MALALAI JOYA, MY HONORABLE FRIEND

So the West thought that with the ouster of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, it was through with the Islamic militia. Trained and armed by neighboring Pakistan, the Taleban had seized control of the country in 1996, vowing to establish within its borders “the most rigid Islamic regime in the world,” a pledge they certainly made good on. Television, video and music had been declared contrary to Islam and consequently outlawed; public executions had replaced sports games in stadiums; the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan had been dynamited for inconsistency with Islam; and women had been confined in their homes and forced to wear the burqa, the infamous all-cloaking dress. With the Taleban government overthrown, all the trouble was supposed to be over.

That was until 10 French soldiers were killed on August 19 in an ambush by Taleban fighters, the former rulers of Afghanistan having returned to their previous condition of rebel militiamen and taken back a significant part of the country over the past three years. As France suffered its heaviest loss of troops in a single fight since the Algerian war of independence, the world realized that Afghanistan was still very much at war with a Taleban militia that is unabatedly intent on retaking the country. Should this happen, life there would most likely return to being what it was before 2001, especially for women against whom the Taleban had literally let all hell loose.

Now the question is whether women in Afghanistan have really been able to make the most of the return of the regime formerly called the Rabbani government – after President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was in power when the Taleban seized Kabul in 1996 and then fled to Faizabad from where he run his government in domestic exile. Sure, wearing a burqa and never walking the streets without a male relative is no longer a government order, but then the condition of Afghan women is far from worthy of a country that claims to be a democracy, so much so that even their Iranian neighbors would find themselves better allotted in comparison. One example, if only, proves it.

In September 2005 Malalai Joya, a 27-year-old woman, entered Afghanistan’s newly-elected Parliament after winning the second highest number of votes in Farah province, conquering in so doing a seat in the Wolesi Jirga – the Lower House – and pledging upon her arrival there to “protect the rights of the oppressed and safeguard women’s rights.” As time went by, Joya proved a staunch critic of the warlords and defender of women’s rights. She was repeatedly stopped from speaking in Parliament or had speeches cut short. She survived a number of assassination attempts and was forced to sleep in different places every night in order to stay alive.

Being continually threatened and abused both within Parliament and outside, she was regularly called a “prostitute” or “whore” by her fellow Members. On May 7, 2006, one of them almost killed her.

That day, her colleague Almas Khan spoke about the anniversary and achievements of the day that freedom fighters, the famous Afghan Mujahidin, seized power from Mohammad Najibullah’s communist regime formerly backed by the Soviet Union, which was followed by civil war among various groups. On this occasion, Joya was given the opportunity to speak, for a change. She commented on Almas’s claim that the atrocities committed during this time were “mistakes”, condemning them instead as criminal acts. Her speech resulted in Members hurling bottles of water at her and calling for her to be raped and killed.

Another Member, former warlord Rasul Sayyaf, who has been accused by human rights groups of war crimes, was heard ordering someone to wait by the door and stab Joya as she walked out. Joya was protected by other Members who formed a human ring around her and enlisted the protection of security forces.

One year later, Joya gave an interview to a private Afghan television station in which she lamented that the Afghan Parliament was “worse than a stable of animals”, no wonder why. As a result, on May 21, 2007, Joya was suspended from Parliament under Article 70 of the Rules of Procedure of the Wolesi Jirga. At that time, the rules were undergoing revision at the time and had not yet been approved by Parliament, which means she was punished under a law that was not law.

Article 70 of the Rules of Procedure proposes that a Member be subject to disciplinary procedures in the event of a number of offenses, including “intimidation and threatening of a member, defamation and accusation of others, insult and desecration against the administrative board government officials and the staff members of the general secretariat”. Under Article 70, the Member can be suspended for one day and for a further unspecified number of days at the request of the administrative board and upon approval from the Wolesi Jirga. Yet Joya’s conduct was never referred to the administrative board. Instead, she was suspended following a majority show of hands by the Wolesi Jirga. In other words, a political assassination with ballots replacing bullets.

Joya wrote directly to the Supreme Court to protest her suspension and the procedure used to secure it, inasmuch as the Afghan Constitution protects freedom of speech and gives immunity from prosecution for views expressed during the performance of parliamentary duty. She subsequently heard through a television announcement that her case would be referred to the appropriate court. Yet there is still no official indication as to how or when her case will be dealt with. In the meantime, she remains suspended from Parliament, leaving her constituency without proper representation.

With a democratic government like this, who needs the Taleban? Far from gaining anything from the reinstatement of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan after the fall of the so-called “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” Afghan women have been insistently calling for equal rights and highlighting the urgent need for human security.

At the Afghan Women’s Summit for Democracy, organized by the New York-based women’s rights group Equality Now in coalition with other women’s organizations in December 2001 – soon after the fall of the Taleban – 40 Afghan women leaders recommended the central inclusion of women in decision-making and in all peace processes, endorsed principles of non-discrimination based on gender, age, ethnicity, disability, religion and political affiliation, and called for assurance of a safe and secure environment for women and girls.

In March 2003 Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and in January 2004 it adopted a new Constitution which provides for equal rights for women and men before the law. Yet all this is only on paper, for in reality, women continue to be violently targeted and denied equal rights and equal protection of the law. The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) published a study in 2006 which documented systematic abuse of women’s rights in Afghanistan, including violence against women instigated by state actors such as the army and police, including forced prostitution, forced marriage, rape, kidnapping and sexual assaults. In June 2007 two women journalists were murdered with many others receiving death threats. On September 25, 2006, Safia Ama Jan, the southern provincial head of Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs, was murdered outside the front gate of her home in Kandahar. For over one year a large number of schools for girls have been forced to close after being attacked. Definitely, with democrats like these, who needs the Taleban?

In case no one told President Hamid Karzai, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognizes the critical role of women in promoting peace and security and calls for increased representation of women in decision-making. As for Malalai Joya proper, she was duly elected to Parliament and has been consistently and courageously speaking out for human rights, recognizing that respect for human rights is fundamental to peace and security. Therefore, her suspension undermines democracy in Afghanistan and is a violation of her rights, as well as the rights of those she represents.

In the British Parliament, Members often refer to one another, especially within the same party, as “my honorable friend.” I am no parliamentarian, French, British, Afghan or other, but I am proud to call Malalai Joya my very own “honorable friend”. Since her suspension from the Afghan Parliament, she has been touring the world to explain about her predicament and seek support for her ongoing fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, addressing the global parliament of public opinion in the regrettable, enduring absence of a World Parliament within the United Nations.

If there is anything I can do to help you, Malalai, all you do is say. I’m there for you, and you know it, my honorable friend – honorable, brave, noble and beautiful, for that’s what you are to me. “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman,” sang Helen Reddy in her legendary battle anthem of the 1970s. So are you, too.

With reporting by Equality Now, New York.

Malalai Joya’s Official Website can be visited at www.malalaijoya.com.