March 8, 2011
By Emine Saner
To watch a 2003 video of Malalai Joya, then in her early 20s, making a speech is to witness phenomenal courage and the power of speaking out. Joya, now 32, was an elected delegate to the Loya Jirga (an assembly to debate the proposed Afghan constitution) when she stood up and publicly criticised the room full of men. “Why would you allow criminals to be present? Warlords responsible for our country’s situation . . . The most anti-women people in the society who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again.”
Delegates shouted “prostitute” at her, and the guards were ordered to throw her out. Later, a mob gathered where she was staying, threatening to rape and murder her. This moment sealed her reputation as “the bravest woman in Afghanistan”.
Joya was just four days old when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Her mother took her 10 children first to refugee camps in Iran, then Pakistan; her father stayed to fight. In the camps, Joya learned to read and began to teach other women, including her illiterate mother. A charity called the Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities smuggled Joya – then 16 – back to Afghanistan to set up a secret school for girls. “Every time a new girl joined the class, it was a triumph,” she said.
In the aftermath of 9/11, and the American invasion of Afghanistan, the vacuum left by the fall of the Taliban was filled by warlords. Determined to challenge the authority these men had over the country, Joya decided to stand for election, speaking out against these fundamentalist “warlords”, a word few dared say in public. Despite threats from these powerful men, there was also a huge swell of support for Joya, a rare politician, ordinary Afghans felt, who wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. She won a landslide victory when she ran for parliament in 2005, the youngest person to be elected, only to be kicked out after she compared the house to a “stable or zoo” in a TV interview.
Joya is married, but doesn’t see her husband often and has not named him publicly for fear that he will be murdered; she has survived several assassination attempts. In an interview with the New Statesman she said:  in January, : “The US replaced the barbaric Taliban with the brutal Northern Alliance. This act betrayed human rights. The situation for women is as catastrophic today as it was before. In most provinces, women’s lives are hell. Forced marriages, child brides and domestic violence are very common. Self-immolations are at a peak.”
She lives in a series of safe houses run by supporters, travels with bodyguards, wears a burqa and does not attend public meetingsliving in fear for her life. “My parents chose my first name after Malalai of Maiwand,” she said in an interview in 2009 to promote her memoir, Raising My Voice. “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.”