'We are just watching things get worse'

Joya: "I hate guns, but I have to have men with guns guarding me all the time"

The Guardian, November 28, 2006
By Natasha Walter

Joya in NDP Convention in Canada
Malalai Joya

When Britain and America went into Afghanistan in 2001, they claimed that the liberation of the country's burka-shrouded women was one of their top priorities. So did they deliver? Five years on, Natasha Walter visits Kabul - and is shocked by what she discovers

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Malalai Joya is, at 28 years old, the youngest and most famous of all the women in the Afghan parliament. In a way her very presence in the parliament is a powerful symbol of change; a woman who had to work in secret in underground schools in Herat during the Taliban time is now able to speak out against her enemies in the parliament. She rose to fame at the end of 2003, when she made a speech attacking the warlords who still hold the balance of power in Afghanistan. On that occasion, one of the men she was attacking, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, rose and told her that her speech was a crime, announced that "Jihad is the basis of this nation" and asked for her microphone to be disconnected. The then speaker of the house, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a former mujahideen leader, called her an infidel, and said that if she did not apologise she could not attend the next session of parliament.

Since her historic speech, Joya has survived assassination attempts and constant denunciations. Even meeting Joya is difficult; the night before I leave, her sister calls to ask me to drive to the front of the parliament building, where she sends a car to meet my car, and we travel through the darkness of Kabul's night streets in looping circles, to arrive eventually at a house where men with guns wave us quickly inside. The house feels cold and unlived in. "I have only just moved here," Joya says. "I have to keep changing my house. I hate guns, but I have to have men with guns guarding me all the time. One day they will kill me. They kill women who struggle against them." Although Joya hated wearing the burka during the Taliban years, she is still not able to take it off. "I wore it today," she tells me, "while I was travelling, because I am not safe." Joya is a beautiful young woman, with wide dark eyes, simply dressed in a black wrap and long dress. When she isn't speaking she looks calm and poised, but when she speaks she is on fire, raging about the situation for herself and her country.

"Here there is no democracy, no security, no women's rights," she says. "When I speak in parliament they threaten me. In May they beat me by throwing bottles of water at me and they shouted, 'Take her and rape her.' These men who are in power, never have they apologised for their crimes that they committed in the wars, and now, with the support of the US, they continue with their crimes in a different way. That is why there is no fundamental change in the situation of women."

Joya talks like this to me, furiously, for more than an hour, almost weeping as she catalogues the crimes against women that still keep them in a state of fear: from Safia Ama Jan, the leading women's rights campaigner assassinated in Kandahar earlier this year, to Nadia Anjuman, a poet murdered in Herat last year; from Amina, a married woman who was stoned to death in Badakhshan in 2005, to Sanobar, an 11-year-old girl who was raped and exchanged for a dog in a reported dispute among warlords in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan last month.

She is desperate for people to take account of the silent women whose voices we never hear. "Afghan women are killing themselves now," she says, "there is no liberation for them." This is not just rhetoric: the Afghan Human Rights Commission recently began to document the numbers of Afghan women who are burning themselves to death because they cannot escape abuse in their families.

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