London, Asharq Al-Awsat- She wanted to be a Palestinian in Afghanistan. She used to watch the stone-throwers and wonder: why aren’t we from Palestine? She says that she knows nothing of her country but war and occupation. All she ever wanted to do as an adult was to raise her voice and confront the warlords and the enemies of Afghanistan. Her courage shook Afghan parliament, and her voice that rejects silence has caused her to be subjected to one assassination attempt after another…yet she still insists on speaking out.
Malalai Joya, the youngest individual to enter Afghan parliament who was dubbed the “bravest woman in Afghanistan” by international media, now lives in her own country like a ghost after being suspended from parliament in 2007 for describing the Wolesi Jirga [Afghan parliament] as “a stable or zoo”. Today she tours the world to make her voice heard, promoting her recently-released book and conveying her message to decision-makers that NATO forces must pull out of Afghanistan.
Malalai Joya was barely 24 years old when she first caught the world’s attention by challenging senior tribal leaders and Afghan leaders at the Loya Jirga (a grand council in Afghanistan that convenes to discuss important issues on the national level). At this meeting, she stood among 500 representatives from all over the country who had gathered to vote on the new constitution in 2003, after spending days trying to convince the committee chairman to give her the right to speak. She accused some of her colleagues within the council of being murderers and criminals. She spoke loudly as she struggled to reach the microphone that was set up for somebody much taller than her. She was also busy trying to fix her headscarf that almost fell off her head as she stood among hundreds of bearded men who were looking daggers at her. She was shouting and demanding that criminals be tried in international courts instead of letting them determine the fate of the country.
Joya’s words shook the council. Some members applauded her whilst the white-bearded warlords raised their voices and called for her to be thrown out of the hall. Some of them tried to confront her. She walked out of the council meeting surrounded by others who supported her views but were too scared to say what she said. Her life has never been the same since. “My life changed after my speech in 2003 when I disgraced the warlords.” She lived under maximum security protection with 12 security men guarding her wherever she went in Afghanistan.
After spending a few days in hiding, and with help from the United Nations, she returned to the Loya Jirga, but in a different way. In her book, she says, “I arrived in a UN vehicle and in the company of strong security men who I didn’t know. They would follow me wherever I went.”
Nevertheless, she was not daunted by security fears. In 2005, she ran for a seat in Afghan parliament and was elected to represent her province, Farah. However, she was not able to serve her full term. She was suspended from parliament two years after being elected after being accused of openly insulting parliament.
When Malalai Joya speaks, she first seems shy. Her voice is quiet but then her tone rises as she speaks about the politicians in her country who she does not hesitate to describe as “criminals,” “puppets” and “warlords”. Whenever she is in Afghanistan, she shrouds herself in a Burka covering her from head to toe simply because it is the safest way to hide from enemies’ eyes. She said, “I hide in the Burka. I change where I stay almost on a daily basis and I am always surrounded by security men.” But when she leaves Afghanistan, she removes the Burka and sometimes wears western clothes.
We met at the Frontline media club in the heart of London. Malalai wore Western clothing and had long black hair. She did not wear a headscarf. Joya wore a badge that read “No to NATO.” “Everyone is talking about a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan if NATO forces pull out. But no one is talking about the civil war that is going on today. We are now fighting two enemies, a foreign enemy and a local one,” she said.
In her book entitled ‘Raising My Voice’ published by Rider Publishing, which is affiliated to the Random House Group, 31-year old Malalai talks about how she was forced to wear the Burka for the first time after returning to her country from Pakistan where she spent her childhood in a refugee camp away from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war. Her father had fought with the Mujahideen against the Soviets. But after losing his leg in an accident, he was forced to flee Afghanistan. He went missing for years, until news reached his family that he was living as a refugee in Iran. The family joined him there when Malalai was around four. They lived in Iran for four years, most of which was spent in an Afghan refugee camp. However, the lack of schools and education drove her father, who was adamant on his daughter having an education, to move his family to Pakistan where his daughter could enrol in an Afghan school.
