Hearing her tiny voice and polite but limited English over a crackly international cellular connection, it’s hard to picture Malalai Joya as her reputation precedes her – as one of the bravest and most powerful women in Afghanistan.

But it’s not how her words sound; it’s what this 27-year-old is saying that’s so powerful.

In Joya’s lifetime, Afghanistan has seen two military invasions, a bloody civil war and the rise and fall of the Taliban. Leader of a feminist organization and health clinic, she was elected to serve on the country’s 2003 Loya Jirga, or grand council, to form yet another new government. There she shocked everyone with a short speech decrying other representatives who are some of the most powerful men in the country as war criminals who should be tried for crimes against humanity. Several members of the Assembly are said to have very bloody pasts, including a militia leader accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch, which reports warlords as having undue influence over and access to government affairs, and a former Taliban militia commander.

“They made our country the center of national and international fighting,” she said to the council, a place where young women were traditionally banned. “They were the people who put our country in its current condition, and want to again. Even if our people forgive them, history will not.”

It’s an alarming statement, not only for the Afghans who have to live with it, but also for Americans who hope their government is living up to the values it espouses.

The speech itself prompted angry shouts and even death threats, which have now become routine in her life, from many on the council. But her constituents loved it, and in September voted her into the Afghan National Assembly. Hoping that her people will some day be safe and free, she says she will continue to try to expose those who work against gender equality, human rights and democracy – even if nobody else will.

As part of a nationwide tour sponsored by the Afghan Women’s Mission, an advocacy group founded by KPFK 90.7 FM radio personality and Pasadena resident Sonali Kolhatkar, Joya will speak at 7 p.m. Monday at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 663 S. Berendo St., Los Angeles. For information, call (626) 676-7884.

Then at noon on Tuesday, Joya will speak at Caltech’s Avery Hall, 332 S. Michigan Ave. in Pasadena. To RSVP, call (626) 395-3221.

Sometimes relying on a translator, she spoke to the Weekly on Friday from Canada.

PW: In America, being a member of Congress is considered a pretty cushy job. For you, being a national Afghan leader has been downright dangerous.

Joya: Several times I have received death threats. After my speech at the Loya Jirga, my life completely changed. When people became aware I was one of the candidates for parliament [the national Assembly], they started threatening me more. Before my election to parliament they attacked my office and my house. I do not feel secure, especially when I come to Kabul.

What is it about Afghan politics that would allow you to become such a target?

Members of parliament have links to warlords, and some of the leaders are warlords. Some of them have links with mafia. Every time I have a speech I receive lots of support from the innocent people outside parliament. Inside parliament, some warlords and people in power with links to warlords shout against me every time I speak because I’m telling the truth.

Why are former warlords back in power?

Because they have two faces. They deceive people. Some think if we vote for this person they will help once again. [Many “warlords” are credited with the defeat of Soviet invaders.] They have the support of foreign countries; lots of money. That is the reason they found their way into the parliament. Now they have a mask of democracy but … they do not believe in democracy. They do not believe in women’s rights, human rights. And those people destroyed our country. This is the reason we are now really worried about the situation in our country, and the main reason most people in Afghanistan didn’t attend the parliamentary election. … They want to vote for a person who doesn’t have blood on their hands.

If it’s so far gone, what can the government hope to achieve?

The last hope of our people – they hope this parliament will help us. But these same people, you will see in the future, will never help our people. There are those people, you know, who would like to be in power forever.

There is no fundamental change in the situation in Afghanistan. You should not see only Kabul; you should see the faraway provinces. Not only does the situation of women become worse day by day, there is no security. All of

the people are very poor. They do not have health and education facilities. Instead of the Taliban, now [leaders] are brothers of Taliban. But I do not want to say all of them; some of them are good people. They do not have a bloody hand in the history of Afghanistan.

Do they also hate you because you are a woman?

Yeah. Of course. On one hand they cannot suffer – tolerate – me because I’m a woman and I expose them: two reasons against me.

Have women’s rights improved since the Americans arrived?

Unfortunately, there is no fundamental change in the situation of women. Women, even in Kabul, they do not feel real security, and women do not have real liberation. You should see faraway provinces. For example [a woman] has been killed by her husband in Herat. Maybe you heard in the media?


Nobody will ask why he did [it] because he understands the head of justice is a person who is against women. Maybe you hear about Amana? She has been killed by local warlords, but nobody asks. Maybe you heard about Musca? They raped her. And today, today we received another report in a province in Afghanistan that a woman committed suicide. In the western provinces of Afghanistan women, day by day, they are killing themselves. They prefer to die than be alive. People in power do not believe in women’s rights and did lots of crimes in the past. Now they do not want that our women should be liberated.

What’s America doing wrong?

On one hand I am really happy that the people, the democracy loving, freedom-loving people support us. We need their support and we’re proud. On the other hand the [Afghan] people really have suspicion about the help from the government of the United States. There are those people who did lots of crimes on our innocent people. Every person in Afghanistan knew about those criminals then, but now they have learned how to speak about democracy.

So if it’s all going wrong, why do what you do?

To my life I will defend and be in Afghanistan because I will not betray the innocent people. On the other hand, why I decided to be a member of parliament is because of the people who trusted me and came to my office and supported me and said, ‘Please, on behalf of us, you should be in parliament. We just trust you.’

I know very well about all the risks and all of the sacrifices and all of the problems, but I wanted to be the voice of suffering people. If they try to make laws against the people of this country, I will stand up and expose them.

Why come to America?

My message to the United States: Do not forget the people of Afghanistan.