One of the most moving chapters in Malalai’s book deals with her experiences as a teacher.

Rahul Banerjee, The Statesman (India), 13 March 2010

Malalai Joya

The courage of Malalai Joya serves not only as a commentary on the current Afghan situation, but is also a reminder that in an atmosphere of deceit, duplicity and relentless violence, there are still some like her who dare to speak the truth and have the courage to face dire consequences, writes Rahul Banerjee.

UNRAVELLING the imbroglio in Afghanistan would require disentangling the many interwoven historical strands responsible for the current situation. Some of these strands are, of course, political whereas others are economic and cultural. This complicated task would probably require special expertise but a complementary approach could lie in tracing the lives of particular Afghans, whether eminent or ordinary, their successes and failures, trials and tribulations, to gain insight into the nature of the historical forces at work.

One such extraordinary life is that of Malalai Joya who, in the very recent past, was the youngest elected woman member of the Afghan parliament. Her experience (she is only in her 30s) serves not only as a commentary on the current Afghan situation, but also reminds us that in an atmosphere of deceit, duplicity and relentless violence, there are still some like Malalai who dare to speak the truth and have the courage to face dire consequences.

She was born in the village of Ziken in Afghanistan’s Anardara district on 25 April 1978 and named after Malalai of Maiwand, a young Afghan patriot who fell fighting the British in the second Anglo-Afghan War of 1880. Within a few years of her birth, Afghanistan was invaded by forces of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Her father, known for his liberal and democratic sympathies, joined the Afghan resistance, and one of Malalai’s earliest memories as a child was of her clinging to her mother’s legs as policemen ransacked their house in search of her father.

In the course of the fighting, her father sustained major injuries, lost a leg and had to be shifted as a refugee to Iran. Around 1982, Malalai, her mother and the rest of her family left for the Afghan refugee camps in Iran to be reunited with her father

Australian version of

In her book, Raising My Voice (Random House Group, 2009) Malalai recounts in detail the plight of the refugees in the Iranian camps. Located in the most inhospitable regions, hotbeds of unsanitary, cramped and unhygienic conditions, inmates were subjected to extreme temperatures by day and night. As darkness fell, young children ran the risk of being attacked by wild animals. To add to their woes, Afghans were routinely abused and humiliated by the Iranian authorities who generally considered them second class citizens. As living conditions deteriorated and even minimal educational facilities were lacking, the family decided to shift to Quetta in Pakistan where Malalai could at least hope for minimal education.

There, at a boarding school run by the underground Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, founded by an able and competent woman called Meena, she received her first formal education. Malalai recalls that one of the most memorable events at school was when she met Meena, who made a deep and lasting impression on her. Later, she was shocked to learn that Meena had been abducted by fundamentalists and killed.

Because of the erratic availability of work, the family had to shift camp several times, finally ending up in Pashee. Most of the Pakistani refugee camps were run by the ISI, hand in glove with fundamentalist forces. For boys, the majority of schools were madrassas, where they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the most militant version of fundamentalist doctrine. A whole generation of Afghans were thus brought up by this singularly warped system of instruction, and if one were to search for the cradle of the Taliban, it would probably be here. It was Malalai’s good fortune that the Pashee camp was relatively progressive and, most importantly, it had a school where she could continue her studies.

An ardent learner, she was soon appointed a teacher at the somewhat precocious age of 15. Her abilities attracted attention and she was contacted by the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Woman’s Capabilities, a newly formed NGO, who were looking for a volunteer to teach Afghan women in Herat. Malalai accepted. Since she had left her country the atmosphere there had radically changed.

By the mid-1980s it was clear the Russians had begun to lose ground in the war. Equipment and money running into millions of dollars were funnelled by the CIA (through the ISI) to religious extremists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud. When the Soviet forces finally left and their puppets collapsed, Afghans awoke to the full horrors of a ruthless internecine civil war between these CIA-funded mujaheddin. Initially, violence erupted between Hekmatyar and Massoud (the fundamentalist groups of Sayyaf, Khalili, Mazari and Mohseni were also engaged in this infighting) with Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum switching allegiance at every opportune moment.

One of the lowest points in Afghan history was reached when the country practically disintegrated into fiefdoms run by local warlords, with a nominal central government headed by Massoud and Rabbani in Kabul. These warlords managed to do what even the Russians could not — destroy and pillage beautiful Kabul. Nowhere in Afghanistan was there any sanctuary as feuding sectarian militias violated the lives of ordinary Afghans.

