“I speak the words that many Afghans are afraid to say in public”
San Francisco Chronicle, March 28, 2006
Halima Kazem, Special to The Chronicle
Lacing her trembling fingers around a cup of green tea, Malalai Joya lowers her voice and explains, “Every day as I am leaving the Parliament building in Kabul, I wonder if someone is waiting outside to kill me.”
Joya has every reason to be fearful. The 27-year-old Afghan parliamentarian from the conservative province of Farah has received more than a hundred death threats. Sitting in a brightly lit Fremont coffee shop in a simple black suit with a red paisley scarf around her neck, she is thousands of miles from her home but unable to cease her cautious whispering.
“Every day I look into the eyes of warlords and commanders who have ordered the killings of hundreds or thousands of Afghans, and I wonder how they can be allowed to be the people’s representatives.”
Joya is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s recently elected bicameral Parliament. She has endeared herself to millions of Afghans because of her candor — a trait that has earned her the title “the most famous woman in Afghanistan;” it also has made her a target of Afghan power brokers.
“I speak the words that many Afghans are afraid to say in public,” Joya says. “Sure, I get fearful sometimes, but I say to myself, ‘Joya, move beyond your fears and remember that your people have voted you in office to speak on their behalf.’ ”
As a middle child in a family of eight siblings, Joya is used to working to be heard. “When I was a small girl, I used to sneak into the men’s meetings and assemblies that my father would take part in, and everyone would try to kick me out,” remembers Joya, whose father, a former medical student, lost his leg while fighting the Soviets in the ’80s. “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. That is a rare trait for an Afghan man.”
At age 14 she started working as a literacy teacher and food distributor inside the Pakistani refugee camp where her family lived. In 1998, Joya’s family moved back to Farah and she continued her humanitarian work there and in the neighboring province of Herat.
“During the Taliban, I would take medical supplies to families and secretly organize literacy courses for school-age girls,” she says.
So it didn’t come as a surprise when, in late 2003, village elders elected Joya as one of only two women to represent the province in the country’s first constitutional assembly in more than 30 years. “I was honored to be recognized, even by the men, as someone who deeply cared about bringing the faraway voices of Farah province to the capital, Kabul. After all, this is what democracy was about.”
However, in Kabul the eager delegate was introduced to a different kind of democracy building — one with self-interested international players, rampant corruption and an Afghan government made up of a hodgepodge of former warlords and commanders. Joya found herself facing the post-Taliban government’s central quagmire: how to exclude commanders who successfully fought off the Soviet Army but later turned on one another, ravaging the capital city, displacing millions and killing thousands of innocent people.
“I couldn’t take watching these warlords in the new government of Afghanistan, so on the first day of the assembly I stood up and asked the constitutional commission why these criminals were a part of the future of the country and not in an international court, being tried for war crimes.”
After a moment of shocked silence, she says the assembly blew up in desperate shouts of “Allah Akbar” (God is great) and called Joya an infidel. The assembly commissioner, a former mujahedeen himself, immediately demanded that Joya apologize for her accusations. When she refused, the flabbergasted commissioner asked the delegates to accept the apologies of other delegates on Joya’s behalf.
“I knew my words were strong, but I didn’t think they’d have such an impact. As I was speaking, all I could think about were the weeping mothers who had lost their sons and husbands in the war and all the hungry Afghan children waiting to die in the Pakistani refugee camps,” Joya says.
After the constitutional assembly, she returned to Farah province to a hero’s welcome. “Some people were sending death threats to my door, while others, especially women, would quietly approach me and from under their burqas whisper, ‘I support you, Malalai, you are my voice.’ ”
At that point there was no turning back. A year after her emphatic outburst at the constitutional assembly, she prepared to run for the lower house in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election. Despite countless attempts on her life and several periods of going into hiding, Joya prevailed in December 2005 as a winner from her native Farah province.
But she is still not satisfied. Despite the election of 67 other women to Parliament and the thousands of girls back in school, Joya insists that the lives of Afghan women haven’t changed much with the formation of the Karzai government.
“The situation has changed for only 1 percent of Afghan women; 99 percent still live under oppression, lawlessness and poor health conditions,” she says.
In a recent speech to the Afghan diaspora community in Fremont, Joya told the audience not to be fooled by the hype they hear about Afghanistan’s transition to a democracy.
“Today, 70 percent of our Parliament are warlords, and the Taliban also have leaders there,” says Joya. “Even with all of the U.S. troops in the country, this is the state of our Parliament.”
Calling it a masked democracy, Joya says President Hamid Karzai, U.S. leaders and most of the international agencies in Afghanistan are turning a blind eye to the drug dealers serving terms inside the government.
“People who look the other way when they see these war criminals are smaller criminals themselves,” Joya says.
Some in the audience in Fremont said they thought that Joya is not acting on her own but is pushing someone else’s political agenda. Others argued that her youth and lack of experience are hurting her efforts to bring change.
Joya says she understands that she hasn’t done everything the right way.
“Some of my elders tell me to be more diplomatic, but I don’t have time for diplomacy. I am from Afghanistan’s war generation. We’ve lost enough time.”
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