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June/July 2007
In the Line of Fire
The Satya Interview with Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya with warlords. Photo by Jamil Ahmad

My father gave me the name Malalai. Malalai being a national heroine who turned the tide of the Battle of Maiwand against the British in 1880. The story goes that she tore off her burqa, took up the sword and led a battalion to victory.—Malalai Joya

She was destined to become a hero. At the early age of four, Malalai Joya fled Afghanistan with her family to refugee camps in Iran and then Pakistan, where at 18 she began teaching other women to read and write. In 1998, she returned to Afghanistan and became a strident opponent of the Taliban. She established an orphanage and a health clinic. In 2003 her voice was heard around the world.

It was a meeting meant to result in the adoption of a new constitution for their conflicted nation. Hundreds of tribal and regional leaders, political, military and religious dignitaries, and other representatives crowded together under a large tent in Kabul. But this traditional gathering, called a loya jirga or grand assembly, was far from democratic. It was presided over by warlords of the Northern Alliance, who were responsible for the massacres that dominated the country during the late 80s and 90s. These same warlords who ruled with destruction prior to the Taliban, now made up the new U.S.-backed government.

Malalai Joya was there as an elected delegate from the Farah province. Frustrated by what she was witnessing, Malalai stepped up to the microphone, pulled back her head scarf and made her criticisms known. She spoke fiercely against a proposal to appoint high clergy members and fundamentalist leaders to guide planning groups. “These were those who turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars. They were the most anti-women people in the society who wanted to [makes pause] who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again,” she pleaded at the podium. “I believe that it is a mistake to test those already being tested. They should be taken to national and international court. If they are forgiven by our people, the bare-footed Afghan people, our history will never forgive them.”

Before she was through, her microphone was turned off. Refusing to apologize for her words, Malalai became a heroine of the people. She also became one of the most hated women in Afghanistan.

Subsequently, in 2005, at age 25, Malalai was elected to serve her people and sits as the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament. To date, she has survived five assassination attempts, the bombing of her home and is forced to travel incognito. She also eats, sleeps and breathes in the shadows of 12 heavily armed bodyguards. Malalai avows, “The men and women of Afghanistan are like pigeons who have been freed from Taliban cages, but whose wings have been cut off and who are in the claws of vampires who suck their blood. And most of those vampires are to be found in parliament.”

Kymberlie Adams Matthews spoke with Malalai Joya about what it means to be a heroic figure, standing in the line of fire to serve her people.

What are the major issues facing women in Afghanistan today?
After the domination of the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies replaced the Taliban with the mujahideen, the Northern Alliance. But it was the Northern Alliance who destroyed us from 1992 to 1996. Before the Taliban they did lots of crimes against our people—especially women. Once again they came to power after September 11th with the mask of democracy, but they do not believe it. That is why men and women do not have liberation at all now. Women have lots of problems in Afghanistan, most in the Farah provinces don’t even have human rights. Most cannot go outside without their burqa. These warlords are banning schools for girls. There is much violence against women. In Kabul, for example, under the eyes of U.S. troops a four year-old baby, Fawzia, was kidnapped by a man and raped. She was found bleeding heavily from what was left of her private parts. In another case, an 11 year-old girl, Sanobar, was kidnapped and raped by warlords and then traded for a dog. A 22 year-old woman was gang raped by 12 armed men and when her two children started crying, one of the rapists urinated into the children’s mouths. These cases are common. It is why so many women commit suicide.

And these warlords, they actually have power within the government?
The Northern Alliance killers who are now in power, they have the same ideas as the Taliban, the same mentality, but are different on the outside. Some of these men now wear a suit of democracy. They have learned to speak about democracy and how to talk about women’s rights, but they do not believe it. Some of them are now in the new cabinet of Afghanistan and our people are terrified.
Even in the presidential elections...our people once trusted Mr. Ahmed Karzai because they wanted to show their hatred for warlords. He promised to never compromise with warlords. I even met with him and he promised me. But then he appointed them to his cabinet. Right now our people associate him as the person who is responsible for the catastrophe in Afghanistan. People are now getting distant from the government and do not support foreign troops.

So, do you feel the situation has become worse since the U.S. occupation?
Now we have two kinds of enemies, the warlords and the Taliban. But while the Taliban is anti-U.S., the warlords are friends of the U.S. and they work together against the Taliban. This is why they do not trash the U.S. as a liberator, but instead make a mockery of democracy and a mockery of the war on terror. Right now, these warlords are aligned in power with the U.S. but have the same ideas as the Taliban—they are against women’s rights, human rights and democracy. And these warlords, they are more risky than other terrorists because they are in power. They just have learned to wear masks.

How did your activism come about? What started the fight for women’s rights in your country?
When I was a girl, I would sneak into the men’s meetings and assemblies that my father took part in. They would try to make me leave but my father would see me sneak back in, and he would just shake his head and smile. He never differentiated between me and my brothers. And that is a rare trait for an Afghan man.

Then in 2003, I went to the loya jirga and saw the situation had become worse, not democratic. So I went to the chief and said I wanted to give a speech for the young generation of Afghanistan. I talked about our painful situation and asked our government and the U.S. to help us. And asked why they replaced the Taliban with the Northern Alliance. I also said I feared the mask of the warlords. That they were the most anti-women people in society who once brought our country to this state of ruin and intended to do the same again. That they should be taken to national and international court. And as I was speaking, I was thinking about weeping mothers who lost their sons and husbands in the war and all the hungry children waiting to die in the refugee camps.

What was the reaction?
After my speech people shouted “Allah Akbar,” meaning God is great, and called me an infidel. The assembly commissioner demanded an apology but I refused. Some told me my speech was dangerous—that the warlords are in power and will kill me. Many in the parliament are warlords, drug lords and criminals. But I spoke the truth. Also after that people told me to be a candidate for the election in parliament. I thought I would like to become a member of parliament to expose the mask of democracy these warlords wear. My words were strong, but I didn’t think they’d have such an impact.

But your path—the speech, being elected into parliament and all you do to stand up for women and human rights—is a very dangerous one. You have received many death threats. Has that continued?
After the speech the National Army took me home because they knew I was not safe. Criminals attacked the place where I was staying. Now I have to be in the house with bodyguards and guns! I hate guns! They destroyed our country. And now I have to wear a burqa. Some people send death threats to my door, while women approach me and from under their burqas whisper their support. I speak the words that many Afghans are afraid to say in public and I promise that while I am alive, I will work for my people until we achieve rights for women.

But aren’t you afraid?
Sometimes. But I tell myself to move beyond fears and remember the people who voted me into office. I am honored and proud to be a servant of my people. I accept this risk because of my people. But every step of my life is a risk of death. Every day, I wonder if someone is waiting outside to kill me. But every day I also look into the eyes of warlords and commanders who have ordered the killings of hundreds or thousands of Afghans. The warlords kill a lot of people and maybe one day they will kill me, but I will never be afraid. Death could very easily come now, but I should not be the one to seek it. But of course if we should meet, it will not matter. What matters is whether I have any effect on the lives of my people.

You are so very brave. There must be something that gives you hope?
My hope is that all democratic and freedom-loving people stand together to condemn all forms of fundamentalism and dictatorship. Only with a great united and democratic force, from all over the world, can our people reach freedom.

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