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Joya and freedom

Malalai Joya, a former Afghanistan MP, has crossed the country to demand that Canadian troops leave Afghanistan. Tonight, she brings the message to Halifax.

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Six years after Canadian troops were deployed to Afghanistan, Malalai Joya, a former Afghan parliamentarian, speaks from the belly of the so-called beast.

Twenty-nine year old Joya, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, is a women's rights activist and former member of the Afghan parliament, the Loya Jirga. Currently, she's on a speaking tour in Canada and will be visiting Halifax this week with an arsenal of words---her weapon of choice in the 'war on terror.'

Joya---no holds barred---opposes Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Early Tuesday morning she calls me from a taxi in Toronto, on her way to the CBC for yet another media interview, and tells me exactly why. "Unfortunately, Canada follows the U.S. which is a mockery of democracy. Today our country has been occupied. Today in Afghanistan this occupation is an assault on women, worse than ever." She says that the fundamentalist government currently in power is not supporting nor facilitating the education or economic development of women, which keeps them in poverty and from fighting for their rights.

Joya questions Canada's alleged mission to 'save' Afghan women, and asserts that Afghan women do not need to be 'saved' by Stephen Harper. "After 9-11, foreign forces attacked Afghanistan to liberate women but, unfortunately, we went from the frying pan into the flame. Today, in the far away provinces, conditions for women are even worse than they were before.” Proposed legal reforms to protect women have not been implemented under the new government and according to Amnesty International, cases of "honour" killings (killing a woman who is deemed to violate acceptable gender behavior) have risen this year. So have cases of self-sacrificial suicides by women.

In direct contrast to this egregious state of affairs, there is a vibrant women's movement in Afghanistan that includes the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and the more recently founded Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities (OPAWC). According to Joya, real, progressive change is coming from dedicated women within Afghanistan, not from foreign forces or domestic governments.

"I'm a social activist with OPAWC," says Joya. "We have health and education activities throughout Afghanistan, and we believe that if women and children are given the power to educate themselves and speak and act freely, they can end violence against women. But today we are losing our power, our ability to carry out our work because the government currently in power does not support these projects. And anyone who speaks out about it, advocating for women's rights, is killed."

Joya herself is a prime example of the courageous women at work within Afghanistan. She adamantly denounced the Taliban during their reign, but says the Northern Alliance that has replaced the Taliban is a sham. "The people who are in power now committed many crimes against women and innocent people in Afghanistan when they were in power between 1992 and 1996," she says. Joya loudly and publicly denies their legitimacy, arguing that this government is riddled with warlords and drug barons who wear a "mask of democracy."

In 2005 Joya gained the second highest number of votes in the Farah Province, and took a seat in the Loya Jirga. But in all of three minutes in May 2007, Joya was suspended from the Loya Jirga for an infamous speech denouncing the incredible corruption and oppression at work in the national assembly.

In her speech, Joya pointed to the disgrace of a government comprised of "warlords" who killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians during a war that began against the Soviets in the Cold War era, and in various incarnations, continues today.

"During my speech they turned off my microphone, then threatened my life, threatened me with rape and finally expelled me from parliament for telling the truth. And they call this a democracy," she says.

Since Joya's feisty words rang through Kabul, death threats and bombings have pursued her, making Joya's struggle a dangerous one. But, according to Joya "It is my responsibility as a woman, the biggest victim in our country, to confront these challenges. The current government is anti-woman but they are in power, so as long as they are in power I will continue my struggle."

By the looks of things Joya won't stop anytime soon. She says "I am happy I am not alone in this struggle. I am supported by women in Afghanistan, and by people around the world, and through this I get the strength to continue fighting for human rights."

When not turning the Afghan parliament inside out, Joya seeks to clear distorted perceptions of what is happening in Afghanistan. She fluidly moves between the parliament and the streets, challenging the way mainstream media portrays the Afghan mission, and subsequently challenging Canada's presence there in the first place.

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