“You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring.” So said Malalai Joya on January 27, 2010 in a BBC News interview. The quote refers to the various attempts that have been made on her life by warlords that make up the democratic Afghan government Joya has spent years denouncing.
Thirty-year-old Joya’s life has been marked by war and repression. She has been called “the most famous woman in Afghanistan” and “the bravest woman in Afghanistan”. She has certainly done much to deserve such titles. In her teenage years she ran a secret underground school under the noses of the Taliban. Nearly fifteen years later, she is a member of Parliament, a representative of Farah province in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga (National Assembly).
Malalai Joya is a potent representative of the struggle of Afghan women against a government that continually represses their rights and relegates them to second-class citizen status. Under fundamentalists, in the words of Joya, a woman is “half a human, meant only to fulfill a man’s every wish and lust, and to produce children and toil in the home.” The Taliban brutally repressed women; in the new, democratic Afghanistan, the hope is that women can assume an equal place alongside men, yet such equality is still theory without practice in the country.
For example, the percent of literate women aged 15 and older is only 12%, compared to 39% for men. Though both numbers are troublesome, the discrepancy between male and female education and opportunity remains staggering.
Of working age females, only 47% are active in the labor force. In contrast, 86% of males are active. Even more representative of the repression of women’s rights is the wage gap between males and females. In the agricultural labor market, women are paid a national average of 54% wages to men. In non-agricultural occupations, the number is even lower, 49% to that of men.
However, people like Malalai Joya and organizations like the Afghan Women’s Network are working to dissolve these discrepancies. One way to do this is through political participation. In the National Assembly, women represent 27% of the participants (24 out of 68 seats in the Wolesi Jirga and 23 out of the 102 seats in the Mesherano Jirga). In the Provincial Council, 124 out of 420 seats are reserved for women. However, women are still fighting to be heard.
Even if elected to office, women are often met with protestation and suppression. In Malalai Joya’s case, her first speech to the Loya Jirga, in which she voiced harsh opinions about the “warlords” and “criminals” in Afghanistan’s government, was met with anger and violence. Joya emphasized the impact her speech made on both the political system and her life, saying that “[F]rom that moment on,” she “would never again be safe.” In more descriptive terms, her speech placed her in an international spotlight—and in the path of death threats and assassination attempts.
It isn’t only Joya that has met difficulties in her struggle for the protection of women’s rights. On January 28, the London Conference in Afghanistan took place. For an entire day, delegations from 70 countries met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the past, present, and future of Afghanistan. The topics discussed included security, government and development, and regional support. Within each, various ambitions were highlighted. The main goal, of course, was to create and maintain a secure, peaceful, and stable democratic government for Afghanistan.
Yet, though 48.8% of Afghanistan’s population is female, only one Afghan woman was allowed to speak at the conference. Furthermore, only through additional coordination by the British Afghanistan Agencies Group (BAAG) and the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) was she given the extra minutes she needed to present a message from Afghan women concerning their own priorities and needs for the future.
To the women of Afghanistan, this exclusion of the female voice represents a troubling lack of commitment to the female cause by the Afghan government. To Malalai Joya, this government is made up of warlords and criminals who are entrenched in old traditions of gender roles and who seek the easiest path to power and fortune. To many of the government officials themselves, the situation represents a frightening dichotomy, in which women clamor for rights while the Taliban continue to shake the confidence and willpower of Afghanistan’s people. While offensives continue to be carried out against the Taliban by Afghan and American forces, the government explores ways to settle disputes with the Taliban diplomatically.
Many Afghan women fear this sort of diplomacy will result in appeasement of the Taliban, which in return will result in the loss of crucial women’s rights. Whether or not the government is made up of warlords and criminals, whether or not the government faces a dichotomy between appeasement and human rights, it is essential for those in power to remember that, in the words of Mary Akrami (Director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre), “There cannot be national security without women’s security.”
Afghanistan’s winter has been hard on its people, especially on its women. After years of Taliban rule, fear has persisted among the female population: fear of degradation, of abuse, and of injustice. Yet the snows are melting and flowers have begun to bloom. Malalai Joya is just one of the many people and organizations fighting for a secure Afghanistan in which women are allowed an equal place alongside their male counterparts. With commitment to women’s rights from government officials, perhaps spring can once again find welcome in Afghanistan.
Audrey Williams, Human Rights Blogger