A Voice of Hope for Afghanistan's Women
FOR the women of Afghanistan, it is yet another brutal message - that death awaits those who choose a public life.
Sitara Achakzai - a women's rights campaigner - was gunned down in the streets of Kandahar on Sunday.
She is among several high-profile women assassinated the Taliban have in recent years. But it is merely the most public example of the extreme violence women face in this embattled country, where rape and murder are widespread.
Malalai Joya understands better than most the oppression of Afghan women - and the danger of speaking out. The women's rights activist and member of Afghanistan's national parliament has lived in hiding for five years and never spends more than 24 hours at the same house. Her only contact with the world is by infrequent phone calls and, if there is electricity, the internet. She sleeps, eats and breathes in the shadow of six heavily armed bodyguards and wears a burqa to conceal her identity.
Malalai Joya's plight - and that of the other high-profile women - is symbolic of a country in turmoil. More than seven years after international forces removed the Taliban from power, Afghanistan is slipping further into violence and lawlessness.
For the 1100 Australian soldiers stationed in Oruzgan, in the south, the threat posed by growing insecurity and a resurgent Taliban is very real. Just last week, two Australian soldiers were wounded when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb. Last month, the ninth and 10th Australian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.
While deeply saddened by the increasing human toll, Shukria Khalil, a prominent member of the large Afghan community in Melbourne, praises the sacrifice and courage of Australian troops serving in Afghanistan.
"By coming to Afghanistan and defending people like Malalai Joya, Australian soldiers are giving ordinary Afghans the strength to endure their pain and the faith to believe and dream of a future without war, death and hunger," she says.
Joya's own battle is against the warlords who, she says, are running the country. These men, who Joya refers to as the "Taliban's brothers in arms", are former commanders of the various Islamist groups, together known as the mujahideen, who fought and defeated the Soviet Union and communist Afghan government in the 1980s. Soon after coming to power, these groups turned on each other, waging a brutal civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed, thousands of women and girls were raped, and millions of people were made refugees. The bloodshed only stopped when the Taliban took power.
"Today, because there is no strong central government, Afghanistan is carved up between these same warlords, who have now filled the shoes of the Taliban," Joya says. "Afghanistan is once again in the hands of rapists, murderers and extremists."
Asked why the warlords are so desperate to silence her, Joya responds: "I am the fundamentalists' most unrelenting and outspoken critic. They see women as second-class citizens and are threatened by the idea of a woman openly questioning their authority. The fundamentalists also realise that when I reveal their crimes and demand justice, it is not my voice alone but the voice of all Afghans they hear."
Joya, now 30, first spoke out more than five years ago. As a delegate at a constitutional convention in Afghanistan she publicly accused the country's leaders, many of whom were there, of war crimes, human rights violations, involvement in the opium trade and supporting the Taliban. She said they should be prosecuted in national and international courts. Her remarks were met by stunned silence and then uproar from the 300 delegates, most of them former mujahideen commanders and ex-Taliban officials. Joya was branded an infidel and "whore", while one delegate stood on the floor of the forum and demanded that Joya be taken away and raped.
Joya's stance against the warlords seemed to be endorsed when she was subsequently elected, at 27, as the youngest member of parliament in Afghanistan's landmark elections of 2005. There she continued her outspoken ways. She is nearing the end of a two-year suspension from parliament, imposed after she used a television interview in May 2007, to accuse fellow MPs of being criminals opposed to women's rights, obstructing free speech and intimidating prominent Afghan women.
In response, MPs voted overwhelmingly for her suspension, though their decision has no basis in law.
"Ever since I have started my struggle for human rights in Afghanistan, for women's rights, these criminals, these drug smugglers, they've stood against me," she says during a phone conversation. "They can kill men but they cannot silence my voice because it is the voice of all the people of Afghanistan calling for change, peace and justice."
Joya began her campaign for social and political change after returning to Afghanistan 10 years ago. Her family had fled the Soviet invasion 16 years earlier, settling in one of the many refugee camps along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Plunged into a life of poverty and uncertainty, Joya, as a teenager, began humanitarian work for various organisations in Pakistan to help provide for her family - two parents and nine children. During her regular visits to refugee camps she met many ordinary Afghans, saw their suffering and learned of the crimes of the various mujahideen groups vying for power.
"The experience had a profound impact on me," says Joya, who is still haunted by stories of women being raped, of children being kidnapped in the middle of the night, and of men being beaten, tortured and killed. When Joya went back to Afghanistan in 1998, the country was under Taliban rule. With the help of a non-government group, Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, she opened an orphanage and a health clinic for women. Risking death, Joya defied the law against educating girls by opening an underground school in Herat, in western Afghanistan. "Today, more than seven years after the ousting of the Taliban, most women are still too scared to take off their burqas," Joya says.
She claims that although liberating women was one of the main moral arguments for invading Afghanistan in 2001, the situation for women has continued to deteriorate. "Ninety per cent of women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic violence, 80 per cent of marriages are forced, and the average life expectancy for women is 44 years," she says.
Joya recounts the harrowing stories of two women she has met. Fatima, the daughter of a poor shopkeeper, was sold to a man, 50, who raped and beat her and then traded her for a dog. Her father did not have the money to buy back his daughter, 23. Shabnum, seven, was kidnapped and raped by three men, who cut her genitals.
"The plight of victims such as these girls is my driving force," Joya says. "I will never give up my fight for justice, and I'll continue to try to represent the millions of voiceless Afghan people - especially women and children - who are still being brutalised by warlords and the Taliban. While ordinary women and girls face rape, forced marriages and inhuman acts of abuse daily, women who stand up for their rights and take a public role in society risk being killed or silenced.
Shukria Khalil says Sitara's murder is an assault not on one individual, "it is an attack on every woman's fight for justice, freedom and equality in Afghanistan".
Azra Jafari, who was elected Afghanistan's first female mayor this year, says women's rights have worsened since the progress made during the transitional government between 2002 and 2004, when education for girls was promoted and women became ministers and received 25 per cent of the seats in parliament. "We had three or four women ministers during the interim government: now we have one," she says.
In another blow to women's rights, Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month signed a law for the Shiite minority that reportedly rules women cannot refuse sex within marriage, and cannot leave home, seek work or visit a doctor without their husband's permission. Opponents of the law claim Karzai is desperate to retain the support of fundamentalists in presidential elections to be held this year.
Following international condemnation, Karzai ordered a review of the law and said amendments would be made if it contravened the constitution.
Despite the pressure brought to bear by the world community and while acknowledging the contribution of international forces in Afghanistan, Joya believes the US and other foreign powers are making a mockery of democracy and the liberation of Afghan women by empowering the warlords and fundamentalists.
"The US talks about thousands of girls flocking back to school, but the fundamentalists in power are encouraging the destruction of schools, the killing of teachers and the kidnapping of students," Joya says. "The US also talks about the improving situation for women, but they are committing suicide more than ever. They would rather die than live."
Although she believes her days are numbered, Joya is not fearful for the future. "I am not frightened because we will all die one day," she says. "What matters is that we fight despite the risk and we sacrifice despite the cost. Only then can we succeed."
Frud Bezhan is a freelance journalist.