If I Arise
On December 17, 2003, a 26-year-old woman named Malalai Joya joined hundreds of others in a large tent in Kabul, Afghanistan, to adopt a new constitution for their war-torn nation. The gathering, called a Loya Jirga (traditional grand assembly), was dominated by U.S.-backed warlords who were responsible for mass slaughter and violence in the 1980s and early 1990s. Malalai Joya was present as an elected delegate from the remote Farah province in western Afghanistan.
Like the rest of the independent delegates in the tent, she despised the warlords, and when Joya was granted permission to address the assembly for a few minutes, she did what no one expected by publicly and unequivocally denouncing them.
My criticism on all my compatriots is: Why are they allowing the legitimacy and legality of this Loya Jirga to come under question with the presence of those felons who brought our country to this state? . . . The chairman of every committee is already selected. Why do you not take all these criminals to one committee so that we see what they want for this nation? These [men] turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars. They were the most anti-women people in the society . . . who brought our country to this state, and they intend to do the same again. I believe that it is a mistake to test those already being tested. They should be taken to national and international court. If they are forgiven by our people, the bare-footed Afghan people, our history will never forgive them. They are all recorded in the history of our country.
Her microphone was cut off before she could finish, but the two-minute speech changed Malalai Joya’s life. She became a heroine of the Afghan people and a target of the warlords’ wrath. Since 2003, she has had her home and office ransacked by warlord supporters, and has survived four assassination attempts. The BBC has called her “the most famous woman in Afghanistan.”
In September 2005, she ran for Parliament and won the second-highest number of votes in Farah province. During the opening ceremony of the newly elected assembly, she boldly promised, “First, I [will] represent my people here; and second, I will continue my struggle against warlords.” Her plans include introducing legislation that will “protect the rights of the oppressed and safeguard women’s rights.”
In February 2005, I interviewed Malalai Joya in her office in Farah City, Afghanistan. A year later, in February 2006, we continued our conversation via e-mail.
Farah City, Afghanistan, February 2005
When you were at the Loya Jirga in 2003, did you plan on saying the words you said?
Malalai Joya: I had decided to make a speech because I thought to myself that this would be the only place that I could talk about the painful stories and bad situation of our country. I wanted to ask our government and those countries that helped Afghanistan, especially the U.S., “Why did you replace the Taliban with the Northern Alliance?” These people destroyed our country from 1992 to 1996. Our people know them very well, especially the people of faraway provinces like Farah, Herat, and Nimroz.
When I went to the Loya Jirga I saw the situation becoming worse each day. This was not a democratic situation. I finally went to the chief of the Loya Jirga, Mojadedi, and told him that I wanted to make a speech on behalf of the young generation of Afghanistan. And that’s how it happened.
Before the Loya Jirga, I had made a speech in Farah. Some democratic-minded women told me, “Your speech is very dangerous — in this situation you know that the warlords are in power and they will kill you. They will not even allow you to go to the Loya Jirga.” I said, “No, I will never be afraid. Because I spoke the truth and I’m sure that if they kill me, my people are with me.”
What kind of threats did you receive?
After the Loya Jirga my life has completely changed. After my speech, that night the National Army escorted me because they knew I was not safe. Also, all of the criminals were very emotional. They attacked the place I was staying at, the special place for women at the Loya Jirga. They said some things against me.
What did they say?
For example, “Die Malalai, she is not telling the truth,” “We are against Malalai,” and things like this — a lot of propaganda. It’s difficult for me to tell you in English. For example, they called me a prostitute, infidel, communist, etc. But most of the women supported me. Some men of the Loya Jirga also agreed with me.
But I promise that while I am alive and have energy — you know that I am young — I have decided to work more and more for my people and struggle for women until we achieve rights for the women of Afghanistan.
How did the people of Afghanistan show their support for you?
Even one night after my speech at the Loya Jirga, I understood how much people of Afghanistan really support me. I am honored and proud. They do not support me. I am just a person. It means they support the pained people and suffering women of Afghanistan. They hate the enemies of Afghanistan.
