‘the same donkey, only with a new saddle.’
Malalai and her family returned to Afghanistan in 1992, she was just fourteen and remembers Farah as a terrifying place as the civil war raged. Young girls would be abducted off the street, raped and killed by roaming gangs, Mujahideen troops would commandeer anything they pleased, people hid in their houses. It was too dangerous and after a few months Malalai and her family once again fled Afghanistan, returning to Pashae refugee camp in Pakistan. It was in this time, during the civil war before the Taliban that the oppressive warlords and fundamentalists made women into virtual slaves, Joya points out that member’s of the current government (such as Karzia ally Asif Mohseni) back then introduced laws governing women’s behaviour that seemed indistinguishable from the Taliban’s. Public beheadings, torture, rape were all endemic. Joya makes the distinction that it was these Criminal Mujahideen who burnt down schools, universities and museums. Fundamentalist warlords persecuted the minority Sikh and Hindu population, making Hindus wear yellow armbands, she notes ‘the same way Hitler did to Jews’ . One popular theory among Afghans about the war was that the militias were so well armed by outside backers, the US and others now wanted them to kill each other off using up their weaponry. Joya feels the horrors of the civil war have been ignored in Western perceptions, as they are not essential to the narrative our governments have constructed, not least because we now support war criminals from that era.
Once back in Pakistan Malalai went back to school and through an NGO also began teaching basic literacy to adults, earning the princely sum of $17 dollars a month. She saw first hand how education began changing lives, giving women independence and lives outside of the home and convincing men too of the value of education and greater equality. She became an effective teacher and a voracious student, learning English from phrases left on another classes blackboard. Among beloved authors she recalls were- Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar’s Afghanistan in the Course of History, Ashraf Dehghani’s ‘The Epic of Resistance’, Maxim Gorky, Jack London, Langston Hughes and Bertolt Brecht. Fascinated by biographies she mentions, Mohammad Mossadegh, Mahatma Ghandi, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Bhagat Singh, Saeed Sultanpur, Victor Jara, Nelson Mandela. The world is very different away from the imperialist lens.
During this time the Taliban were recruiting in the mosques in Pakistan and sending fighters into Afghanistan to defeat the former Mujahideen warlords. In September 96 they took power, by 1998 they controlled 95% of Afghanistan. And here the repeating tragedy occurs again, exhausted from years of warring the Afghans hoped for some improvement, some stability and security, but the Taliban set about perpetrating the same abuses the warlords and criminal Mujahideen did- ‘the same donkey, only with a new saddle.’, bolstered by fundamentalist fervour and Pakistan government backing- ‘Their security was like that of a graveyard’.
Joya remembers an exchange with her father, admiring Palestinian children’s resistance to Israeli military attacks she asked why could they not be like Palestinians, ‘where even the children are so brave?’ ‘If that how you feel, why don’t you become like a Palestinian in your own country.’ her father replied. This made Joya intent on returning to Afghanistan and fighting against the forces of oppression there. It is an interesting an arresting comparison, Afghan people and Palestinians, people at the mercy of massive forces both political, economic and historical enflamed with religious fervour, it’s not a comparison I think a Westerner would make and is all the more informative for it.
IN 1998 she first became involved with OPAWC (Organization for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities) unable to afford going to university in Pakistan Malalai saw OPAWC , who aimed to improve education for women, as another way to pursue her thirst for knowledge and her emerging activism. They asked her if she would return to Afghanistan to run classes for girls in Herat province, against the edicts of the Taliban, she agreed (it was at this point she adopted the name Joya, to protect her family from reprisals). One impression the book leaves you with is fighting for human rights and equality puts a woman into such a perilous clandestine existence that such activists live almost as spies, however they are not looking to steal intelligence they are working to spread knowledge. A kind of heroism rarely celebrated in our countries (unless there’s something I’m missing about GI Joe & 24).
Herat was the site of the first major battle of the Afghan Soviet war, in retaliation for an uprising against Soviet ‘advisors’ the air force bombed the city killing 24,000 people in one week, during the civil war a fundamentalist & ally of conservative Iranian Mullahs, Ismail Khan ruled Herat as a fiefdom, he sent forces to participate in the sacking of Kabul, fleeing to Iran when the Taliban took power. Under Taliban rule Herat with its progressive culture that put a value on education was hard hit, men had to sport beards, women had to wear burqas and education of women & girls was prohibited. Herat though refused to submit to this authoritarian misuse of Islam, OPAWC saw it as a prime territory for their education program. With trepidation Malalai and her family left Pakistan, she tells a story popular in the camps that illustrates the brutal idiocy of the Taliban’s excesses- a family taking their teenage son for burial were stopped, the coffin opened and when it was seen the boy did not have a beard they pulled the corpse out and whipped it, calling the cadaver an infidel.
Undercover in Herat (literally) Malalai finds the lack of peripheral vision afforded by the burqa hard to get used to, her father (now with Taliban friendly beard, maintaining cover was essential, so much so they were mistaken for fundamentalists on their arrival) said he could still tell it was her in a crowd because she walked like a penguin. Houses were often searched by Taliban looking for proscribed items, which amounted to pretty well much everything except the Quran and the Taliban newspaper (no pictures, such idolatry was forbidden). There were however many acts of quiet rebellion, such as secret Titanic parties, through pirated VHS tapes James Cameron’s Titanic became a huge underground (and illegal) hit in Afghanistan. In a brief review Joya reveals herself to be an actvist first and romantic second (Jack should have survived to marry Rose but what most interested her was the depiction of the wealthy passenger’s mistreatment of the poor). The craze became so epidemics that in the food markets you could buy Titanic onions, tomatoes, you name it, there was much laughter when a Mullah during a sermon said that whose who disobeyed god would be destroyed like the Titanic, the clerics were secretly watching it too.
Getting the secret schools up and running seems an incredible achievement, they would use a sympathetic person’s house, often basements, sounds needed to be muffled, the girls who attended had to drift in slowly and not in large groups lest it arouse suspicion. If you were caught it meant jail at the very least. Malalai’s sisters became far better educated than her brothers who had to attend Taliban schools, with brutal zealous teachers of low intellect. The times were hard, drought caused price rises, Malalai’s father’s health suffered from a series of hard jobs (‘he would come home from work and the stump of his leg would be bloodied and sore‘)as only he and her eldest brother could work to support the family, the Taliban having forbidden women from working outside the home. However there was still ice cream under the Taliban, but the burqa made the eating of it another challenge altogether. Joya also describes the quiet solidarity of the people in Herat, helping each other out in small gestures of solidarity and defiance, and she notes how many men were also against the Taliban and helped women.
She caused some sleepless nights for her parents, coming home from secret schools she had to avoid Taliban street patrols while lugging concealed books with her, her mother suffered from episodes of depression, an incident where her brother was suspected of photographing a victim of Taliban execution (escaping due to the film developers subterfuge, another small act of rebellion, unasked for but given freely) leaving them all fearing he was dead. During the five years of the Taliban’s reign conditions got worse, and the world mostly ignored it, Eve Enlser gets an honourable mention for both visiting and publicising the conditions for women.
Malalai became a skilled undercover educator and activist so that by the summer of 2001 she became director of OPAWC for Western Afghanistan, in charge of their operations in Herat, Farah and Nimroz. Farah’s need was greatest and a return to her birthplace held some attraction for both her and her family. They made the decision to move to Farah, it was there a few months later just as they were getting their new home straightened out that over the radio came news that planes hijacked by terrorists has been flown into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, killing thousands of Americans ‘Within days everyone knew there would be a war’.
Malalai Joya’s Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out has just been published by Rider Books, all proceeds go to humanitarian projects in Afghanistan. Buy it here, here or here. Or in the US where it is called A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, buy from Amazon.