Malalai Joya isn't afraid of being assassinated. "I understand that one day they will kill me, because it's easy for them to kill people, especially women," she says about her enemies in Afghanistan, namely the former Taliban members, tribal warlords, and Northern Alliance fighters. These are the people who currently comprise Afghanistan's government -- people that Joya frequently denounces as "killers" and "criminals."
"But this is the voice of the voiceless people of Afghanistan," she continues. "And they can't silence this voice and they can't hide the truth. And they understand that." And then this outspoken 29-year-old Afghan activist suddenly smiles widely, even breaking out into laughter. How can she be laughing?
"Because I have hopes for my people, for my country, and I have supporters around the world, and I am happy that at least I am not alone," she explains. "And I trust my people and I believe in democracy, women's rights and human rights and I believe this isn't something that's given and we must make sacrifices."
Joya is visiting New York this week in conjunction with screenings of Enemies of Happiness, an hour-long film about her 2005 run for Afghan public office, playing at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. The documentary has won multiple awards at international film festivals, including Human Rights Watch's Nestor Almendros Prize for courage in filmmaking.
Wearing a suit with her hair pulled back into a pony tale, the diminutive 5-foot Joya seems at first like a shy young woman going into a job interview. But when she starts talking, an impassioned national leader emerges, as she speaks fearlessly and breathlessly about the plight of the Afghan people and the political corruption and violence that still plagues her homeland. The day before our interview took place, the country experienced its deadliest suicide attack since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 (which killed 35 people) and a U.S.-led airstrike that took the lives of seven children in eastern Afghanistan.
"Of course, this is not the first time, and I'm sure this won't be the last incident, and more and more innocent people will be killed," she says, responding to the news. "Day by day, people become more angry and become more hopeless toward the foreign troops and do not support their government," she continues. "I'm here to tell you: Please pressure your government to stop this wrong policy of supporting fundamentalist warlords in Afghanistan who are brothers of the Taliban."
Joya's main goal is to clean up Afghanistan's leadership from what she calls "warlord-ism" and "druglord-ism." To back up her claims, the country remains the largest worldwide producer of opium and heroin, and according to Human Rights Watch, many of the country's new legislators, including up to 60 percent of deputies in the lower house of Parliament, have been directly or indirectly tied to current and past human rights abuses. In speeches, Joya has called the Afghan government "the most corrupt and unpopular in the world."
"These criminals are in power and under the name of Islam, especially, they are doing crimes against our people," says Joya, who last month was ousted from her own position in Parliament after she likened the legislature to a "stable or zoo" in an Afghan TV interview.
Joya calls her suspension "an illegal act" and doesn't regret her harsh words. "I stress that most of these parliament members are worse than an animal stable, because they massacred 65,000 innocent people and [committed] lots of violence against women," she says, referring to fighting that took place in Kabul in the 1990s when ethnic militias battled for control, killing, maiming and raping civilians in the process. Several of those responsible for the violence now hold high-level posts in Hamid Karzai's government.
Joya admits, "it's more risky than ever" for her to return -- one parliament member said he would put a bomb on himself and kill her, she alleges. After at least four assassination attempts, other documented incidents involving threats of rape, murder and water bottles being thrown at her within the Parliament, Joya vows to return.
"Even with these risks that I face -- for example, I'm going outside wearing a burqa, I must have bodyguards, I'm changing houses, I can't live with my family -- but just because of that, I want to go back to this warlord-ism, druglord-ism Parliament to tear their masks off in front of them in their own house, because nobody dares to."
Joya has tough words for the United States and its allies, whom she blames squarely for not doing more to fight the violence and corruption. "The policy of the U.S. is a mockery of democracy and a mockery of the war on terror," she says, citing a litany of problems, including the international community's continued support for Northern Alliance members suspected of war crimes, and no accountability for their financial support. "Most of the money goes into the pockets of these warlords," she says. "In the capital of Afghanistan, we have large buildings," she says. "Why do these buildings belong to Northern Alliance killers?" She also faults foreign forces for not helping to maintain the safety of the people. "When we don't have security, how can we talk about human rights and women's rights?"
Joya also criticizes mainstream news coverage of Afghanistan. When it's not cut entirely to make room for items about the maelstrom in Iraq, it's often overly simplistic and optimistic. "After the fall of the Taliban, the media shows people around the world that women can go outside without a burqa," she compains, when, in fact, women around the country are still wearing burqas and suffering from abuse and discrimination. She relates several under-reported incidents of horrible violence against women "under the eyes of U.S. troops," she says, from the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Northern Afghanistan to the killing of journalists and students.
Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad, director of Enemies of Happiness, isn't sure what kind of substantive impact Joya can have on policy-making in and regarding Afghanistan, but she believes that her fight is inspiring to other Afghans.
"When I was filming in Afghanistan, I saw that there was a lot of support from everyday people, especially in Farah province," says Mulvad. "And I think it's important for the everyday people that Malalai is raising her voice like this and giving them the hope that someone is not corrupt, someone is not just there to earn money for themselves and someone is trying to make a fair system that's going to help the people."
While Joya acknowledges, "my voice has become famous," she resists the notion that she is some kind of folk hero, like her legendary female namesake Malalai of Maiwand, a celebrated figure who carried a flag into battle, giving courage to Afghan forces fighting the British in 1880. "I don't want to compare myself to these heroines of Afghanistan," says Joya. "They are in the sky and I am on the earth. I just say the truth. I do my responsibility as the young generation of Afghanistan."
It's difficult to understand what exactly drives Joya. She spent her youth in Iran and in Pakistani refugee camps – what she calls "living graveyards" – and then returned to Afghanistan in 1998 to work for an underground organization dedicated to literacy and women's rights. She has reportedly credited her father, a former medical student who lost a leg fighting against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, for inspiring her political career.
While making Enemies of Happiness, Mulvad says she tried to look for answers about Joya's interior life, "but it's not something she talks about," says the filmmaker. "She's very determined, and she has seen a lot of misery. And she sees it every day. I often asked her, 'Why do you do this?' She responded, 'Because I can and someone had to do it.' And I think that's the answer. She can do it and no else can do it."
Indeed, for now, Joya seems to be the strongest voice of dissent in Afghanistan. And if, as she says, "the fundamentalists are counting their days to eliminate me," she takes heart in the words of Iranian writer Samad Behrangi. "Death could very easily come now, but I should not be the one to seek it," she reads from her notes, quoting the author. "Of course if I should meet it and that is inevitable, it would not matter. What matters is whether my living or dying has had any effect on the lives of others."
She then looks up from her papers with a big grin and says, "I love that."