It was during this period that Malalai and her family briefly returned to Afghanistan, but such was the prevailing insecurity that they were forced to return to the Pakistani refugee camps. It deserves recall that one of the reasons cited by the USA prior to the invasion of Afghanistan was the oppression of women under the Taliban. But the truth is that during this period, violence against women was comparable, if not worse, than under the Taliban. It was against this backdrop of complete social disintegration, that the Taliban emerged from the madrassas of Pakistan and overran the hapless country, taking Kabul and driving Massoud’s forces to the north.

If the Afghans cherished any hopes of relief from the daily round of violence and oppression, it was to be short lived. The Taliban enforced a medieval, primitive and brutal form of religious and political order. Men were forced to grow beards and the women had to wear burqas. All avenues for women’s education were instantly stopped and it became mandatory for all to pray five times a day. Punishment for deviating from the Taliban code was severe and roving bands of young men in pick-up trucks enforced discipline by floggings and beatings. For the small minority of Hindus and Sikhs, life became especially difficult as they were relegated to second class citizens. It was in this atmosphere of rampant oppression that Malalai returned to her homeland as a teacher in the underground network of girls’ schools run by the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Woman’s Capabilities.

One of the most moving chapters in Malalai’s book deals with her experiences as a teacher. Contrary to popular perception, most ordinary Afghans do want their children of both sexes to be properly schooled. To evade the watchful eyes of the Taliban, these secret girls’ schools would be organised in the basements of specific houses. On one occasion, Malalai narrowly escaped discovery by Taliban patrols that searched the house but did not venture into the basement where she and her students lay hidden in the darkness. After close calls such as these, there would be no option to change the location of a school. The existence of these schools spread by word of mouth and, despite threatening circumstances, enrolment gradually improved. Malalai worked hard; in addition to teaching in Heart, she also travelled to nearby villages. As her abilities were recognised, she was made director of OPAWC operations in western Afghanistan. But destiny had other things in store for her and 9/11 changed the course of Afghan history and her life.

Malalai was in Farah when US and allied forces began hostilities in Afghanistan. As is well known, the initial attacks were principally airborne, along with millions of dollars being funnelled by the CIA to the commanders of the Northern Alliance (Dostum, Sayyaf, Khalili, Rabbani, Mohaqiq, Qannoni, Dr Abdullah and Fahim), the same men who were responsible for pillaging Afghanistan a few years ago. Massoud, who was murdered by the Taliban days before 9/11, was lionised by the USA and made into a legend. With the active support of the US Special Forces, the Northern Alliance regained the country from the fleeing Taliban and subsequently, after several manipulations, Hamid Karzai was installed as the US puppet at the Bonn Conference.

Although the majority of Afghans were happy with the departure of oppressive Taliban misrule, the return of corrupt and barbarous warlords filled them with foreboding. At this time, upon contacting the authorities in Farah to open a health centre for the poor, Malalai was rudely brushed off and told that no guarantee could be given for her security. Her opposition to warlords was becoming fairly well known. The health centre and orphanage came up anyhow, with Malalai’s initiative and overwhelming local support.

Malalai Joya in Loya Jirga in 2003

In 2003, the United Nations took the lead in forming a constituent assembly (Loya Jirga) to give Afghans a constitution and determine a future course. Nine delegates – seven men and two women — would represent Farah province. Malalai decided to contest the elections and won. At 25, she became the youngest woman member of the Loya Jirga.

The Loya Jirga opened in Kabul with 502 attending delegates. When Malalai arrived, she was shocked to find warlords with criminal records seated in the first row as special guests. Hamid Karzai was given the right to select 52 delegates. Most of the warlords were handpicked by him, while others had manipulated elections or got themselves elected by intimidating rival candidates. Unsavoury elements such as Sayyaf, Rabbani, Dostum, Khalili, Mohaqiq, Fahim and Qannoni, responsible for the plunder of Afghanistan, were present, masquerading as upholders of the “showcase” democracy. As proceedings began, Malalai found the situation practically intolerable. After managing to get about three minutes to speak, she told the assembly, “My name is Malalai Joya from Farah province… My criticism of all my compatriots is why are you allowing the legitimacy and legality of the Jirga to come into question due to those criminals who have brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again? Why do you allow criminals to be present here? They are responsible for our situation now…!

“… It is they who turned our country into the centre of national and international wars! They are the most anti-women elements in our society who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again.

“They should be prosecuted in the national and international courts…!” Suddenly her voice could no longer be heard as the PA system had been switched off, and pandemonium broke out. A group of MPs threatened to assault her physically. Finally, with the help of security guards, she escaped from the chaotic scene. That night her residence was quietly changed and she was assigned bodyguards.

Malalai was never allowed to address the Loya Jirga again. But even then, the response of ordinary Afghans, both men and women, to her speech was overwhelming. Overnight she became a beacon of light for all the progressive forces in the country.

Next week: Battling on