Afghan Women's Rights Hero is Latest Victim of Ideological Exclusion

Malalai Joya is a 32-year-old Afghan woman named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Foreign Policy Magazine listed her on its annual list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, and last week The Guardian listed her among the "Top 100 women: activists and campaigners" in the world.

So why is the U.S. State Department refusing to let Ms. Joya visit our country?

Ms. Joya was scheduled to come to Boston and other U.S. cities this week - including scheduled stops at Harvard, U. Mass. Amherst, and Smith College -- as part of speaking tour to promote her book, A Woman Among Warlords, when the State Department refused to grant her an entry visa.

Ms. Joya was told that her visa was denied because she is "unemployed" and lives "underground" -- the result of various death threats lodged against her by the Afghan warlords she has publicly criticized.

A more plausible reason for her exclusion is that Ms. Joya, who has been called the "bravest woman in Afghanistan" for her outspoken criticism of both the Taliban and the Karzai government, is likely to say something critical of the Obama Administration's war in her country.

The exclusion of Malalai Joya is just the latest example of "ideological exclusion," the practice by which our government excludes people who dare to criticize the policies of the U.S. government.

Ideological exclusion is pernicious because it denies the right of American citizens to hear and engage with prominent thinkers from other countries. In so doing, it violates the rights of free association and speech of Americans who wish to engage in an exchange of ideas with visiting authors, journalists, and scholars.

We -- as Americans -- have a First Amendment right to hear what Ms. Joya and other notable thinkers from around the world have to say and to engage with them in face-to-face dialogues. When our government excludes leaders, journalists, scholars, authors and poets from our shores, it violates the the First Amendment rights of the American people.

I understand why Afghan rulers - both Taliban and Karzai government leaders -- are afraid of Malalai Joya. She is an outspoken and fearless defender of human rights and has been critical of both sides in that civil war. She established and ran secret schools dedicated to educating and empowering girls. And she won a landslide victory when she ran for the Afghan Parliament in 2005, the youngest person to be elected, only to be kicked out after she compared the parliament to a "stable or zoo" in a TV interview.

In response, Ms. Joya has been the target of multiple death threats and forced to live underground. But she has refused to be silent.

But why would Secretary of State Clinton, herself an outspoken defender of women's rights, refuse to let Ms. Joya meet and talk with Americans?

Could the problem be that Malalai Joya has criticized the U.S. war in Afghanistan? Are State Department officials afraid that Ms. Joya will confirm recent reports that the Obama administration is abandoning its promise to defend women's rights in Afghanistan?

Whatever the reason, the exclusion of Malalai Joya is something that Americans can and should ask the State Department to set right.

Last year, public pressure - and a couple of ACLU lawsuits - led Secretary Clinton to issue visa waivers to three foreign scholars who had been targets of ideological exclusion based on their public criticism of U.S. foreign policy. Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan, South African sociologist Adam Habib, and Nieman Fellow and Colombian Journalist Hollman Morris, all were permitted entry into the United States as a result of public outrage of their exclusion from our shores.

Already, groups that invited Ms. Joya to speak in the United States are circulating a petition and calling upon U.S. citizens to contact their elected representatives urging them to pressure the State Department to issue a visa to Ms. Joya.

We should all join this effort, and not simply to support the human rights work of Malalai Joya. At stake are the associational and free speech rights of all Americans.

© 2023 Boston Globe