Afghan activist speaks to Willamette community

This past weekend, Willamette University’s Lilly Project Visiting Scholar Program sponsored a visit from Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament and the youngest woman to ever serve on it.

Joya, now 32, was dismissed from her government in 2007 for speaking out against the war and for calling some members of the parliament “warlords.” At Willamette, she delivered a lecture to the community and met with three groups of students from politics and anthropology classes.

She is touring the U.S. to promote her book, "A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice." Remarkable as well is the story of Joya’s recent voyage into the U.S. — after having her visa denied by the State Department, Joya was supported by an uproarious protest of phone calls, letters and outcry, including from six U.S. senators.

“I show them now from your microphone that they never can block my words and they never can stop me from spreading my message around the world,” she told a packed house in Smith Auditorium. “I shall say the truth, not stay silent.”

Inspiring a reality check

Joya was on Time magazine's 2010 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and she is frequently called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan." She is an open critic of both the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the Hamid Karzai government and its western supporters. She has faced a dangerous path in her journey, including numerous death threats.

“I think justice-loving people of the United States and around the world agree with my people that democracy doesn’t come from invasion or bombing innocent people,” she said.

She addressed the realities of the fate of Afghan women, the effects of the war on civilian life and the probabilities of democracy. She also gave new perspective to topics that have been widely discussed in the media and among the general public.

“Maybe you read the article in Time asking, ‘What will happen to the women if we leave Afghanistan?’” she said. “But I’m telling you on behalf of my people, it’s better to ask, ‘What is happening to the women while we are in Afghanistan?’ I would do anything to stop this war.”

Connecting with each other

Earlier in the day, Joya met with three different groups of Willamette students from various anthropology and politics classes.

Hannah Staller ’14, one of the student participants, said she felt fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss issues with Joya on a personal level.

“It was amazing to hear about the difference between our generation here and the same generation in Afghanistan,” Staller said. “These are really important issues that need to be brought to light. I feel a responsibility as a woman to support Malalai.”

Joya said the most important thing to remember is to stay in contact with and help each other understand the issues from both sides. Her message of peace and yet of shameless criticism shed new light on a now decade-old conflict and brought an inspiring message of hope.

“I believe that Afghanistan has a bright future,” Joya said. “But war will never bring women rights. It will not be an easy struggle, but please support us educationally. We need a helping hand — an invasion of schools, hospitals and peace.”