An Afghan Voice That Fear Won't Silence

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.

"The Taliban have been replaced. People have changed physically, but not mentally. They are all the same," she said. "They are all Taliban in different clothes. They don't really believe in democracy."

"Corrupt leftovers from the Northern Alliance used their money and guns to return to power," she said, referring to the main anti-Taliban militia. "Now they are the biggest risk for the future of Afghanistan."

She lamented that $12 billion in foreign assistance and another $10 billion in the pipeline would not filter down to impoverished Afghans in need of clothing, schooling, books and medical care. Citing a UNICEF report, she said 700 children and 15 to 20 women were dying daily in Afghanistan because of poor public health services.

Joya forged her appeal among simple folk in Farah province by working for the Organization for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, a nongovernmental organization active in health care, education and income-generating projects. Human rights abuses against Afghan women continue in the post-Taliban period, she said, bringing up the case of Nadia Anjuman , a poet beaten to death by her husband in November, and Amina , a young woman who was stoned to death by fellow villagers last April after having an affair with a neighbor.

"I am young, and the women of Afghanistan need me to speak out against injustice," she said when asked whether she feared for her safety. "My life has not really changed. I live in my uncle's house in Kabul so as not to be alone."

Of the 68 women in the parliament's lower house, Joya said, some have been supportive of her efforts but others have avoided talking to her out of fear and pressure from their male peers.

Joya was in Washington this week to meet with leaders at Vital Voices, a nonprofit organization that promotes the role of women in leadership and governance. With funding and help from the French government, Vital Voices is trying to organize an eight-day program in June for Afghanistan's female legislators to help them govern more effectively and to boost camaraderie.

"We want to provide them with some training. This is what they are asking for and some of them have never been in public office before," said Alyse Nelson Bloom , a director of Vital Voices. The goal is to sharpen their negotiation techniques and help them formulate strategy together.

"I want to expose the drug lords and criminals who reduced Afghanistan to this mess," Joya said. "I want to use the little chance of democracy we now have."

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