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19 September 2005

The women of Afghanistan find a leader

As the country wakes up from 25 years of conflict and despair, a young female politician is taking o

By F Brinley Bruton

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.

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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.

Women are not the only ones to suffer. The thin spread of the international military contingent – 11,000 Nato soldiers, mostly in and around Kabul, and roughly 19,000 US troops, mostly in the south – has created a power vacuum, made worse by a relatively small and untrained national army. That leaves many at the mercy of the warlords, who steal, kill, kidnap and rape, critics say.

“Warlords still influence the lives of people,” says Abdul Samat, an elder who is about 50 years old. He is visiting Joya from Rigi, a neighbouring village, to plead for help in finding the people who kidnapped and killed a relative, a two-year-old girl. The family has turned to the police, but to no avail. “People do not live in a secure environment, and children are being kidnapped,” Abdul Samat says. “Show me security, show me where it is. There is no security. As I sit here I don’t feel secure.” He is just one person in a constant flow of visitors to Joya’s offices asking for help and pledging their support.

Later Izatullah Wasifi, governor of Farah, plays down security fears. “Whatever you’ve been told is not a fact . . . We have problems like any other nation, any other country, just here and there. It is a fact, as it is a fact in New York and California and in England,” says Wasifi, who has been in office for about four months. Afghanistan’s governors are appointed, not elected.

I ask what he thinks of advice I received from security experts not to visit the province, and about NGOs having pulled out their international staff. “I would not deny that there are little issues here and there,” he says, arguing that he has dealt aggressively with one of the main security problems – motorcycle, car and truck theft. “We have discovered many of the issues and . . . I would say 85 per cent have been recovered.”

Subsequent events seem to support Joya’s fears, not Wasifi’s confidence. On 31 August, David Addison, a British lorry driver working on a road project, was kidnapped on the Herat-Kandahar highway in Farah. He was later found dead. Three policemen escorting his convoy were killed in the initial shoot-out and the fate of his interpreter is unknown. The Taliban were behind the attack, say officials. It was a frightening development in a province that had previously experienced little insurgent activity. And Farah’s was not the only case: there were 19 Taliban-related deaths in Afghanistan during the same week, the Foreign Office said. Roughly 1,100 people have died in insurgency-related violence in the past six months.

Security problems affect everybody. Many of the country’s provincial militia leaders, known as warlords, still control the countryside and are embraced or tolerated by the government of President Hamid Karzai. Admittedly, Karzai and his foreign backers are in a tight spot. Many doubt that he can get rid of the warlords, even though he has pledged to cleanse his government of “criminals”, including anyone involved with the booming narcotics trade. To give him credit, he has removed a few notable figures from his cabinet, such as Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former defence minister and head of the Northern Alliance, which helped defeat the Taliban. But even if Karzai set out after all warlords, distinguishing the criminals from the honest jihadis can be tricky. “Everybody has been involved in murdering and killing,” says Najia Zewari of UNIFEM (the UN Development Fund for Women). “Many are building factories, supermarkets. So, not all commanders are good, but not all commanders are bad.”

Still, many worry that men linked to atrocities will win places in parliament and the provincial councils. This tendency to tolerate commanders despite their past puts the future of Afghanistan at risk, says Patricia Gossman, director of the Afghanistan Justice Project, which has criticised the Kabul government for not punishing those responsible for human rights abuses. “It is a serious problem. These people are a law unto themselves.”

Warlords are not the only thing on Malalai Joya’s mind. A large coterie of impoverished men and women work for her and depend on her, too – inevitable flotsam washed up by a quarter-century of war. She says the plight of such people has galvanised her ever since she was a refugee in the camps in Pakistan. “I once met a mother who had dressed her child in mourning clothes and was waiting for him to die because she didn’t have money to take him to a doctor,” she says. “She was just waiting for him to die.”

Joya, who first fled with her family to Iran when she was four and then moved to Pakistan, started teaching other refugees to read and write when she was about 15. “When I came in from the camps I would cry and ask my father, ‘Why do our people live like this?'” She credits her father, a former medical student who lost a leg fighting the Soviets, with planting the seed that grew into her political career. “He gave me the name Malalai,” she says – Malalai being a national heroine who turned the tide of the Battle of Maiwand against the British in 1880. The story goes that she tore off her burqa, took up the sword and led a battalion to victory.

Although Joya is startlingly open about most things, she guards her family fiercely. She is loath to discuss her six sisters and three brothers, only one of whom lives in Farah. Most of the family lives in a city dominated by one of her powerful enemies, she explains. She does, however, talk about her husband, Saroj Ahmad, a student of agriculture in Kabul.

“I wanted to show the people that I married a person who really loves me, trusts me and helps me,” she says. Besides, being single was a liability in this conservative country. “I am a young girl and was going all over the place with guards. People talked about it.”

Twenty months ago she was a lonely voice speaking to an exhausted country. Since then a rising chorus has joined her to demand that justice be applied equally to all Afghans – from the lowliest woman to the most powerful commander. With other political candidates and human rights organisations calling for warlords to be excluded from power no matter what their credentials, Joya promises to be a powerful force after the elections. Her message strikes a chord with fed-up and newly emboldened people such as Farishta, who lives across the country in Kabul.

“I lost my husband during the Taliban and no commander is asking me: ‘How are you doing? What is your situation? How will you feed your family?'” says the 38-year-old as she sews a button on to a long black cloak. Farishta, who supports her four children by mending clothes in the Women’s Park, Kabul, could not work under the Taliban even though she was a widow. Now she has a job and her four children perhaps have a decent future. “Joya feels our pain,” Farishta says. “She is like us.”

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