Malalai Joya: The woman who will not be silenced

The warlords who make up the new “democratic” government in
Afghanistan have been sending bullets and bombs to kill this tiny
30-year-old from the refugee camps for years ? and they seem to be getting
closer with every attempt. Her enemies call her a “dead woman walking”.
“But I don’t fear death, I fear remaining silent in the face of
injustice,” she says plainly. “I am young and I want to live. But
I say to those who would eliminate my voice: ‘I am ready, wherever and
whenever you might strike. You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop
the coming of the spring.'”

The story of Malalai Joya turns everything we have been told about Afghanistan
inside out. In the official rhetoric, she is what we have been fighting for.
Here is a young Afghan woman who set up a secret underground school for
girls under the Taliban and ? when they were toppled ? cast off the burka,
ran for parliament, and took on the religious fundamentalists.

But she says: “Dust has been thrown into the eyes of the world by your
governments. You have not been told the truth. The situation now is as
catastrophic as it was under the Taliban for women. Your governments have
replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with another fundamentalist
regime of warlords. [That is] what your soldiers are dying for.”
Instead of being liberated, she is on the brink of being killed.

The story of Joya is the story of another Afghanistan ? the one behind the
burka, and behind the propaganda.

I “We are our sisters’ keepers”

I meet Joya in a London apartment where she is staying with a supporter for a
week, to talk about her memoir ? but even here, her movements have to be
kept secret, as she flits from one safe house to another. I am told not to
mention her location to anyone. She is standing in the corridor, small and
slim, with her hair flowing freely, and she greets me with a solid
handshake. But, when our photographer snaps her, she begins to giggle
girlishly: the grief etched on to her sallow face melts away, and she laughs
in joyous little squeaks. “I can never get used to this!” she

Then, as I sit her down to talk through her life-story, the pain soaks into
her face once more. Her body tightens into a tense coil, and her fists

Joya was four days old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. On that day,
her father dropped out of his studies to fight the invading Communist army,
and vanished into the mountains. She says: “Since then, all we have
known is war.”

Her earliest memory is of clinging to her mother’s legs while policemen
ransacked their house looking for evidence of where her father was hiding.
Her illiterate mother tried to keep her family of 10 children alive as best
she could. When the police became too aggressive, she took her kids to
refugee camps across the border in Iran. In these filthy tent-cities lying
on the old Silk Road, Afghans huddled together and were treated as
second-class citizens by the Iranian regime. At night, wild animals could
wander into the tents and attack children. There, word reached the family
that Joya’s father had been blown up by a landmine ? but he was alive, after
losing a leg.

There were no schools in the Iranian camps, and Joya’s mother was determined
her daughters would receive the education she never had. So they fled again,
to camps in western Pakistan. There, Joya began to read ? and was
transformed. “Tell me what you read and I shall tell you what you are,”
she says. Starting in her early teens, she inhaled all the literature she
could ? from Persian poetry to the plays of Bertolt Brecht to the speeches
of Martin Luther King. She began to teach her new-found literacy to the
older women in the camps, including her own mother.

She soon discovered that she loved to teach ? and, when she turned 16, a
charity called the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities
(OPAWC) made a bold suggestion: go to Afghanistan, and set up a secret
school for girls, under the noses of the Taliban tyranny.

So she gathered her few clothes and books and was smuggled across the border ?
and “the best days of my life” began. She loathed being forced to
wear a burka, being harassed on the streets by the omnipresent “vice
and virtue” police, and being under constant threat of being discovered
and executed. But she says it was worth it for the little girls. “Every
time a new girl joined the class, it was a triumph,” she says, beaming. “There
is no better feeling.”

She only just avoided being caught, again and again. One time she was teaching
a class of girls in a family’s basement when the mother of the house yelled
down suddenly: “Taliban! Taliban!” Joya says: “I told my
students to lie down on the floor and stay totally silent. We heard
footsteps above us and waited a long time.” On many occasions, ordinary
men and women ? anonymous strangers ? helped her out by sending the police
charging off in the wrong direction. She adds: “Every day in
Afghanistan, even now, hundreds if not thousands of ordinary women act out
these small gestures of solidarity with each other. We are our sisters’

The charity was so impressed with her they appointed her their director. Joya
decided to set up a clinic for poor women just before the 9/11 attacks. When
the American invasion began, the Taliban fled her province, but the bombs
kept falling. “Many lives were needlessly lost, just like during the
September 11 tragedy,” she says. “The noise was terrifying, and
children covered their ears and screamed and cried. Smoke and dust rose and
lingered in the air with every bomb dropped.”