Malalai says that she decided to return to her country after the rise of the Taliban because she wanted to help her people. She spoke about how her father and brother began growing their beards before they set out on their journey back to Afghanistan. She also tells of how she was forced to wear the Burka for the first time. “I have never liked it, not even a little. Not only is it oppressive, it is harder than one can imagine. My father used to tell me that he could pick me out from among groups of women wearing the Burka because of the way I’d walk. He used to say that I looked like a penguin. It was always hot and suffocating under the Burka. The only good thing about wearing those long blue garments is that you could hide books and other banned items under them.”
Malalai tells of how she used to enjoy eating ice cream when she was young and how doing this from underneath the Burka was a challenge. “You had to hold the veil with one hand and the ice cream with the other. The ice cream seller would have empty seats in front of him but they were for men only. Women would stand in a separate area and must keep the veil on whilst eating the ice cream.”
She recalls the sheer horror she used to feel travelling around at night without a Mahram [unmarriageable kin] when she would be late returning home from the shelters where she used to teach. She would have books hidden under her Burka; a crime that deserves the death penalty according to the Taliban.
Malalai explained that when the Taliban regime first fell, the Afghans were delighted, “but the developments that followed were extremely frustrating and disappointing.” She added, “The corrupt warlords were everywhere, and the rule of the Taliban was replaced by fear and chaos.” As a result, she decided to push on with her rebellion, but this time against the warlords that replaced the Taliban.
When she entered parliament in December 2005, she opened her speech by offering her condolences to the Afghan people, whilst other parliament members were expressing congratulations. But only seconds after she began her speech, the microphone into which she was speaking stopped working. Throughout the two years Malalai spent in parliament, this would happen time and again whenever she wanted to speak. “The time I spent in parliament left me worn out as I was always subjected to attacks and insults. Nobody wanted to discuss the key issues affecting our country. I felt tremendous pressure to speak up for my people, but I was never given the chance. Sometimes I would raise the red card in objection or even walk out of a session in disgust. I was always mocked and insulted and my life was threatened by other members of the council.”
Less than two years after entering parliament, Malalai was on a tour in the United States, during which she gave an interview to Afghan Aryan television channel. In the televised interview, she stated that if parliament continued to operate in the same manner, people would have no choice but to call it “a stable or a zoo.” Upon her return to Afghanistan, the Afghan MPs were waiting for her so that they could vote for her to be suspended from parliament and to prevent her from serving her full five-year term. She was not given the right to defend herself, nor was she allowed to speak before the vote took place. Malalai was at home watching the voting process on television in the company of scores of journalists who were waiting for her reaction. She vowed that she would not stop her struggle.
It is apparent that what annoyed Malalai the most after the collapse of the Taliban regime was the support given by the US and its allies to the wrong people in Afghanistan. “They should back democratic mindsets in Afghanistan, of which we have many. This isn’t a country swarming with extremists.” She likens the “terrorists” that they support, such as Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to some of history’s most fascist leaders; Pinochet, Mussolini and Hitler.
Despite drawing this extremely bleak picture of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, Malalai insists that conditions today are now far worse than they were back then. She explains: “When the Taliban were in power, crimes were committed against the Afghan people. But at least we knew that the perpetrators were those backward ignorant terrorists who have a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages. But today, all these crimes are being committed in the name of democracy.”
“The security situation has seriously deteriorated today, and it is getting worse day by day under the watch of American and British troops. The rape rate is still high, and women are still deprived of their basic rights. Large numbers of local people still cannot afford to educate their children,” she added.
Malalai then touches on poverty, unemployment and corruption saying, “Kabul has turned into a city of beggars and orphans. Karzai’s government received 10 billion dollars over the past seven years, but around 10 million people are living on less than two dollars a day, according to a FAO report. Most of this money goes into the pockets of the warlords.” She believes that innocent civilians are the main victims of this war led by the US against the Taliban. In reference to statistics issued by humanitarian organizations, she points out that “less than 2000 elements of the Taliban were killed whilst over 8000 innocent civilians lost their lives.”
Malalai says that while women breathed a small sigh of relief after the fall of the Taliban, their conditions are still bad. “Some women in major cities like Kabul, Herat and Mazari Sharif can work and get an education. Yet the majority of those women also wear the Burka for security reasons.” She added, “Some laws that have been enacted by the current parliament are very similar to those that were enforced by the Taliban, such as the law that forbids Shia women from going out, consulting a physician or getting a job without asking their husbands’ permission first. Even President Hamid Karzai signed that bill. Sunni and Shia women have no rights.”