I received a lot of warm messages. It gives me a lot of energy. I cannot tell you. It’s difficult for me [choking back tears]. Even now as I talk about the emotions of my people I cannot control myself. I said that I am a servant of my people — I was just one person in this country. Now I accept this risk because of my people.
They [warlords] killed a lot of democratic people. Maybe one day they will kill me. But I will never be afraid.
What was your response to the constitution that was finally adopted?
The constitution that we passed has some mistakes in my opinion. But if the government of Afghanistan started to implement this constitution in a practical sense, then eventually the mistakes will get corrected. But while the warlords are in power, this constitution that the delegates of Afghanistan — men and women — created will be just a useless piece of paper. But in the future it could be a great policy if the warlords were not in power.
What did you think about the clause in the constitution that makes Islamic Sharia law the supreme law of the land?
Most of the Loya Jirga delegates who were democratic-minded had a discussion with each other about this. Our people know very well why the warlords are forcing the name of Islam in the constitution. Our people are Muslim people. We are a Muslim country! I am also a Muslim woman. I also pray and wish to God that there will one day be peace and security in our country. But the warlords are using the name of Islam for their own benefit. They are not real Muslims. They are not real jehadis. They are the enemies of our countries that used Islam for about 25 years of war. After the Russian puppet regime they committed all kinds of crimes under the name of Islam. Now our people know very well that they are not Muslim. But the people are afraid of them. They have to obey them.
After the Loya Jirga, the then U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote in the Washington Post that the fact that you were able to make that speech at the Loya Jirga was an example of democracy. How do you respond to that?
Why? Why didn’t he say what happened after the speech? Now, nobody knows! You people — you democratic-minded people should ask your government and politicians why don’t you say what happened after the Loya Jirga? Now what kind of life does Malalai have? Every step of my life is a risk of death. If you don’t believe this, ask the people.
It’s a big problem for me. I want to improve my activities but now I have to be in the house with bodyguards! I hate guns! The guns destroyed our country and killed a lot of people. But now I have to . . . I have to wear a burqa! I have to take care of my security. I am very ashamed that I have special bodyguards.
I want you to tell the American people, “Why don’t you ask why they attacked this girl in the Loya Jirga? Does it mean democracy? Does it mean women’s rights?” I have a lot of examples I could share with you. Afghans have health problems, economic problems, and education problems. Unfortunately now, because of the war in Iraq, and the situation in Palestine and some other countries, there is no attention to Afghanistan. I think it is good for people to pay attention to the other conflicts but the people around the world should know what is happening in Afghanistan. It is not good to forget.
George Bush and his administration have told the American people that Afghanistan has been liberated and that Afghan women are now free and there is democracy and elections. How do you respond to this claim that Afghanistan is free, liberated, and democratic?
I think it’s just a slogan that Americans say we have been liberated. You know that there is no fundamental change in Afghanistan. In the capital Kabul it’s true that Afghan women can have jobs and go to schools. But you can see in the faraway provinces how many health and educational problems they have. They have local warlords in their provinces that have ideas against women and girls — against half of the generation of Afghanistan. Some women in Afghanistan are burning themselves.
But we want peace, we want security, we want women’s rights. There is no Taliban anymore but women are burning themselves. Why?
We have two kinds of problems. One is that our country is a male-dominated society. But the other problem, which is even more important, is warlords. Some of these men now wear a “suit of democracy.” They have learned to speak about democracy. Some of them are now in the new cabinet of Afghanistan. Our people are afraid even of their shadow. I don’t know why the U.S. government does not want to change their policy.
Also, our people requested of the government of Afghanistan, “Please change these policies — do not make compromises with the warlords.” In the presidential elections, our people once again trusted [Afghan president] Mr. Karzai because they wanted to show their hatred for warlords. Mr. Karzai didn’t kill anybody but he doesn’t have much experience. He promised the people, “I will never have compromise with warlords.” I met with Mr. Karzai and I told him about the message of the people of Farah, about their difficulties, about my problems and activities. He also promised me that he wouldn’t work with the warlords but I don’t know why he too has made a compromise with the warlords by appointing them to his cabinet.
What message do you have for the people of the United States?
