logic, Obama and his team should also be held accountable for massacres of Afghans which goes on for the past 10 years, as I mentioned above.
How many girls were you able to educate in Afghanistan, and how many of them have followed in your footsteps to teach covertly?
I took classes for more than 100 women and girls and do not have an exact count. Now the girls are not taught covertly and I am in touch with some of the girls who help me in many of my activities in Afghanistan.
There was a saying after Barack Obama won the Presidential election here in 2008 based on his “Hope” and “Change” posters that “change is more than just a word.” In a lot of ways, it turned out to be a just a word after all. You touched on that in your book and in your speech. What were your hopes and expectations when he became President?
To be honest, I had no hopes and knew he would follow the same perfidious foreign policy and unfortunately it turned out to be right. He has proved himself a much more horrible war-monger than Bush. At least Bush didn’t bring Taliban or Hekmatyar in the government but now he has entered into talks with them to complete the circle of warlordism and drug-lordism.
You mention that when you were teaching as a teenager, you were a big fan of an Iranian freedom-loving singer named Dariush. Can you share with a favorite chorus or verse of his? You also mention repairing burial sites for other singers later in your book. What role if any, does song play in the resilience of the Afghan people?
Dariush sang one of my favorite poems of the freedom-loving Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou. Here is the poem:

In This Dead End

They smell your breath.
You better not have said, “I love you.”
They smell your heart.
These are strange times, darling…
And they flog
at the roadblock.
We had better hide love in the closet…
In this crooked dead end and twisting chill,
they feed the fire
with the kindling of song and poetry.
Do not risk a thought.
These are strange times, darling…
He who knocks on the door at midnight
has come to kill the light.
We had better hide light in the closet…
Those there are butchers
stationed at the crossroads
with bloody clubs and cleavers.
These are strange times, darling…
And they excise smiles from lips
and songs from mouths.
We had better hide joy in the closet…
Canaries barbecued
on a fire of lilies and jasmine,
these are strange times, darling…
Satan drunk with victory
sits at our funeral feast.
We had better hide God in the closet.

I built the renowned Afghan singer Awal Mir’s grave because he was a patriotic artist of Afghanistan and his song has become a secondary national anthem and is still played and heard by many. Music and other forms of art play a great role because they give a positive motivation to people and helps make them politically conscious and charged and has a great power to overthrow regimes. Freedom-loving Iranian singers, poets and writers were banned by the fundamentalist regime because of their huge influence on masses.
Why do you believe the United Nations won’t bring the warlords before a tribunal for crimes against humanity?
In Afghanistan, U.N. does not play much part. It is the U.S. which mainly controlling everything and U.S. obviously do not prosecute these warlords because they have invested in them for the last three decades. History bears testimony that U.S. has always nourished reactionary, dark-minded and brutal regimes wherever they have invaded and occupied. They know that they can never depend upon freedom-loving and democratic forces because they would never be locked in their fetters.
Can you explain what the situation is for women currently in Afghanistan? Can you also describe the kind of changes are being emphasized in the media and where that fits into the true picture of women’s rights in Afghanistan?
The current situation of women is quite depressing. Women are subjected to extreme kinds of violence such as rape, killings, kidnappings, acid attacks, cutting of nose and ears. Many such horrible and heart-wrenching crimes against the women and girls of Afghanistan are happening everyday. To escape their miseries, women commit self-immolation and its number is very high in many provinces. There is a huge emphasis in the media about education particularly girls’ education and they just magnify statistics and fool people that 6 million children go to school but now about 5 million children have dropped out—mainly girls because of the high insecurity. Even if they go to school, it is usually a roofless building with no proper books or notebooks and the conditions of schools are very bad. There are women parliamentarians and a women’s ministry and they are the heroines of the mainstream media but practically they are not doing anything for the betterment of the women’s conditions and the situation is getting worse everyday. Furthermore, there have been pro-women laws passed but it is clear that it would never get implemented and the law book is just a collection of useless papers for this regime full of anti-women elements.
Can you share some links that will allow people who want to help the women and men of Afghanistan in a way that the funds will reach the people they are intended for?
People can go here: The money donated would go for the humanitarian efforts for Afghan women, children and men.