The law to which Malalai referred is the Shia Personal Status Law. It is widely known as the “rape law”. It was given this name by the Western press because it compels a woman to have sexual intercourse with her husband unless she is sick or menstruating.
This law, presented by a cleric who is considered a Shia religious leader, Mohammed Asif Mohseni, also limits the freedom of women and forces them to ask permission from their husbands before stepping out of the house. The parliament approved the legislation and it was signed by President Karzai. There are claims that Karzai approved the legislation because he wants to secure the votes of Shia voters in the upcoming presidential elections due to be held on August 20, which might tip the balance in his favour.
For these reasons, Malalai is convinced that Afghanistan would benefit more from NATO’s withdrawal. She is completely convinced that it is impossible to establish peace through war but, on the other hand, she realizes that Afghanistan will not be able to establish itself without the help of the international community. She said, “We need genuine help, not an occupation force. We would like them to help us in the fields of education and health.”
Malalai adds, “The United Nations could help Afghanistan by preventing countries such as Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Russia from supporting the Taliban.” Despite the fact that Western countries invest in building schools and hospitals in Afghanistan, Malalai believes that this is still not enough. “They built some schools in Kabul and other major cities, but that is not enough. They build private schools that only take in the children of senior officials. But the overwhelming majority of my people cannot attend such schools. The Afghans study in tents in provinces.”
In her opinion, the only alternative to NATO’s presence and its fight against the Taliban is NATO’s withdrawal and “support for liberal democrats in our country rather than warlords, and guaranteeing education for the Afghan people so that they can manage their own affairs. Even the upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan will not change anything because the next president will be chosen behind the closed doors of the Pentagon.”
“It does not matter who votes, it is those who count the votes that matter. Democrats are allowed to run for presidency, but they are never allowed to win. Instead, one puppet replaces the other,” she said. In any case, she believes that all candidates, with the exception of Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, have no credibility whatsoever. She believes that current President Hamid Karzai is a puppet and “is betraying his people.” In her view, even the parliamentary elections that made her an MP were not completely even-handed. “It brought the mafia to power,” she said, adding, “Some democrats were lucky enough to win, but, unfortunately, we are a minority.”
She criticized women MPs, who make up 68 out of a total 248 MPs, as well as male MPs. “Most of them [women] are like the men who do not represent the Afghan people in the correct manner. They cheat and adopt the same methods. Unfortunately, gender is not important. Everyone is equal. Women enter parliament to fool the international community and play a nominal role. Democratic MPs are a minority in the parliament,” she said.
Since she began to stand up against corruption in Afghanistan, she has reportedly been exposed to at least five assassination attempts. “They always threaten to kill me, over the phone or through other indirect means. Even inside parliament, one of them once said, ‘We have expelled her, but that is not enough. We must punish her with a machine gun.’ The main reason I am still alive today is my supporters.”
She spends a lot of her time between Afghanistan and other countries where she can voice her concerns. Before travelling abroad to promote her book, she spent four months in Afghanistan. It hurts her that the first word that comes to mind when people think of Afghanistan is ‘terrorism’. This is what urged her to write her memoirs. “We have human rights activists who died defending what they believe in, not only terrorists,” she said.
She lives in her country hiding behind the Burka and surrounded by security men who follow her wherever she goes. She relies on her relatives and supporters to accommodate her. She sometimes changes her place of residence three or four times a week. Malalai Joya is not her real name. She chose that name after returning to Afghanistan during the Taliban era in order to protect her family. She does not like to speak about her family because she fears for their safety. She only says that they live in Afghanistan, but not in the Farah province.
Even the identity of her husband, who she married in 2005, just a few months before winning her seat in parliament, is unknown. She says that before they married, he knew that her political struggle was her priority, and that she could be assassinated at any moment. Nevertheless, he married her. Sometimes he stays with her at the homes of her relatives and friends. They live lives that are far from ordinary.
Asked whether or not she lives in fear, Malalai said, “I do not fear death, I only fear political silence in the face of tyranny. I carry out my duty by telling the truth, and I exert every possible effort to stay safe, as I am still young and I have a lot of energy.”