malalai joya in toronto: report, part one

I've been putting off writing about Malalai Joya's talk in Toronto. You can read my initial impressions here, but anything further is eluding me. Hearing Joya was such an intense experience that I am struggling to articulate it, knowing whatever I write will not even come close to portraying it for you.

But knowing it's better to try than to do nothing, I will use my scribbled notes to at least get something down.

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A few other speakers, all women, preceded Joya*. A huge banner served as a backdrop: BRING THE TROOPS HOME NOW - CANADA OUT OF AFGHANISTAN.

First Vicki Obedkoff, a minister from Trinity St Paul's, welcomed us to the church and briefly mentioned the church's strong history of multifaith work for peace. Although I am an atheist, I always feel honoured to be among those who view working for peace and justice as inextricable with their faith.

Next, Neela Zamani, an Afghan-Canadian activist, helped us welcome Joya in Farsi. Zamani spoke of the terrible irony of Canada supposedly waging war for women's rights, when the new laws and policies in Afghanistan are like the Taliban or worse and the Harper government dismantled the Office of the Status of Women here at home. She asked: If the Canadian government is so concerned with the rights of Afghan woman, where was Canada in 1992 when Afghan women were suffering under the mujahideen? Where was Canada all the years before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban was oppressing Afghan women? Nowhere, because the war has nothing to do with women's rights.

Zamani urged Afghan-Canadians and Iranian-Canadians to become more politically active. She was in Iran during the protests earlier this year, and compared her two communities. "Here is a country where you can be killed for protesting, and not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people took to the street to demand justice and democracy. Here in Canada, we are free, but we are also quiet."

Next war resister (and my dear friend) Kimberly Rivera told her story. Kim spoke a little about why a girl from a suburban Texas town might join the military - the lies she was told, the dead-end job prospects available to her, the pride in being part of something larger than herself, and doing something important: helping to liberate an oppressed people.

Then she told us two experiences she had while serving in Iraq. First, the little Iraqi girl, probably two years old, clutching her daddy's hand, her eyes wide, tears streaming down her little face. Kim wondered what that little girl had witnessed to freeze her features in trauma. She wondered where the girl's mother was. She wondered how she, in full combat gear with a loaded rifle, must appear to that little girl. The Iraqi girl was about the same age as Kim's daughter, back at home in Texas.

Another time, when Kim normally would have been asleep, she felt compelled to skip bed and call Mario, her husband. While she was on the phone with him, there was a mortar attack. She later found shrapnel in her bed, right where her head would have been.

Kim realized that she couldn't leave any child motherless - not Iraqi children, and not her own. Home on leave, Kim and Mario packed the children and everything they could fit into their little compact car and started driving, not knowing what to do or where to go. Eventually they realized that the reasons to stay were mostly material, plus the comfort of their known world. The reasons to leave were more important.

It's often difficult for Kim to speak about her experience, and her obvious emotion affects the audience. For my part, I don't think I ever hear a war resister speak in public without my eyes welling with tears. When Kim re-took her seat, Joya clasped her hand and the women embraced.

Next, Member of Parliament Olivia Chow recalled Malalai Joya's address to the 2006 NDP Convention, how the delegates rose to their feet with thunderous applause, how Joya "motivated us all to stand strong," and how the NDP overwhelmingly passed the resolution calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan.

Olivia, referring to the money Canadians have already spent on the war in Afghanistan, asked, "Eighteen billion dollars, and for what?" and reminded us that for every dollar spent on development, nine is spent on war. She referred to an Oxfam report that found appalling rates of poverty, rape, suicide and torture in the land Canada has supposedly liberated.

Then chairperson extraordinaire Nadine MacKinnon introduced Malalai Joya. She said:
Malalai Joya has been called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan." At a constitutional assembly in Kabul in 2003, she stood up and denounced her country's powerful NATO-backed warlords. She was twenty-five years old. Two years later, she became the youngest person elected to Afghanistan's new Parliament. In 2007, she was suspended from Parliament for her persistent criticism of the warlords and drug barons and their cronies. She has survived four assassination attempts to date, is accompanied at all times by armed guards, and sleeps only in safe houses.

Often compared to democratic leaders such as Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, this extraordinary young woman was raised in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan. Inspired in part by her father's activism, Malalai became a teacher in secret girls' schools, holding classes in a series of basements. She hid her books under her burqa so the Taliban couldn't find them. She also helped establish a free medical clinic and orphanage in her impoverished home province of Farah. The endless wars of Afghanistan have created a generation of children without parents. Like so many others who have lost people they care about, Malalai lost one of her orphans when the girl's family members sold her into marriage.

Malalai has risked her life to speak out about the violence and poverty brought on by occupation and corruption in Afghanistan. She will speak in Toronto about why we must end the war and let the Afghan people decide their own future.

Her new book, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Speak Out is the account of her fight to liberate Afghanistan after 30 years of war.

About that book, Noam Chomsky said: "Malalai Joya leaves us with hope that the tormented people of Afghanistan can take their fate into their own hands if they are released from the grip of foreign powers... we owe to her, and to her people, to listen carefully, to learn, and to act." Chomsky also said: "The Nobel Peace Prize committee might well have made truly worthy choices, prominent among them the remarkable Afghan activist Malalai Joya."

After the applause died down and Joya stepped to the podium, something extraordinary happened. Joya thanked Kimberly Rivera for refusing to become a war criminal. Facing Kim, Joya choked back tears. Kim tried to speak, then put her hands over her face and cried. My campaign friends and I were all weeping.

For the rest of the night, Joya spoke with strength, power and eloquence about appalling conditions, and never once shed a tear - except for that moment, face to face with one person whose actions said no to war.

Now for the hard part!


* I use first names when I know the speaker, and last names when I don't presume that familiarity.

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