An Afghan Voice That Fear Won't Silence

"If I cannot tell the truth, I should resign," says Malalai Joya, a legislator. (AP)
By Nora Boustany
Friday, March 17, 2006

The warnings come by telephone or in leaflets: We will kidnap you, then kill you. You stand to benefit if you stop your struggle.

But Malalai Joya , 27, a member of Afghanistan's parliament and a former refugee turned activist, is determined to tell it like it is, regardless of the risks and fear.

The threats have been frequent and real. In 2004, she said, two men plotted to shoot her after she gave a speech for International Women's Day. Her bodyguards spirited her out of the building's back door.

On her way to give an address in her native village in the western province of Farah, a bomb was detonated to disperse the crowd and intimidate her, she said.

In December, after being elected to the lower house of parliament -- the country's first in 30 years -- Joya stood up and criticized the presence of warlords and other human rights abusers in the body. Some of the lawmakers pounded their fists on their desks and vowed to kill her.

"I know parliamentarians in other countries bang their desks, too. But in Afghanistan, outside they are waiting for you with guns," she said in an interview Wednesday. "If I cannot tell the truth, I should resign, and I have no place in the parliament."

Her truth is that warlords should not be permitted to hide behind "the mask of democracy to hold on to their chairs" and their pernicious pursuits at the expense of poor, "barefoot" Afghans who remain voiceless and disillusioned. The warlords are corrupt "war criminals" who should be tried, and incorrigible "drug dealers" who brought the country to its knees, she said.

Joya was 4 days old when her parents fled to Iran in 1978. That year, the Communist government seized power in Afghanistan, paving the way for the Soviet invasion. When she turned 7, the family moved to Pakistan so she could attend school.

The family moved to different cities, and from one miserable refugee camp to another. At 15, she became a teacher, dedicated to fighting the illiteracy in her midst. In 1998, she moved to Herat, in northwestern Afghanistan, and joined an underground movement that supported schools for girls at a time when they were banned by the repressive Taliban government.

"We had to shift from location to location, and we always carried the Koran so we could pretend we were in prayer, not in class," she said. Taliban spies would follow groups of girls heading in the same direction, she recalled, in an attempt to find the schools and shut them down.

She derives inspiration from her namesake, Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghan heroine who in 1880 is said to have rushed onto the battlefield at Maiwand to rally Afghan forces fighting the British.

But the enemy of the modern-day Malalai is homegrown.


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