As soon as the Taliban retreated, they were replaced ? by the warlords who had
ruled Afghanistan immediately before. Joya says that, at this point, “I
realised women’s rights had been sold out completely… Most people in the
West have been led to believe that the intolerance and brutality towards
women in Afghanistan began with the Taliban regime. But this is a lie. Many
of the worst atrocities were committed by the fundamentalist mujahedin
during the civil war between 1992 and 1996. They introduced the laws
oppressing women followed by the Taliban ? and now they were marching back
to power, backed by the United States. They immediately went back to their
old habit of using rape to punish their enemies and reward their fighters.”

The warlords “have ruled Afghanistan ever since,” she adds. While a “showcase
parliament has been created for the benefit of the US in Kabul”, the
real power “is with these fundamentalists who rule everywhere outside
Kabul”. As an example, she names the former governor of Herat, Ismail
Khan. He set up his own “vice and virtue” squads which terrorised
women and smashed up video and music cassettes. He had his own “private
militias, private jails”. The constitution of Afghanistan is irrelevant
in these private fiefdoms.

Joya discovered just what this meant when she started to set up the clinic ?
and a local warlord announced that it would not be allowed, since she was a
woman, and a critic of fundamentalism. She did it anyway, and decided to
fight this fundamentalist by running in the election for the Loya jirga (“meeting
of the elders”) to draw up the new Afghan constitution. There was a
great swelling of support for this girl who wanted to build a clinic ? and
she was elected. “It turned out my mission,” she says, “would
be to expose the true nature of the jirga from within.”

II “I would never again be safe”

As she stepped past the world’s television cameras into the Loya jirga, the
first thing Joya saw was “a long row with some of the worst abusers of
human rights that our country had ever known ? warlords and war criminals
and fascists”.

She could see the men who invited Osama bin Laden into the country, the men
who introduced the misogynist laws later followed by the Taliban, the men
who had massacred Afghan civilians. Some had got there by intimidating the
electorate, others by vote-rigging, and yet more were simply appointed by
Hamid Karzai, the former oilman installed by the US army to run the country.
She thought of an old Afghan saying: “It’s the same donkey, with a new

For a moment, as these old killers started to give long speeches
congratulating themselves on the transition to democracy, Joya felt nervous.
But then, she says, “I remembered the oppression we face as women in my
country, and my nervousness evaporated, replaced by anger.”

When her turn came, she stood, looked around at the blood-soaked warlords on
every side, and began to speak. “Why are we allowing criminals to be
present here? They are responsible for our situation now… It is they who
turned our country into the centre of national and international wars. They
are the most anti-women elements in our society who have brought our country
to this state and they intend to do the same again… They should instead be
prosecuted in the national and international courts.”

These warlords ? who brag about being hard men ? could not cope with a slender
young woman speaking the truth. They began to shriek and howl, calling her a “prostitute”
and “infidel”, and throwing bottles at her. One man tried to punch
her in the face. Her microphone was cut off and the jirga descended into a

“From that moment on,” Joya says, “I would never again be
safe… For fundamentalists, a women is half a human, meant only to fulfil a
man’s every wish and lust, and to produce children and toil in the home.
They could not believe that a young woman was tearing off their masks in
front of the eyes of the Afghan people.”

A fundamentalist mob turned up a few hours later at her accommodation,
announcing they had come to rape and lynch her. She had to be placed under
immediate armed guard ? but she refused to be protected by American troops,
insisting on Afghan officers.

Her speech was broadcast all over the world ? and cheered in Afghanistan. She
was flooded with support from the people of her country, delighted that
somebody had finally spoken out. One dirt-poor village pooled its cash to
send a delegate hundreds of miles across the country to explain how pleased
they were.

An extremely old woman was brought to her in a rickety wheelbarrow, and she
explained she had lost two sons ? one to the Soviets, one to the
fundamentalists. She told Joya: “I am almost 100 years old, and I am
dying. When I heard about you and what you said, I knew that I had to meet
you. God must protect you, my dear.”

She handed over her gold ring, her only valuable possession, and said: “You
must take it! I have suffered so much in my life, and my last wish is that
you accept this gift from me.”

But the US and Nato occupiers instructed Joya that she must show “politeness
and respect” for the other delegates. When Zalmay Khalilzad, the US
Ambassador, said this, she replied: “If these criminals raped your
mother or your daughter or your grandmother, or killed seven of your sons,
let alone destroyed all the moral and material treasure of your country,
what words would you use against such criminals that will be inside the
framework of politeness and respect?”

She leans forward and quotes Brecht: “He says, ‘He who does not know the
truth is only a fool. He who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a

The attempts to murder her began then with a sniper ? and have not stopped
since. But she says plainly, with her fist clenched: “I wanted the
warlords to know I was not afraid of them.”

