Malalai Joya, a 31-year-old activist and politician, was once called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan” by the BBC. During the Taliban years, she defied her country’s rulers by running underground girls’ schools. After the Taliban’s fall, she helped start an orphanage and a medical clinic, and eventually became the youngest member of Afghanistan’s legislature. She has been fearless in taking on the warlords who populate the government of Hamid Karzai—declared the presidential victor Monday after a runoff election was canceled—so much so that in 2007, her political opponents voted to suspend her from parliament on the grounds that she had “insulted” the institution. Calling for her reinstatement, six female Nobel Peace Prize laureates compared her to Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, describing her as “a model for women everywhere seeking to make the world more just.”
The Afghan government is “a group of warlords, criminals, who [waged the] civil war in Afghanistan from ’92 to ’96. They are photocopies of Taliban, but with suit and tie, talking about democracy.”
So when Joya inveighs against the American occupation of her country, we should take her voice seriously.
“My message on behalf of my people to [the] great American people is that democracy never comes by barrel of gun, by cluster bomb, by war,” she told me during a recent interview in New York, her words rushing out in an impassioned torrent. “They say war of Iraq is bad war, war of Afghanistan is good war, while both are war. You should raise your voice against the wrong policy of your government.”
Joya is touring the United States to promote her new book, A Woman Among the Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. The volume is both an autobiography and a damning indictment of the Karzai regime and its American backers. It offers a perspective that’s particularly salient right now, as the U.S. debates its future in Afghanistan. Many liberals are turning against the war, but worry that pulling out will abandon Afghans, particularly Afghan women, to the ravages of a Taliban takeover. They may be right—there are plenty of Afghan women speaking out strongly against a pullout. Still, Joya shows that the feminist case for staying in Afghanistan is far from clear-cut.
Joya is barely 5 feet tall—she swims in her pantsuit—but her presence is arresting and authoritative. Educated largely in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, she never had the opportunity to go to college, but she’s a book-loving autodidact who quotes Bertholt Brecht as often as she cites Afghan proverbs. Her English is slightly broken but still impressive—she has a rich vocabulary of epithets to describe Afghanistan’s current government, which, she insists is no better than the Taliban regime it replaced.
After Sept. 11, 2001, she says, when it was clear there would be war, liberal-minded Afghans harbored hopes that the United States and NATO would “bring positive changes, especially [because] they came to Afghanistan under the banner of women’s rights, human rights, democracy.” Instead, she says, the U.S. and its allies “replaced one fascist regime, Taliban, these misogynist terrorists, with another group of warlords, criminals, who [waged the] civil war in Afghanistan from ’92 to ’96. They are photocopies of Taliban, but with suit and tie, talking about democracy.”
Joya rejects the argument that NATO troops are the only thing standing in the way of a Taliban takeover. In fact, she says, the widespread civilian deaths caused by American bombs are fueling the Taliban’s growing grassroots strength. Increasingly, she says, Afghans speculate that the United States is deliberately killing innocent civilians as revenge for the innocent American civilians killed on Sept. 11. “We are between two powerful enemies,” she says. “We are fighting against occupation, and also against Taliban and warlords who now negotiate with each other. So with the withdrawal of one enemy, these occupation forces whose government is giving more money and power to these terrorists… it’s much easier to fight against one enemy instead of two.”
To be sure, Joya doesn’t speak for all Afghan women. Indeed, many Afghan women’s rights activists and their American supporters express terror at what would await them after an American withdrawal. The Afghan human-rights activist Wazhma Frogh recently wrote in The Washington Post, “As an Afghan woman who for many years lived a life deprived of the most basic human rights, I find unbearable the thought of what will happen to the women of my country if it once again falls under the control of the insurgents and militants who now threaten it.”
Women for Afghan Women, an NGO that runs counseling centers and domestic-violence shelters in Afghanistan, recently put out a statement saying, “Women for Afghan Women deeply regrets having a position in favor of maintaining, even increasing troops… We predict that if Afghanistan falls again to the Taliban, we will once more see on our high-definition TV screens, in the comfort of our American homes, women and girls being hauled into the Kabul football stadium to be beaten and executed for having committed acts that would not be considered criminal by any international human-rights laws, including those signed by Afghanistan.”
Sunita Viswanath, one of the board members of Women for Afghan Women, is immensely frustrated by those on the left who are calling for the occupation’s end. “I want the answer to [this] question,” she says. “What do they think will happen to women and girls?”
Joya’s response is to argue that outside parts of Kabul, women’s situations are as bad as they ever were, and it’s getting worse. “It is as catastrophic as it was under the domination of Taliban,” she says.
“Everyone, they are talking that when these troops leave Afghanistan, civil war will happen,” says Joya. “Mainstream media especially try to put more dust in the eyes of the people around the world. But nobody wants to talk about today’s civil war.” The longer American troops stay, “the worse civil war will be, because [the American] government [is] giving more money and more power to these warlords and also Taliban. That’s why, day by day, my people believe [that the U.S.] just waste their taxpayer money and the blood of their soldiers by supporting such a mafia corrupt system of Hamid Karzai.”
Joya doesn’t want the world to forget about Afghanistan; she is desperate for more humanitarian and educational support. But she rejects entirely the notion that the American military can be a force for good, or a force for feminism. “I believe that women’s rights is not a bunch of beautiful flowers that someone gives us,” she says. In her book, she writes, “I feel confident that if foreign countries stop meddling in Afghanistan and if we are left free from occupation, then a strong progressive and democratic force will emerge.”
That might seem terribly optimistic, even naïve to most Americans. But if we think we’re fighting for women like her, we should at least listen when she begs us to stop.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.