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Malalai Joya – The voice from the Country where killing a woman is easier than killing a bird

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Malalai is named a Melvin Jones Fellow by the Lions Clubs International Foundation in recognition of her commitment to serving the world community.

Francesca Balestrazzi, The Voyager, March 7, 2010

Malalai Joya in Italy
In 2005, Malalai Joya became the youngest member of the Afghan parliament, representing Farah province.

Malalai Joya is a women’s rights activist, politician and one of the bravest women in Afghanistan. I am meeting her in Parma where she has been invited to speak by the Lions Club Parma Maria Luigia during her staying in Italy.

It is a rainy dark day and the taxi drops me in front of the University of Parma at 4.45pm. I enter the hall, pass by the room where I discussed my final dissertation, many years ago, and walk in the dark corridor with the high ceiling and the statues lined against the walls, which still kind of intimidate me. The conference is scheduled at 5pm in the Aula Magna (the main room), which is used only in very special occasions – the only time I had been there was when the University gave me a tribute in memory of my father.

I saw Malalai’s picture in the cover of her book, ‘Raising my voice’, and in the many articles on her published in the International press, The Independent and The Guardian to name a couple. In these pictures her expression is severe and she is wearing the headscarf. When I meet her, she has long, black and flowing hair which she gently touches and removes from her eyes whilst speaking – she tells me later “When I was younger my hair was even longer, thicker and stronger, but one day my teacher cut it shorter, even though I tried to run away and hide myself under the table, crying.” Malalai is smartly dressed with a grey jacket, a black pencil skirt, a white shirt, black tights, ankle boots and the bag matching the colour of the jacket. Nothing to do with the traditional idea of fashion in the Muslim Countries that we may have. Her look is strong, determined and proud but her smile is still sweet, serene and, at times, girlishly shy.

Malalai Joya in Italy
All profits of her memoir, "Raising my voice", will go to supporting the cause of women's rights in Afghanistan.

The second of ten children, she was brought up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. In her early teens, she had already read all the literature she could get – Brecht, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, among others. At the age of 16 she came back to Afghanistan and risked imprisonment as well as torture by running a secret school. She went from tent to tent teaching others, especially women, hiding the books under her burka so the Taliban couldn’t find them.

In 2003 Malalai was chosen as a representative for the Loya Jirga to decide on a new constitution. From the beginning, she could feel the adversity from others – her microphone never worked, she could not sleep in the same place for two nights running, she arrived in the parliament at obscure hours, she always changed her route to get there, she didn’t drink water that others offered her for the fear that this was poisoned. At the end of that year, she spoke fiercely against the criminals and warlords members of the parliament. She should have spoken for three minutes but after only 90 seconds her microphone was cut off and male mujahideen rushed towards Malalai insulting her and making death threats. As a result, she was suspended for the rest of her term. (the video of her speech is available on YouTube at “I am a drop in a ocean, there is a huge responsibility on all of us…You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring.”

When elections were held in 2005, Malalai was voted into the National Assembly, or Wolesi Jirga. But again she found herself surrounded by warlords and their allies. In 2007 she was suspended by the parliament after giving an interview to a local television company controlled by President Karzai, they edited the interview in a way that it sounded like she had publically insulted the other MPs.

Malalai Joya in Italy
She named herself after Sarwar Joya, the Afghan poet and constitutionalist, who spent 24 years in jails and was finally killed because he wouldn't compromise his democratic principles.

Today Malalai is married but lives on the run as a fugitive in her own Country, which she doesn’t want to leave despite the five assassination attempts she narrowly escaped. “I have to move house every few days, with the help of my supporters. And when I stay there, no one expects to be alive afterwards” she says. “I hate guns but they are now part of my life. I need bodyguards to stay alive.” She continues to campaign against foreign occupation, fundamentalist warlords as well as for women’s rights and education.

She believes all NATO troops must leave Afghanistan immediately. As Malalai repeats a number of times in the meeting “Freedom is never given by the oppressor it has to be demanded by the oppressed.” Her words turn everything we have been told about Afghanistan inside out. “Democracy doesn’t come from occupation” says Malalaia to anyone who believes that the US backed forces replaced the Afghanistan’s Taliban regime with a free democratic society. “We have now three enemies to fight: Occupation, Taliban and Warlords” she continues. I don’t know if withdrawing American troops would improve their situation but has anyone, who holds a leading role and claims that is fighting for these women, actually asked if this has been achieved?

After the conference we go for dinner together. She sits in front of me and I finally recognize the young woman that she still is. She is fully committed to the cause, but she hopes, dreams and giggles like any other girl of our age. With a big portion of vanilla ice cream in her plate, she tells me of how she used to enjoy eating ice cream when she was young and recalls when one of her friends in the refugee camp gave her a t-shirt with “I can resist everything but ice cream” printed on it.

Malalai Joya in Italy
The Melvin Jones Fellowship was created in 1973.

At the end of the dinner Malalai is named a Melvin Jones Fellow by the Lions Clubs International Foundation in recognition of her commitment to serving the world community. Named after the founder of Lions Clubs International, the fellowship is the foundation’s highest honour. This is the latest of the many International recognitions that she already received for her bravery – she was the second recipient of the award given in memory of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2006. (The first recipient, Natalya Estemirova, the human rights fighter also killed last year.) “I like when awards are as small as this one – a lapel pin and a congratulatory letter. The Politkovskaya award was so heavy that I couldn’t even lift it and when I had to pass the security at the airport they stopped me for ages as they did not believe it was an award!” she says laughing.

It is 9.30pm, Malalai has to go to Milano for an early flight to Sweden on Thursday. She gives me her business card, hugs me goodbye and says “We must keep in touch.” But I wonder if I will ever meet her again.