MELBOURNE, Australia - It is easy to understand why epithets such as brave and
courageous often accompany the name of Malalai Joya. Slight of stature
and serenely demure, the young Afghan woman's past and present
encapsulate the plight of her countrywomen.
returned to Afghanistan in 1998 - she had spent most of her life until
then in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan - as an underground
volunteer educator of girls, a decidedly dangerous and difficult role
given that the hardline Taliban were in power.
She came to the world's attention in 2003 when, at a constitutional
convention attended by Afghanistan's leaders, she publicly accused many
of those present of being war criminals, drug lords and supporters of
Joya continued to speak out against fellow parliamentarians
following her election to the national assembly in 2005. While her
outspoken views have gained much support both inside Afghanistan and
internationally, Joya has also created powerful enemies.
She remains suspended from parliament for being openly critical of fellow MPs and has survived several assassination attempts.
In Australia to promote her book 'Raising My Voice', Joya,
still just 31, met with IPS writer Stephen de Tarczynski to discuss the
position of women in her country. The following are extracts from the
IPS: How do you see the situation for women today in Afghanistan?
Malalai Joya: Women and children, they were the most and
first victims and still there is much violence against them. And the
main reason is that the Northern Alliance fundamentalists, who are
mentally the same as the Taliban but physically are different, came to
First of all, like the Taliban, they mix Islam with politics
to use against women of my country. The situation of women is like hell
in most of the provinces.
It is true that in some big cities like Kabul, like Herat,
Mazar-i-Sharif, some women have access to jobs and education but in
most of the provinces, not only is there no justice at all - even in
the capital - but in faraway provinces the situation of women is
becoming more disastrous. The killing of women is like killing a bird
today in Afghanistan.
IPS: In your book you quote George W. Bush's 2002 state of the union
address when the then-U.S. president said that the mothers and
daughters of Afghanistan were captive in their own homes under the
Taliban and became free when the Taliban were ousted from power. Do you
regard Afghan women and girls as free?
MJ: The U.S. government lies and wants to pretend to the
people around the world that for the first time they brought women's
rights to Afghanistan and that women do not wear burqas.
After 9/11 the main message of the U.S government was that
women were not wearing burqas anymore but today, eight years later,
most women wear burqas because of security [concerns]. I wear a burqa
because of security.
In these past eight years, Afghan women haven't gained even
the limited rights that they had in the 1970s and 1980s. In the past it
was like in western countries. Women wore what they wished, as I wear
what I wish now [in Australia]. But in Afghanistan I have to wear a
burqa and most of the women of my country don't like that.
But burqas are not the only or main problem for women. We are
wearing it now just to be alive. Even now it is useful, we have to wear
it. Wearing the burqa is the main tactic I use to be alive, the same as
I used in the period of the Taliban.
IPS: You've become a figurehead for women's rights in Afghanistan,
but are there other women risking as much as you do but who we don't
MJ: Even more than me. Only when they have been killed,
then through democratic journalists the world knows it, people know it.
As I said when Sitara Achakzai [a provincial council member in Kandahar
who was murdered in April], the last great woman activist to be killed,
she is not the first one and unfortunately she won't be the last one.
Before Sitara Achakzai, Safia Amajan has been killed in
Kandahar [the teacher and public servant was 63 when assassinated in
2006]. In the same province Malalai Kakar [a high-ranking policewoman
who was murdered last year] has been killed.
In Herat province Nadia Anjaman was a great poet-activist has
been killed [at 25 years of age in 2005]. In Parwan [in 2007] Zakia
Zaki was a young journalist on radio who had lots of supporters, people
loved her, was killed in her house.
IPS: Do assassinations of women like Sitara Achakzai indicate that
there is a fear in Afghanistan of women who raise their voice? Are the
Taliban and others afraid of women like you?
MJ: Of course they are afraid. That's why they are against
the role of women, half the population of our country. That's why I say
that society is like a bird, with one wing being a man and one wing
being a woman. When one wing is injured can the bird fly?
For society also it's impossible. That's why they want half
the population to always be in darkness, to not have education, to not
play a role, just to be in the house and give birth to babies.
Women are like machines to them. They don't even see a woman as a human.
Every year around the world on Mar. 8, women celebrate
International Women's Day with lots of hope and happiness. But in my
country, this year three women set themselves on fire on Mar. 8. But
it's even more than that. Tens of women every month commit suicide.
Thirteen years ago, the fascist commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar threw
acid in the face of women and girls who were outside looking for jobs
or education. But the same crimes are happening, repeating now under
the name of democracy.
IPS: Are there many other individual women and groups who fight for women's rights in Afghanistan?
MJ: Let me tell you about RAWA [Revolutionary Association
of the Women of Afghanistan]. This is a woman's political organisation
whose leader Meena - in my opinion she is a hero of my country, my
people love her a lot - was killed by the fundamentalists. Still they
have projects and underground activists too. The same problems [exist]
as under the Taliban.
But only one time they had a function in public, many people
came to their hall. At that time I was here [in Australia] when they
invited me. They weren't afraid even though a bomb to kill them all was
possible. But they gathered openly and exposed the mask of these
IPS: What is your message for people around the world?
MJ: My message always to democratic people around the world
is to educationally support people of my country, activists of my
country, democrats of my country because they are the alternative for
the future of Afghanistan. They are able to fight against terrorism and
fundamentalism [although] they are risking their lives. As always I am
saying they are my secret heroes and heroines.
I have said many times condolences on behalf of my people to
those families in Australia and the U.S., everywhere that I went, who
lost their loved sons and husbands in Afghanistan. I said the
condolences are not enough, to cry these tears is not enough. Please
raise your voice first of all against the wrong policies of your
government. This is a war crime.
They [U.S. forces] bombed Farah province in May. More than 150
civilians have been killed, most of them women and children. They even
used white phosphorous but they're just saying 'sorry', that is it.
They don't even want to give the exact reports, just that 20 or 30
people were killed while government officials are saying more than 150
civilians dead. Some of the children were as young as three years old,
but even government officials don't want to include them in the lists.
Are three-year-old babies not human?
IPS: Your country continues to be ravaged by war, women's rights are
still being trampled on and you face the likelihood of further attempts
on your life. What gives hope?
MJ: Another gift of the U.S. government, when [U.S.
President Barack] Obama took office they want to get some Taliban, like
[Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, to join the [Afghan] government.
But two days after that, acid was thrown on the faces of 15
girls in Kandahar. And [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai invited Mullah
Omar to join the government. But at the same time when journalists
interviewed those girls in a bad condition in the hospital they are
saying they'll go back to school when they are healthy. It's hope. And
these are steps towards democracy.
IPS: Where do you get your courage?
MJ: First, the truth itself gives courage. And also the
sorrows and pain of my people, especially the condition of women. The
history of my country and values like democracy and women's rights,
these values give me hope. And I believe that these will not be given
to us by someone.
But the U.S. government and its allies, unfortunately they
have pushed us from the frying pan and into the fire. But we are the
ones who firstly are responsible.
The silence of good people is worse than the actions of bad
people. That's why I don't fear death but I do fear the political
silence against injustice. I'm sure that one day we will achieve these
values as our history shows that we never accept an occupation and we
have many heroes and heroines in our country who taught us that sitting
in silence is not the way.