It’s difficult to imagine even the faintest glimmer of hope when it comes to Afghanistan. If the past thirty years are any indication, the cycle of invasion, occupation, war, misery, and betrayal shows little sign of ending.
As the U.S./NATO occupation enters its eighth year, and with Barack Obama ordering an escalation of U.S. troops, progressives and activists of all stripes will find an excellent resource as well as a tremendous source of inspiration—and even hope—in Malalai Joya’s recently released book.
Joya, who spent most of her childhood in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan, may be a familiar name to those who follow events in Afghanistan. In 2005, she ran for Afghanistan’s parliament by building a grassroots campaign based on outspoken criticism of the warlords who, with the help of their U.S. backers, have been literally running the country into the ground.
But it’s plain to see from her book that Joya is no politician. The reasoning behind her campaign was to use the visibility of a parliamentary seat to give voice to the indignation and demands of ordinary Afghans. Contrary to the politicians we’ve become accustomed to, who talk tough during the campaign then inevitably back down once in office, Joya’s plan was to take the gloves off after winning the election. And she had no illusions about what she was up against.
I knew that the U.S.-installed Afghan government and its stooges might try to benefit from my presence in Parliament—to show to the world that there was a real democracy in Afghanistan because even a critic of the occupation and warlords could be elected. And there were a few Afghans who criticized me for joining this corrupt, warlord-ridden parliament. I simply told them an Afghan proverb: how can you catch tiger cubs without entering the tiger’s lair? I was ready to go to the lair, to hunt them in their own house.
Indeed, she was so outspoken that she was suspended from parliament in 2007 for “insulting” fellow representatives. Her struggle to gain back her rightful parliamentary seat has garnered international attention and support in the form of defense committees and various informal activist networks. “My enemies have accidentally given me a gift,” as she puts it.
Beyond the remarkable story of her victorious campaign and her daily dealings with some of Afghanistan’s most infamous criminals, Joya uses her life story to give Western readers a much fuller and much more accurate picture of Afghanistan, its people and history, than we get from the pathetic excuse for journalism that dominates the major media outlets. She also puts forward key arguments that help cut against some longstanding myths that even the most well-meaning folks believe.
Many people, for example, are still swayed by the argument that women are better off with foreign troops on the ground because, at the very least, they counteract the brutality of the fundamentalist Taliban. It’s certainly hard to overstate just how terrifying the situation is, and readers will find that some of the most painful passages in Joya’s book describe the harrowing existence for so many girls and women in Afghanistan. Along with the stifling level of poverty, Afghan women suffer the highest rates of depression in the world. This is why much of Joya’s time working in an orphanage and as an underground schoolteacher was spent trying to convince women not to commit suicide. It’s no wonder. It’s still the case that women cannot safely go to school and get an education, nor can they go anywhere without an acceptable male chaperone. Prostitution has reached unprecedented rates. Divorce is all but unobtainable for most women and the horrors of domestic violence and rape are daily realities for which perpetrators face no consequences. So profound is the feeling of despair that over the past few years hundreds of Afghan women have chosen the almost unimaginable act of self-immolation as the only escape.
Joya helps to explain that this horror is not due to some intrinsic flaw in Afghan society. Nor is it the case that it’s just the Taliban who produce this living hell for women.
Frankly, it’s impossible to tell the difference between those who call themselves Taliban and those who hold all the power in Kabul today. The latter dress up like democrats, only to hide their Taliban mentality. And because of them, after more than eight years of intervention by the United States and NATO, women’s rights have not been brought to Afghanistan, and we have achieved neither democracy nor justice. It seems clear that the U.S. government simply wants any gang in Afghanistan that will obey its directions accurately and act according to U.S. policies, and these fundamentalist bands of the Northern Alliance have proved throughout their life that they are ready to sacrifice Afghanistan’s national interests for their lust for power and money.
The brutality faced by women and girls in Afghanistan, among other tragedies, is the outcome of a society plagued by occupations and war—and the continued presence of foreign troops only makes the situation worse by the day.
Joya doesn’t stop there, though. The driving force behind her book is her unyielding faith in the capabilities of ordinary Afghans to shape their own future.
Today, we Afghans remain trapped between two enemies: the Taliban on one side and the U.S./NATO forces and their warlord hirelings on the other… But the situation is not hopeless. I believe in the power of the people, and I know that there are millions of women and men standing and waiting—eager to play their role in history.
Anyone who wants to better understand Afghanistan and to better explain why the U.S. has no business there should read this indispensable and beautifully written book.