Published on Countercurrents.org (first on The Independent), by Johann Hari, 05 August, 2009.
I am not sure how many more days I will be alive,” Malalai Joya says quietly. The warlords who make up the new “democratic” government in Afghanistan have been sending bullets and bombs to kill this tiny 30-year-old from the refugee camps for years – and they seem to be getting closer with every attempt. Her enemies call her a “dead woman walking”. “But I don’t fear death, I fear remaining silent in the face of injustice,” she says plainly. “I am young and I want to live. But I say to those who would eliminate my voice: I am ready, wherever and whenever you might strike. You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring” …
… It’s hard to be strong all the time:
“It’s not good to show my enemies any weakness, (but) it’s hard to be strong all the time,” Joya says with a sigh, as she runs her hands through her hair. She has been speaking so insistently – with such preternatural courage– that it’s easy to forget she was just a girl when she was thrust into fighting fundamentalism. She was never allowed an adolescence. The fierce concentration on her face melts away, and she looks a little lost. “Yes, my mother is proud of me,” she says, “but you know how mothers are – they worry. Whenever I speak to her on the phone, the first sentence and the last sentence are always ‘Take care’.”
Two years ago, she got married in secret. She can’t name her husband publicly, because he would be killed. Her wedding flowers had to be checked for bombs. She will only say that they met at a press conference, “and he supports everything I do”. She has not seen him “for two months”, she says. “We meet in the safe houses of supporters. I cannot sleep in the same house two nights running. It is a different home every evening.”
Where does this courage come from? She acts as if the answer is obvious – anyone would do it, she claims. But they don’t. Perhaps it comes from her belief that the struggle is long and our individual lives are short, so we can only advance our chosen cause by inches, knowing others will pick up our baton. “When I die, others will come. I am sure of that,” she says.
She certainly has a strong sense of belonging to a long history of Afghans who fought for freedom. “My parents chose my first name after Malalai of Maiwand. She was a young woman who, in 1880, went to the front line of the second Anglo-Afghan war to tend the wounded. When the fighters were close to collapse, she picked up the Afghan flag and led the men into battle herself. She was struck down – but the British suffered a landmark defeat, and, in the end, they were driven out.”
When she ran for office, she had to choose a surname for herself, to protect her family’s identity. “I named myself after Sarwar Joya, the Afghan poet and constitutionalist. He spent 24 years in jails, and was finally killed because he wouldn’t compromise his democratic principles … In Afghanistan we have a saying: the truth is like the sun. When it comes up, nobody can block it out or hide it.”
Malalai Joya knows she could be killed any day now, in our newly liberated Warlord-istan. She hugs me goodbye and says, “We must keep in touch.” But I find myself bleakly wondering if we will ever meet again. Perhaps she senses this, because she suddenly urges me to look again at the last paragraph of her memoir, Raising My Voice. “It really is how I feel,” she says. It reads: “If I should die, and you should choose to carry on my work, you are welcome to visit my grave. Pour some water on it and shout three times. I want to hear your voice.” I look up into her face, and she is giving me the bravest smile I have ever seen.
‘Raising My Voice’ by Malalai Joya is published by Rider. All profits will go to supporting the cause of women’s rights in Afghanistan. (full long text).
The book: Raising my Voice, The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out;
An Afghan Voice That Fear Won’t Silence, by Nora Boustany, March 17, 2006.