Malalai Joya was 26 when she became the youngest woman ever elected as a member of parliament in Afghanistan. Today, she is the country's most famous woman -- a political activist who was just denied a visa for a book tour to the United States because she is "unemployed" and "lives underground," according to what she was told by the U.S. embassy officer who stamped the denial.
Her supporters in the United States have announced today as a Call-In Day -- a grassroots effort to flood Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's telephone with calls demanding that Joya be given the visa for which she has applied.
Having successfully applied for a U.S. visa four times before, this time it is not about Joya, but about the war in Afghanistan.
New nationwide polls show that the majority of the American public is now opposed to the war, and many of her supporters think an American book tour by a widely known and highly vocal activist against not only the war, but the U.S. government's handling of the situation in Afghanistan, is the real reason her visa has been denied.
"She's a thorn in the side of the American government, the warlords who we support, and the Taliban, who we essentially support by inviting them into the government. At least two of those three sides actively want her dead," says Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the U.S.-based Afghan Women's Mission, who has been closely involved in arranging Joya's American tour.
Even members of Congress have stepped in to denounce the visa denial and what many believe are the bizarre explanations given for it. "It just didn't make sense to me, the answer they gave as to why she was kept out," says Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington state's 7th district. "It was as if she was apparently not a substantive person -- that she's hiding out because she's afraid."
Representative McDermott drafted a letter, co-signed by Senators Patrick Leahy, Patty Murray, and Bernie Sanders, as well as Representatives Jay Inslee, Keith Ellison, Peter Welch, Betty McCollum, and Bill Pascrell, asking for "full reconsideration" of the visa application, stating that they "were distressed" to hear the reasons presented by the Embassy considering the security challenges, including "five assassination attempts" she has faced because of "her conviction to stand up against warlords and fundamentalists."
"We said we care what happens to women in Afghanistan and we've been saying that we decry what's going on with the Taliban and here's a woman who's willing to stand up and be counted and suddenly we find that we can't give her a visa to come to the U.S.," McDermott says.
According to Kolhatkar, Joya "believes the U.S. government is very aware of her security situation and the reasons she 'lives underground,'" based on the discussion Joya had with the officer who denied her request. As for the accusation of being "unemployed," Joya's book tour organizers seem to disagree.
"A writer is a job -- she's on a book tour. She has a job," says Judith Mirkinson, who has been working with the Afghan Women's Mission as the San Francisco Bay Area organizer of the tour. "[The State Department] has used a lot of different excuses for writers and artists, especially from the Middle East. It's intellectual censorship."
Joya's book tour is actually for the paperback release of her memoir, A Woman Among Warlords, published by the Scribner division of Simon and Schuster. The publisher finds the visa denial "distressing" because she was previously permitted to do a book tour for the 2009 release of the hardback, according to Scribner Publicity Director Brian Delfiglio.
Indeed, the main reason for denying her visa seems to be her position on the war -- a position that conflicts with U.S. policies in Afghanistan, and contradicts the idea that the Afghan people -- and the women in particular -- prefer U.S. troops to be in their country. "We've seen through the years of the anti-war movement from Vietnam on, what makes the American people against a war is to see that the people of that country don't actually want U.S. troops there," Mirkinson says.
"Joya is a real voice with real facts, who says that 'we don't want occupation and we know occupation and militarization make it worse for women, not better.'"
Now that the war in Afghanistan has officially extended into being the longest war in American history, most Americans want an end to the war, and are gravitating toward voices who say as much. "I think it's time for us to get out," Representative McDermott says. "We are not going to win in any kind of decisive way that people think of when they think of winning. We are not going to leave a democracy in place, we are not going to leave civil institutions in place. People keep saying we are doing better -- compared to what?"
Kolhatkar and the people who organized Joya's tour believe that a leading voice from Afghanistan would bolster existing American voices against the war. "The authorities do not want someone like Malalai riling up the masses. To have a leading woman's activist from Afghanistan say the U.S. war is not helping Afghanistan could be damaging."
They also believe the State Department's denial of Joya's visa has been damaging -- but not to Joya, who has continued her book tour through discussions and gatherings conducted through Skype. "There's definitely some amount of public embarrassment for the State Department," Kolhatkar says.
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