Malalai Joya, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament and a celebrated women's rights activist, was denied a travel visa to the United States Wednesday and will be unable to make her scheduled appearance at Harvard on March 25th.
The U.S. embassy explained its decision by saying that consular officials had denied Joya a visa because she is unemployed and currently living underground, but those organizing the event said that these claims should not be grounds for barring her from a visa.
Sonali Kolhatkar—co-director of the Afghan’s Women’s Mission, a U.S. based non-profit—said that the claim that Joya is unemployed is startling because Joya is a published author and spends the majority of her time as a social worker involved in projects in her local community. She added that the reason that Joya lives a life underground is because of the numerous threats that have been made against her, including five assassination attempts.
"Her security is a great concern. There are many dozens of extremely powerful criminals who are in positions of power that would like to see her dead for speaking out," Kolhatkar said. "She has been targeted so many times before that if she weren't underground, she would be a dead woman."
Kolhatkar said that the visa denial came as a complete surprise to the organizers of the event as Joya has done four book tours in the United States, most recently in October of 2009. In the past, Joya has not had a problem obtaining a visa.
Joya was set to speak at Harvard alongside Noam Chomsky about "The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan" as part of a three-week US tour during which she planned to promote the newest edition of her memoir, "A Woman Among Warlords." The event has a wide-range of sponsors ranging from the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee to Haymarket Books to the Afghan Women's Mission.
Elected in 2005 to parliament, Joya was the youngest woman to enter the Afghani legislative body. She has spoken out strongly against Afghani warlords and fundamentalism. She was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2010 and this month The Guardian, a British newspaper, listed her as one of the top 100 female activist and campaigners in the world.
Giacomo Bagarella '13, co-chair of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, said that he believes the reasons that were given by the U.S. Embasssy did not reveal the underlying reasons for the denial of Joya's visa application.
"We believe [the decision] is politically motivated and that there are some reasons behind this rejection that are not being talked about," Bagarella said.
Sarah A. Macaraeg, director of publicity at Haymarket Books, said the issue of the US government not allowing foreign scholars or activists to enter the United States for ambiguous reasons came to the forefront during the Bush administration, leading the ACLU to coin the term "ideological exclusion."
Since the U.S. Embassy’s decision to deny Joya a visa, members of Congress have taken up her case and are lobbying for a reversal of the State Department’s move.
Congressman Mike Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, has submitted a letter to the U..S. Embassy urging it to reconsider the decision. Additionally, Congressman Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, is asking other members of Congress to join him in signing a letter that will also be sent to the US Embassy in Islamabad, an effort that has received support from Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, among others.
The Afghan Women's Mission has also posted an online petition, which they say will ultimately be sent to the State Department.
According to Kolhatkar, events where Joya was scheduled to appear will go on as planned, with the activist speaking either on the phone or through Skype.
"We want to shine a light on the hypocrisy of the US government that on the one hand wants to promote Afghan women and on the other hand seems to want to silence women like Malalai," said Kolhatkar.
—Staff writer Monica M. Dodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org