Holding up a picture

“The US pushed us from the frying pan to the fire.”

Hindustan Times, December 27, 2008
by Namita Kohli

Joya in Delhi
Malalai Joya speaking in a panel of Amnesty International Week of Justice Festival in New Delhi on Dec.8, 2008.

Dressed in a black burqa that swamps her petite figure and high heels that don’t much add to her five-feet, Malalai Joya appears to be like any other 30-year-old. There’s nothing in her unassuming demeanour to tell you that she’s been living in hiding for years now, that she travels with 12 bodyguards, and has survived four assassination attempts in the last five years. That she is the woman the BBC once described as the ‘most famous’ in Afghanistan. “It’s all due to the love of my people,” says Joya smiling.

Despite being labelled ‘infidel’ for her tirade against Taliban warlords at the 2003 Loya Jirga (Afghanistan’s constitutional court), Joya was elected to the Afghan Parliament from Farah province with the second highest number of votes in 2005.

More importantly, she won as an independent, without any political affiliations. Two years later, she hit the headlines again when in a television interview she described the Parliament as “worse than a zoo”.

But the Afghan MP isn’t daunted. “Wherever I go, I just speak the truth,” she says. In Delhi last week for Amnesty International India’s programme on human rights, Joya says it was impossible for her to be diplomatic inside Parliament.

“How could I negotiate with criminals, warlords, those who have been accused of serious human rights violations?” But outspokenness has resulted in her being expelled from Parliament, her diplomatic passport being seized and several death threats. Joya has had to go “underground”, living away from her family, her husband of three years and the people for whom she took up the fight.

“It’s hard. But my supporters help me keep in touch with people, they get me everything I need. I survive on donations,” she says. Joya’s fishnet stockings, her multi-coloured muffler and even her black shoes are all ‘gifts’, since she can’t go to the markets herself for fear of never returning.

“How could I negotiate with criminals, warlords, those who have been accused of serious human rights violations?”

But Joya would rather not talk about herself, preferring the focus to remain on her war ravaged country. Rattling off facts in her broken English from a little diary, she says: “Democracy is a sham in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai’s government is full of former warlords: Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Karzai, the president’s brother and a drug trafficker. Ninety-three per cent of the world’s afeem (opium) is produced in Afghanistan. Suicide among women and rapes are the highest in many decades.”

She speaks of US-led bombings at schools and at wedding parties, and of living among the ruins of the once beautiful city of Kabul.

But once the passion recedes, weariness surfaces. “I was only four days old when my family had to flee since the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. We fled to Iran and then to Pakistan. We lived in refugee camps.” Her father, who was a medical student gave up his studies and took up whatever jobs that came his way. The family returned when Joya was 19, to find their country a wreck.

Joya worked with several NGOs where she got an insight into ground realities. “The US pushed us from the frying pan to the fire. After the Taliban, it’s the fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance. Women’s conditions have only worsened under them,” she says, pointing to a photograph of girls walking in skirts and scarves in 1967. “Now, we can’t roam on the streets like that.”

She shows more photographs of schools in tents, with just a basic blackboard. “Where are all the billions of dollars of foreign aid going? No one knows. Worse, the government is now negotiating with the Taliban!” The only good thing that’s come out of the war, she says, is that people have become politically conscious.

Joya couldn’t go to college, but she wants her country to get schools, hospitals and a democratic system. This is what she speaks of at all the international fora she travels to at considerable risk to herself — travelling first by road in a burqa to a safe destination and then flying out from there. “They can kill me any time, they have reached my house, my office. I know they will succeed. But I am still going to fight; now I am gearing up for the 2010 elections,” she says.

The only time when fear tinges her speech is when she says, “I wish I could go to the markets here, but I am alone here, the mujahideen might create trouble.”