So she ran for parliament ? and won in a landslide. “I would return
again to face those who had ruined my country,” she explains, “and
I was determined that I would stand straight and never bow again to their

III “In every corner is a killer”

Joya looked out across the new Afghan parliament on her first day and thought: “In
every corner is a killer, a puppet, a criminal, a drug lord, a fascist. This
is not democracy. I am one of the very few people here who has been
genuinely elected.” She started her maiden speech by saying: “My
condolences to the people of Afghanistan…”

Before she could continue, the warlords began to shout that they would rape
and kill her. One warlord, Abdul Sayyaf, yelled a threat at her. Joya looked
him straight in the eye and said: “We are not in [the area he rules by
force] here, so control yourself.”

I ask if she was frightened, and she shakes her head. “I am never
frightened when I tell the truth.” She is speaking fast now: “I am
truly honoured to have been vilified and threatened by the savage men who
condemned our country to such misery. I feel proud that even though I have
no private army, no money, and no world powers behind me, these brutal
despots are afraid of me and scheme to eliminate me.”

She says there is no difference for ordinary Afghans between the Taliban and
the equally fundamentalist warlords. “Which groups are labelled
‘terrorist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ depends on how useful they are to the goals
of the US,” she says. “You have two sides who terrorise women, but
the anti-American side are ‘terrorists’ and the pro-American side are

Karzai rules only with the permission of the warlords. He is “a shameless
puppet” who will win next month’s presidential elections because “he
hasn’t yet stopped working for his masters, the US and the warlords… At
this point in our history, the only people who get to serve as president are
those selected by the US government and the mafia that holds power in our

Whenever she would despair in parliament, she would meet yet more ordinary
Afghan women ? and get back in the fight. She tells me about a 16-year-old
constituent of hers, Rahella, who ran away to an orphanage Joya had helped
to set up in her constituency. “Her uncle had decided to marry her off
to his son, who was a drug addict. She was terrified. So of course we took
her in, educated her, helped her.” One day, her uncle turned up and
apologised, saying he had learnt the error of his ways. He asked if she
could come home for a weekend to visit her family. Joya agreed ? and when
she got back to her village, Rahella was forced into marriage and spirited
away to another part of Afghanistan. They heard six months later that she
had doused herself in petrol and burned herself alive.

There has been an epidemic of self-immolation by women across the “new”
Afghanistan in the past five years. “The hundreds of Afghan women who
set themselves ablaze are not only committing suicide to escape their misery,”
she says, “they are crying out for justice.”

But she was not allowed to raise these issues in the supposedly democratic
parliament. The fundamentalist warlords who couldn’t beat Joya at the ballot
box or kill her chanced upon a new way to silence her. The more she spoke,
the angrier they got. She called for secularism in Afghanistan, saying: “Religion
is a private issue, unrelated to political issues and the government… Real
Muslims do not require political leaders to guide them to Islam.” She
condemned the new law that declared an amnesty for all war crimes committed
in Afghanistan over the past 30 years, saying “You criminals are simply
giving yourselves a get-out-of-jail free card.” So the MPs simply voted
to kick her out of parliament.

It was illegal and undemocratic ? but the President, Hamid Karzai, supported
the ban. “Now the warlord criminals are unchallenged in parliament,”
she says. “Is that democracy?”

We in the West have been fed “a pack of lies” about what Afghanistan
looks like today. “The media are ‘free’ only if they do not try to
criticise warlords and officials,” she says in her book, Raising My
Voice. As an example, she names a specific warlord: “If you write
anything about him, the next day you will be tortured or killed by the
Northern Alliance warlords.” It is “a myth” to say girls can
now go to school outside Kabul. “Only five per cent of girls, according
to the UN, can follow their education to the 12th grade.”

And it is “false” to say Afghan culture is inherently misogynistic. “By
the 1950s, there was a growing women’s movement in Afghanistan,
demonstrating and fighting for their rights,” she says. “I have a
story here” ? she rifles through her notes ? “from The
New York Times in 1959. Here! The headline is ‘Afghanistan’s women lift the
veil’. We were developing an open culture for women ? and then the foreign
wars and invasions crushed it all. If we can regain our independence, we can
start this struggle again.”

Many of her friends urge her to leave the country, before one of her
wannabe-assassins gets lucky. But, she says, “I can never leave when
all the poor people that I love are living in danger and poverty. I am not
going to search for a better and safer place, and leave them in a burning
hell.” Apologising for her English ? which is, in fact, excellent ? she
quotes Brecht again: “Those who do struggle often fail, but those who
do not struggle have already failed.”

