Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Outspoken Joya in Defiant Mood

By Rahimullah Samander in Kabul (ARR No. 91, 23-Dec-03)
By IWPR

Malalai Joya

In telephone interviews with IWPR Monday night and Tuesday [yesterday], 25-year-old Joya said she's been told by the Loya Jirga authorities that if she repeats her remarks she'll be expelled.


On Tuesday morning when she attempted to speak to a group of reporters, Joya was stopped by Qayamuddin Kashaf, deputy chairman of the grand assembly, who told her she doesn't have permission to speak to reporters any more.


But Joya has no regrets about her words and says she'll continue to speak out.


"I said the facts; I defend it and I reckon that this is my proven right," she said. "Even if it costs my life I will defend my speech."


Joya, who represents Farah province in western Afghanistan, is one of the youngest of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga. After she made a speech last week calling jihadi leaders "criminals" who "destroyed the country" and said they should be put on trial, she was accused of being a communist and was nearly expelled from the gathering


Joya said she considers herself "a Muslim, a person who has suffered, and the delegate of a distressed nation".


She was born and raised in Farah, and graduated from high school. She says she chose not to go to university because she wanted to help other Afghans with their primary and secondary education. But she has studied literature, political science and history in her free time, and hopes some day to study literature at university.


During the Taleban regime, Joya, who is unmarried, worked for four years in Herat and Peshawar refugee camps, helping Afghans who had fled fighting and drought. In the past year, she has continued to do social work, distributing food and medicine, and setting up literacy courses in Farah province. She now works for a charity there, and runs literacy courses, a health clinic and a day care centre for children.


Her father had studied medicine and became mujahed, losing a leg in the fighting against the Soviet Union. Her mother, who is uneducated, suffers from depression due to the severity of her life, said Joya. She has three brothers and seven sisters.


She told IWPR that she was trying to make three points in her speech, "First, these warlords should have been tried, and if found innocent then they could come to the Jirga. Second, the composition of the Loya Jirga is not appropriate - all jihadi and powerful people have come. And third, the environment is not democratic."


Although Joya spoke for less than two minutes, her speech caused some jihadi delegates to leap to their feet, shouting "Death to communism" and "Alloa Akbar [God is great]". Loya Jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mujadidi at first tried to remove Joya from the assembly, but backed down when other delegates objected. Joya was then asked to apologise, but she stood her ground and would not retract her accusations.


She says that inside the Loya Jirga hall many women had the same ideas as she did, and they wanted to leave in support of her, but they did not because "fear, power and [men who control] guns were dominant".


Joya said the draft constitution is unclear and much too vague about women's rights, and that it doesn't directly address their problems.


She is also advocating that higher education should remain free, and that the national anthem should be rewritten to include many languages in a kind of poem promoting national unity.


She was originally assigned to the committee headed by Burharudin Rabbani, former president in the mujahedin era, but asked to be reassigned to one with a "democratic person who believes in equal rights" as the chair.


In this group, she said, she has been able to speak freely.


She denied the claims that she has been a member of a radical women's organisation or any political party.


It's not only radical or political groups that are brave or want to accuse former jihadi leaders of crimes, she said. "Not one Afghan woman has gone without suffering," she said.


Joya is one of the two female delegates from Farah province. She got 48 out of 135 women's votes, coming first among eight candidates.


She wants to write books about her people and society. She's been keeping notes about her experiences and the stories of ordinary Afghans she has met.


Some think so highly of Joya that they want to call her the "Second Malalai". Malalai is a famous 19th century Afghan woman who is credited with turning the tide in the battle of Maiwand, against the British. When the morning of the battle began with numerous Afghan casualties and many surrendering or running away, Malalai took up a sword to fight the British herself, singing an Afghan song, and inspired her countrymen to keep fighting.


The title makes Joya happy. "All of my family is proud of me and agrees with me – but my mother is worried about me," she told IWPR.


She says that other Malalais in Afghanistan want to speak out, but they've been stopped by threats. Joya hopes that hearing her words will encourage others to raise their voices.


Joya's foes, however, believe that her remarks were an offense to Islam and jihad. Some have called her an atheist for saying anything bad about jihadis.


Joya had been staying in the women's dorm at the Polytechnic, but she's now staying in the city in an undisclosed location with extra protection from private security and Afghan forces.


She thanked Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, Interior Minister Ali Jalali and US ambassador Zalmi Khalil Zad for taking steps to ensure her security.


All three men, she said, told her that they admired her courage. And all three assured her that the freedom of speech is the right of all Afghans.


Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.


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