Leader of Our Time

The woman who defies warlords

"Never again will I whisper in the shadows of intimidation."

World Pulse Magazine, Issue 1, 2005

Malalai Joya, the voice of Afghan women and people

It was only a year ago that the words of 25-year-old Malalai Joya blazed across the front pages of newspapers worldwide. She had gone to Kabul as an elected representative of Farah Province to help create Afghanistan's new constitution at the Loya Jirga (Grand Council). When she embarked on her trip, Joya knew that the eyes of the world would be watching this historic assembly.

When her time came to make her 3-minute statement, she tugged her black headscarf over her hair, stepped up to the microphone, and with emotional electricity made the speech that would alter her life.

After she spoke, there was a moment of stunned silence. Then there was an uproar. Male mujahideen, some who literally had guns at their feet, rushed towards her, shouting. She was brought under the protection of UN security forces.

In a nation where few dare to say the word "warlord" aloud, Joya had spoken fiercely against a proposal to appoint high clergy members and fundamentalist leaders to guide planning groups. She objected that several of those religious leaders were war criminals who should be tried for their actions—not national heroes to influence the new government.

Despite the commands of Assembly Chairman, Joya refused to apologize.

Today, as a result of her legendary actions, Malalai Joya has become popular hero in Afghanistan. She speaks at rallies where thousands of people carry her photo high.

She incites debates on radio talk shows, works with President Hamid Karzai, and has stirred unprecedented numbers of women in her province to participate in public gatherings such as International Women's Day.

Joya's reputation is increasingly crossing the borders of her home province where she was already respected as a courageous leader who spoke out under the Taliban and worked to establish orphanages and health clinics since 1998.

Although Joya receives numerous death threats and her home has been bombed, she chooses to remain primarily in Afghanistan. She tirelessly presses her case against the former rulers of her nation, and she's making inroads. This summer, she and a delegation of 50 tribal elders persuaded President Karzai to dismiss a provincial governor who was a former Taliban commander.

Our elections have brought hope, but we must disarm the warlords.

by Malalai Joya

For speaking the truth against warlords in the Loya Jirga, my life has completely changed. Due to the constant death threats made against me, and the recent attack on my home, I am constantly accompanied by bodyguards and my whereabouts are kept secret.

All warlords of the Northern Alliance have deep hatred against me because I exposed them in a place where no one dared to say a word against them, in a place where almost all of their top leaders were present. They have threatened me, abused me, and tried to silence my voice by calling me a "prostitute," an "infidel," and a "communist" and even tried to force me to apologize, but I am ready to die before I take back my words.

Through my voice, the suffering women of a repressed nation sang the long-forgotten song of freedom, a patriotic melody conducted by the sorrows and grievances felt by women all throughout Afghanistan. The once untold truth triggered a deep indignation in the cold hearts of the fundamentalists, who are used to women silently stating hopeless ballads under the degrading reality of their burqa.

Never again will I whisper in the shadows of intimidation. I am but a symbol of my people's struggle and a servant to their cause. And if I were to be killed for what I believe in, then let my blood be the beacon for emancipation and my words a revolutionary paradigm for generations to come.

In Afghanistan, there are two types of terrorists and struggles against them. The first type are those who are against the U.S. and there are troops in Afghanistan to fight against them—the Taliban and Gulbuddin party. But the second type is the Northern Alliance terrorists, who are friends of the U.S. government but terrorize our innocent people.

In fact, by bringing the warlords back to power, the U.S. has replaced one reactionary fundamentalist regime with another. Though they dress in a suit and tie and have learned to talk about democracy and women's rights, their mentality has not changed. They are no more ideologically different from the Taliban and Al-Qaieda. They have lived by the gun and died by it; for them terrorism has been a business and way of life for more than 20 years. So reviving the old criminals and imposing such killers on our country should be shocking news to all advocates of human rights and women's rights around the world.

Another shock to the world community is that Afghanistan under U.S. occupation has become once again the world's largest opium producer. The powerful warlords are profiting from the dirty trade under the very nose of the U.S. troops.

But let me say how the recent elections and the active participation of my people, especially women, in the face of the risks, has given me more energy, strength, and determination to work for a positive future.

Despite many threats from the Taliban and warlords, it was a golden opportunity for our people to vote for their president for the first time in the history of Afghanistan. This process was such an exciting and memorable event that some became very emotional and cried! They couldn't believe they had the right to vote for their ideal president.

Most of the candidates were criminals except for a few democratic and conservative ones with a compromising nature. But our freedom-loving people once again showed that they can never accept or vote for such criminals for our government, so most of the criminals got few votes.

Women from my province, one of the most backward and male-dominated, were very excited and happy to vote for their president for the first time in their lives. About 42% of the women voted. It was a truly a signal of hope for me when I noticed that even uneducated women from the most remote villages of Farah actively participated!

At this historic time, most of our people are hopeful for a bright and better Afghanistan. But they are also pessimistic that different warlords will again be given key positions in the government.

The situation in Afghanistan and conditions for women will not change positively until the warlords have been disarmed and both the pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. terrorists are removed from the political scene in Afghanistan. And it is the responsibility of the Afghan people to accomplish this goal.

I think that no nation can liberate another nation. Liberation will ultimately be achieved by the people of a country. Our history is a shining example of liberation movements and democracy movements, as well as strong women leaders.

The support of people in other countries, however, is an important factor in our struggle to bring our movements to fruition. I hope that the people of the world and the American people will help us lead the way to a democratic society with no warlords and no cruelty against women. Help and support us in the process of disarming the different fundamentalist groups such as Rabani, Khalili, Doastum, Fahim, Qanoni, Sayyaf, and Mohaqiq.

I will continue to speak out because I have no fear in my soul anymore. I have seen too many sorrows. Maybe it will be me they kill, but there will be others whose voices will be louder than mine.

I know life is so beautiful. But a life without freedom, democracy, and peace is meaningless for me. I have many small hopes and dreams, but as an Afghan and as an open-minded and conscious young woman, my only dream is to see my country free.

I have heard lots of beautiful things about my country from people across the world who had visited it before the war. I was born in war and have seen nothing or heard nothing about my people and country except war, killing, violence, the kidnapping and raping of young girls, terrorism, and fundamentalism.

I believe a day will come when there will be peace, security, and democracy and all the people, the girls, the children will sing the song of freedom and have smiles lingering on their lips.