Today, she fights for democracy outside parliament. But, she says, any Afghan
democrat today is “trapped between two enemies. There are the
occupation forces from the sky, dropping cluster bombs and depleted uranium,
and on the ground there are the fundamentalist warlords and the Taliban,
with their own guns.” She wants to help the swelling movement of
ordinary Afghans in between, who are opposed to both. “With the
withdrawal of one enemy, the occupation forces, it [will be] easier to fight
against these internal fundamentalist enemies.”

If she were president of Afghanistan, she would begin by referring all the
country’s war criminals to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. “Anybody
who has murdered my sisters and brothers should be punished,” she says, “from
the Taliban, to the warlords, to George W Bush.” Then she would ask all
foreign troops to leave immediately. She says that it is wrong to say
Afghanistan will simply collapse into civil war if that happens. “What
about the civil war now? Today, people are being killed ? many, many war
crimes. The longer the foreign troops stay in Afghanistan doing what they
are doing, the worse the eventual civil war will be for the Afghan people.”

The Afghan public, she adds, are on her side, pointing to a recent opinion
poll showing 60 per cent of Afghans want an immediate Nato withdrawal. Many
people in Afghanistan were hopeful, she says, about Barack Obama ? “but
he is actually intensifying the policy of George Bush… I know his election
has great symbolic value in terms of the struggle of African-Americans for
equal rights, and this struggle is one I admire and respect. But what is
important for the world is not whether the President is black or white, but
his actions. You can’t eat symbolism.”

US policy is driven by geopolitics, she says, not personalities. “Afghanistan
is in the heart of Asia, so it’s a very important place to have military
bases ? so they can control trade very easily with other Asian powers such
as China, Russia, Iran and so on.

“But it can be changed by Americans,” she adds. She is passionate
now, her voice rising. “I say to Obama ? in my area, 150 people were
blown up by US troops in one incident this year. If your family had been
there, would you send even more troops and even more bombs? Your government
is spending $18m (£11m) to make another Guantanamo jail in Bagram. If your
daughter might be detained there, would you be building it? I say to Obama ?
change course, or otherwise tomorrow people will call you another Bush.”

IV “It’s hard to be strong all the time”

“It’s not good to show my enemies any weakness, [but] it’s hard to be
strong all the time,” Joya says with a sigh, as she runs her hands
through her hair. She has been speaking so insistently ? with such
preternatural courage? that it’s easy to forget she was just a girl when she
was thrust into fighting fundamentalism. She was never allowed an
adolescence. The fierce concentration on her face melts away, and she looks
a little lost. “Yes, my mother is proud of me,” she says, “but
you know how mothers are ? they worry. Whenever I speak to her on the phone,
the first sentence and the last sentence are always ‘Take care’.”

Two years ago, she got married in secret. She can’t name her husband publicly,
because he would be killed. Her wedding flowers had to be checked for bombs.
She will only say that they met at a press conference, “and he supports
everything I do”. She has not seen him “for two months”, she
says. “We meet in the safe houses of supporters. I cannot sleep in the
same house two nights running. It is a different home every evening.”

Where does this courage come from? She acts as if the answer is obvious ?
anyone would do it, she claims. But they don’t. Perhaps it comes from her
belief that the struggle is long and our individual lives are short, so we
can only advance our chosen cause by inches, knowing others will pick up our
baton. “When I die, others will come. I am sure of that,” she

She certainly has a strong sense of belonging to a long history of Afghans who
fought for freedom. “My parents chose my first name after Malalai of
Maiwand. She was a young woman who, in 1880, went to the front line of the
second Anglo-Afghan war to tend the wounded. When the fighters were close to
collapse, she picked up the Afghan flag and led the men into battle herself.
She was struck down ? but the British suffered a landmark defeat, and, in
the end, they were driven out.”

When she ran for office, she had to choose a surname for herself, to protect
her family’s identity. “I named myself after Sarwar Joya, the Afghan
poet and constitutionalist. He spent 24 years in jails, and was finally
killed because he wouldn’t compromise his democratic principles… In
Afghanistan we have a saying: the truth is like the sun. When it comes up,
nobody can block it out or hide it.”

Malalai Joya knows she could be killed any day now, in our newly liberated
Warlord-istan. She hugs me goodbye and says, “We must keep in touch.”
But I find myself bleakly wondering if we will ever meet again. Perhaps she
senses this, because she suddenly urges me to look again at the last
paragraph of her memoir, Raising My Voice. “It really is how I feel,”
she says. It reads: “If I should die, and you should choose to carry on
my work, you are welcome to visit my grave. Pour some water on it and shout
three times. I want to hear your voice.” I look up into her face, and
she is giving me the bravest smile I have ever seen.

‘Raising My Voice’ by Malalai Joya is published by Rider at £11.99. All
profits will go to supporting the cause of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
You can donate to her campaigns at

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