After September 11, 2001, I had a ten-day trip to the U.S. sponsored by V-Day. I gave a speech there and met a lot of like-minded and democratic people. Not just women, men too. They really supported me and it gave me a lot of energy. It was also a very wonderful message for me to bring to my people in Farah. I met people who like me had differences with the policies of their government. They agreed with me that the U.S. should not have replaced the Taliban with the Northern Alliance in the name of democracy.
It’s very meaningful for me and it has a lot of moral value for me to tell everyone, not just Americans, that we have supporters, that we have sisters, we have brothers, even in America and some other faraway countries. It means a lot to us. I send them a warm message and warm feelings of my people to them.
E-mail, Los Angeles and Kabul, February 2006
Since we last spoke, you’ve become an elected Member of Parliament. Why did you decide to run for Parliament?
In fact it was not really my decision. Hundreds of people from Farah and other provinces continuously insisted that I run for Parliament. I was intending to decline from running because I believe that the Parliament will never bring anything positive for the nation. But my supporters kept saying, “Your voice at the Loya Jirga gave us a hope that there is at least one who understands our suffering. Now we want you once again to be the voice of voiceless at Parliament.” I couldn’t help but accept the honor to be the voice of my oppressed nation in a Parliament dominated by criminal warlords.
I will feel satisfied if I succeed in exposing the real nature of the current Parliament and informing the Afghan people from within the Parliament that the criminals sitting here make laws for the benefit of the rich, the drug traffickers, warlords, and high-level bureaucrats, and against the aspirations of the down-trodden masses.
If the warlords are so unpopular, how is it that so many of them were elected to the Parliament?
Afghanistan is still a country being strangled by the hands of “Northern Alliance.” These are a camp of fundamentalist bands notorious for their terrible crimes in the years of 1992 to ’96. After 9/11, America and its allies helped these criminals occupy Kabul and dominate the entire country. Thus in a country under such religious fascists, holding free and democratic elections is out of the question. Elections in such conditions are widely rigged. It is unbelievable but still a reality that regarding the issue of multiple voting, Karzai himself openly justified it by saying, “This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice!” The warlords have not been elected by the people but by the killing machine, political power, billions of dollars, and the intimidation of fundamentalists supported by the U.S. and numerous NGOs. It was not a free election, so one cannot conclude that people elected their killers as their representatives. It was a fraud, and an unfair election process, which made them MPs.
What do you think the U.S.’s position on the warlords is today?
Regrettably, as the U.S. administration revived the warlords in the first place, it is continuing to support and rely on them. This has simply revealed to most of Afghans that the U.S., as before, is not at all bothered by which criminal band will rule the country. Such a band would be acceptable to the U.S. as long as it is obedient to Washington, no matter how cruel, corrupt, and anti-democratic it is. That is why many in Afghanistan are of the opinion that even the U.S.’s very trumpeted “war against drugs and terrorism” and campaign to “promote democracy” are bogus because the U.S. has forged a unity with the most infamous, anti-democratic, religious terrorists and drug-mafia forces in the history of Afghanistan.
It seems that the U.S. government has its own strategic agenda in our country. Though recently its ambassador and secretary of state claimed that the U.S. will not repeat its past mistake of supporting fundamentalists, the U.S. is actually repeating that “mistake” in a much more painful and disgraceful way in Afghanistan. The U.S. is relying on the killers of tens of thousands of Kabul residents alone and allowing representatives of these killers to enter and dominate the Parliament and important posts in the government.
How can you change the political status quo with so many warlords in Parliament
I think that such a claim would be too much for me or any other pro-people MP. But as I’ve promised to my people, I’ll never get tired of unmasking the criminals in the Parliament, government, or judiciary.
I feel that my presence in the Parliament will lead to a small increase in political consciousness of those who have placed their hope on me. If that does not happen, then I will definitely resign. I would also like the world to know through my presence or resignation from the Parliament that the Afghan Parliament is another instrument in the hand of fundamentalists to try to legitimate and perpetuate their bloody rule in the country.
I have to be loyal to the people and their burning desire to defend the truth in front of their sworn enemies.
Sonali Kolhatkar is co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that works in solidarity with Afghan women. She is also the host of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program based at KPFK, Pacifica Radio, in Los Angeles. For more information, visit: