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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 14:21 GMT
Afghan MP says she will not be silenced
Tom Coghlan, Kabul

Malalai Joy, Afghan MP
Ms Joya won her seat in 2005 with a huge majority
Malalai Joya is one of the most popular MPs in Afghanistan and has many a time taken stand against the ex-Mujahideen fighters who dominate the country's new assembly.

But Ms Joya and many of her supporters fear she will be assassinated.

As she describes what she believes is going to happen, it is with apparent fear and what sounds at times like a romantically conceived vision of martyrdom.

"They will kill me but they will not kill my voice," she says, "because it will be the voice of all Afghan women. You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring."

The 27-year-old MP is the most famous woman in Afghanistan.

She has made her name as a woman's rights activist who has attacked Afghanistan's most powerful institution, the Mujahideen.

They are the fighters who defeated the Soviet invasion of the 1980s but who, in many cases, became leading participants in the destruction of the civil war that erupted in the 1990s.

Many of the leading MPs elected to the new parliament were factional commanders during the civil war period.

Some have also been implicated in human rights abuses.

But with their status underpinned by the religious justification of jihad against the Soviets, Ms Joya's public criticisms of the Mujahideen risk an extreme reaction from some.

'Criminal warlords'

On 20 December, the day of the parliament's first session in more than 30 years, she did what many of her friends feared she would.

Afghan parliament
Many of the MPs in the parliament were ex-Mujahideen fighters

Rising from her seat she launched into a denunciation of many of those seated around her, condemning the presence in the parliament of "criminal warlords" whose hands are stained with the blood of the people".

Many MPs beat their fists on their desks and furiously shouted her down.

As she left the parliament she received death threats.

"As her close friend we have tried several times to persuade Malalai to be less openly critical, but she says no she will not stop," said Toor Pekai, one of a number of female MPs who circle protectively around Ms Joya in the parliament.

Other women MPs are too afraid to speak to her openly.

Many of Malalai's supporters felt that the timing of her outburst, amid a first day atmosphere of good will, was ill-judged - offending even those MPs who might otherwise have sympathy for her views.

"The threat against her life is very real," said Ms Pekai. "All the rumours in the parliament are that people are preparing to kill her."

Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poetess murdered in November 2005
Nadia Anjuman, a poetess, was found dead last November

Ms Joya says that she continues to receive a constant stream of messages of support from ordinary Afghans.

"It gives me strength to keep telling the truth," she said.

Popular disquiet at the makeup of the new parliament is widespread.

A poll conducted by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in January 2005 found that 90% of Afghans wanted human rights abusers excluded from public office.

War crime trials were more than twice as popular as any other form of censure for those implicated in such abuses.

A low turnout in the parliamentary elections, only 33% of those registered in Kabul, was seen by many analysts as further proof of popular disillusionment at some of the figures who were allowed to stand.

Popular support

Born in the remote south-western province of Farah, Ms Joya spent most of her youth in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

Afghan women getting registered for voting in Kabul
There was a low voter turnout, 33%, in the elections

She returned to Afghanistan during the Taleban period and ran a school for women.

At the time all female education was banned, so the classes were conducted in secret.

She continues to work for an NGO called the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities (OPAWC).

"How can a country improve when 50% of its population are silenced?" she said. "It is like a bird with only one wing."

She rose from obscurity three years ago with her first and most famous outburst against the Mujahideen, as a delegate at the Loya Jirga (grand council), convened in Kabul to formulate a draft constitution for Afghanistan.

On that occasion several ex-Mujahideen delegates tried to attack her after she described them as "criminals" who had "destroyed the country."

Her stance appeared to be endorsed when she was elected an MP for Farah in October, coming second overall in the province.

Such support for a woman candidate was an astonishing result from one of the most conservative regions of the country.

Martyrdom

Many of her enemies accuse her of membership of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan).

Every democrat must be ready to die for truth and freedom
Malalai Joya

It is a secretive feminist organisation founded in 1977 with Maoist roots by another female activist called Meena.

She was killed in 1987 by unknown assassins.

Ms Joya denies any involvement with RAWA.

"I am an independent," she said, "though RAWA support my views and I am grateful for that."

Privately, several of those who know her well say she is quite prepared for what she would see as her own martyrdom, and even talks of the need for martyrs to galvanise the cause of Afghan women.

In the course of this interview she mentioned Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poetess killed in November 2005, and Amina of Badakhshan, a young woman reportedly stoned to death for having an extra-marital affair in April 2005.

The man implicated received one hundred lashes.

She is also inspired, she says, by her namesake Malalai of Maiwand - one of the greatest Afghan heroines, who ran onto the battlefield at Maiwand in 1880 and rallied the Afghan forces to defeat the British.

"Every democrat must be ready to die for truth and freedom," said Ms Joya.

"I am not better than any of the others, but I am young and energetic and the women of Afghanistan need me."



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