Dust in the eyes of the world

MALALAI JOYA should have known she was about to sign her own death sentence when she took the microphone on December 17, 2003.

The Sydney Morning Herald, July 1, 2009
Paul Sheehan

Malalai Joya in Kabul
Danger zone.. . when she leaves her house, Joya hides her identity or travels with bodyguards. Photo: Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

MALALAI JOYA should have known she was about to sign her own death sentence when she took the microphone on December 17, 2003. She is only 1.5 metres tall yet she packs a knock-down verbal punch. But this was Afghanistan, where 80 per cent of women are illiterate and most men appear willing to keep it that way. Being a fiery, provocative woman is like having a fatal disease.

Before she could speak, an official had to lower the microphone. Her black hijab began to slide off. She was flustered, adjusting her headscarf; her heart was racing. She then set in train the events which, more than five years later, keep her a furtive nomad in her own land.

"When I leave the house I go discreetly, in the company of a woman, wearing this disgusting burqa," she told me last week. "When nobody knows about my whereabouts, there is no need for bodyguards. But I have to use different tactics to hide my identity when I travel without bodyguards."

She must pay for her own security, because two years ago, having survived several assassination attempts and been elected to parliament, she was thrown out of parliament for bringing the institution into disrepute. She had compared it to a zoo. So her security is funded by her public speaking abroad, such as the author's tour she will begin in Australia next week.

"My security is still very expensive," she says. "The vehicle I use is very old and not suitable but I can't buy a new one. The salary that I give to my bodyguards is very little but still they are satisfied and do not stay with me for money but for my protection . . . Sometimes I stay in secure supporters' or relatives' houses for weeks but sometimes I have to change homes many times a week."

On the fateful day in December 2003, she spoke before 501 fellow delegates, plus diplomats, officials and news media, inside a giant tent. They had gathered for a national meeting of tribal, community and religious leaders organised by the United Nations to approve a new constitution. She believed the assembly was accommodating numerous "theocrats and warlords" with no interest in democracy.

"Someone had to get inside this corrupt assembly and condemn it to the world," she told supporters. So in 2003 she ran for election to the assembly and became one of 114 women delegates elected by women-only electorates. Her mother wept when she heard her eldest daughter had been elected. They were not tears of joy.

She was only 25 and looked even younger. She was born in western Afghanistan on Anzac Day, 1978. Her father lost a leg fighting with the mujahideen against the Soviet army. She grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. She is the second of 10 children, the eldest of seven daughters.

During the years of the Taliban - when education for females was banned - she operated a secret school for girls, hiding books under her hated burqa. After the Taliban was swept from power in 2001, she become a local hero in her home city of Farah for setting up a health centre and an orphanage, where she lived in a one-room hut. She was also a passionate advocate for women's rights and political speaking came easily.

In Kabul in December 2003 for the national assembly to decide Afghanistan's democratic future, she badgered the chairman for days to allow her to speak. Finally, he relented, telling the assembly: "The kids insist they have not had enough chance to speak."

"The millions of dollars that Australia has donated is simply fattening the wallets of the most criminal and murderous traitors who are brothers-in-creed of the Taliban," she told me.

It took seconds for his equanimity to vanish. "My criticism of all my compatriots here," Joya began bluntly, "is why are you allowing the legitimacy of this Loya Jirga [traditional assembly] to come into question by the presence of the criminals who have led our country into this state? Why would you allow criminals to be present here? They are responsible for our situation now."

The mouse had roared. Many inside the tent burst into applause. Many looked like thunder. Shock was still her advantage. "They should be prosecuted in the national and international courts." She was now shouting above a din. Suddenly, she could no longer hear her voice. Her microphone had been cut off. Her speech had lasted 90 seconds and angry men were lurching towards the podium.

"Down with communism!" shouted a prominent Islamic fundamentalist in the front row. A woman delegate shouted: "Take the pants off this prostitute and tie them on her head."

Joya was ushered out of the assembly for her own protection. That night, a group of men went to the university campus where the women delegates were billeted, screaming insults and searching rooms. "Where is that prostitute girl?" "When we find her we will rape her, kill her."

I asked Joya if she believed the constant abuse of "prostitute" and "whore" represented sexual repression masquerading as religious zeal. "I absolutely agree. These fundamentalists use religion as a tool to repress women. They regard them as second-degree citizens. They are strongly misogynistic."

Her outburst dominated the news that day. The story raced around the world. The UN intervened, providing armed security and a safe house.

But when she was flown back to Farah, a surprise was waiting: a huge crowd. She was a hero in her province. The joy did not last. On April 28, 2004, four months after she had spoken at the Loya Jirga, a roadside bomb exploded just ahead of her security convoy. The bomber had panicked and detonated too soon. Two months later, a group of armed men stormed her orphanage but she was away.

She declined to be silent. After national elections were set down for September 18, 2005, she decided to run for parliament. Before that, she also got married. Her husband's name is secret, for obvious reasons, and they spend more time apart than together. On the day of the wedding, a defensive perimeter was set up around the tent. Every guest was searched for bombs and weapons.

She ran for parliament as an independent. Some of her opponents described her as a "prostitute", "anti-Islamic" and "communist". As with her earlier run for the assembly in 2003, she romped in as women flocked to vote for her. At 27, she became the youngest member of the Afghan parliament. This time, she would have a voice that could not be silenced. So she thought.

"The very first time I spoke in parliament my microphone was cut off, a practice I would become accustomed to," she writes in her new memoir, Raising My Voice. "My days in parliament were always stressful and lonely because I was constantly being attacked and insulted."

In May 2006, after she had made another, abbreviated, speech about rape, parliament again went into uproar. "I had to duck behind my desk as they hurled water bottles at me and sandals flew over my head."

A year later, after refusing to apologise for comparing the Afghan parliament to a zoo, she was suspended for the rest of her five-year term, by the vote of a parliamentary majority. No action was ever taken against the members of the same body who had called her a whore and threatened her with death.

From all this, Joya has a message for Australia: you are wasting your blood and money in Afghanistan. The warlords have become entrenched. The damage to the civilian population is causing resentment. The country is devolving into a narco-state. Corruption is endemic. Parliament is debased. The conditions for women remain abysmal.

"The millions of dollars that Australia has donated is simply fattening the wallets of the most criminal and murderous traitors who are brothers-in-creed of the Taliban," she told me. "Because Australia is part of the NATO coalition, it has followed the wrong policies for seven years. Even the troops that have lost their lives are the victims of the wrong policies.

"Your government is supporting a corrupt, mafia-ridden, criminal state. The warlords are the sworn enemies of democracy, women's rights and justice. The Australian troops are really guarding US strategic and military interests, not the Afghan people."

Judging by the progress of the war in Afghanistan, one is left with an impotent sense that Joya is more right than wrong when she proclaims: "Afghan women like me, voting and running for office, have been held up as proof that the United States has brought democracy and women's rights to Afghanistan. But it is all a lie, dust in the eyes of the world."

Raising My Voice is published next week by Macmillan, $34.99.

Joya will speak at a Herald-Dymocks literary lunch on Wednesday. Bookings on 9449 4366.