KABUL | Critics dismiss her as foolish. Some even want her dead. For Malalai Joya, an outspoken women's rights activist and scourge of Afghan warlords, controversy is a kind of oxygen.
"How can the U.S. and its allies say they are here making improvements for women? They've pushed us from the frying pan into the fire," said Malalai Joya, an activist for women's rights in Afghanistan. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
The "bravest woman in Afghanistan," in the view of her admirers, Ms. Joya has continued her defiant critique of the Afghan government two years after she was suspended from parliament for insulting her mostly male colleagues by likening them to farmyard animals.
"These warlords are killers, drug smugglers and dirty-minded criminals who are ruining our country, with support from the United States," she told The Washington Times in a recent interview at a safe house in Kabul. "This is a mafia regime that has betrayed its people."
The Kabul government's stated willingness to negotiate with militant fundamentalist leaders such as Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, while tolerating the alleged drug-related activities of President Hamid Karzai's own brother is, in her view, proof that "one group of criminals has replaced another."
As for Afghan women, who were supposed to be liberated by the U.S. toppling of the Taliban in 2001, she said, "The situation for most women today in Afghanistan, if I say it is still like hell, this is not enough."
Ms. Joya, 30, has paid a high price for her outspokenness. Constant death threats force her to change homes daily and keep a detail of armed bodyguards at her side.
Though married, she often doesn't see her husband for months at a stretch. And in a twist of irony, the burqa — the sky-blue shroud for women emblematic of Taliban oppression — now provides essential cover when she travels.
Arranging a face-to-face meeting is a complicated exercise. First an introduction was sent to an e-mail address on a Web site run by the Committee for the Defense of Malalai Joya, a network of supporters. When reached by phone, Ms. Joya's assistant said Ms. Joya agreed to a meeting three days later with the proviso that she be contacted again the morning of the interview to confirm the location.
At the assigned place, a bodyguard met and escorted this reporter to walled-off concrete residence a block away, past a half-dozen men with AK-47s, to an inner chamber where Ms. Joya waited. She wore no headscarf and offered a handshake, both brave acts in this conservative society.
Things were not always so repressive, she said. To make her point, she held up a picture taken in 1967 of schoolgirls in black skirts and tights strolling the streets of central Kabul.
Then she held up another picture, of a 7-year-old ethnic Hazara girl named Shiquiba who was raped last year by unknown assailants.
A catalogue of other disturbing examples followed: 12-year-old Anisa from Sari Pul province, kidnapped and gang-raped by five men; 14-year-old Shuqufa, whose ravaged body was found in a garbage heap on the outskirts of Kabul; and Bashira, also 14, raped by three men, one of whom is the son of a member of parliament. The man was never punished, according to rights groups, because Afghan officials were bribed to change his age from 22 to 18 in their investigation.
Building her case, she cited a host of grim statistics: "Last year, 47 women burned themselves to escape abusive husbands. Today 80 percent of marriages are forced. Almost as many women are beaten at home."
In March, the low status of Afghan women made headlines after a new marriage law was passed by the parliament that denied Shi'ite Muslim women the right to refuse sex with their husbands and the freedom to leave the home without male permission.
An international outcry ensued and Mr. Karzai later scrapped the law. But many women's activists fear that conservative male lawmakers will push through similar legislation for the majority Sunni population and dilute existing laws against domestic violence.
Ms. Joya asserts that the United States has used the women's rights issue as a pretext to invade and occupy Afghanistan. Although thousands of new schools have been built with foreign aid, rape, forced marriage and child abuse continue to be a part of everyday life.
"How", she asks, "can the U.S. and its allies say they are here making improvements for women? They've pushed us from the frying pan into the fire."
The U.S. embassy counters that the status of women in Afghanistan has improved remarkably since the ouster of the Taliban, highlighting the ascendant role of women in governance, law enforcement and the dramatic increase of girls enrolled in schools.
Afghan women shout slogans during a 2007 demonstration in Kabul against parliament's removal of Ms. Joya. Hundreds marched through the streets of the Afghan capital in support of the ousted legislator. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
"We are committed to women's rights here in Afghanistan because we recognize the great transformation women's participation in reconstruction can have," said Deb Sisbarro, an embassy spokesperson in Kabul.
The women's rights issue "is probably not always at the forefront," she added, "but it's something we're always engaged in."
Ms. Joya insists that heavy-handed U.S. military actions undo what good works are done.
Fresh fuel for her argument came with the latest U.S. airstrike in her home province of Farah, which the Afghan government claims killed at least 100 civilians. In the aftermath, residents who lost family members came to meet with Ms. Joya in Kabul, looking for advice on how to lobby the government for fair compensation and an end to the bombardments.
One young man, Homayoun Farahi, arrived with a list of 19 dead family members. Another group of women sought help in finding their missing husbands.
Ms. Joya blamed Mr. Karzai for failing to confront U.S. forces over continued civilian deaths but could offer little more than a pep talk and a pot of tea.
The U.S. military maintains that a "number" of civilians died but said the majority of those killed in the May 4-5 attack on Bala Boluk district were Taliban who used villagers as human shields. After an internal investigation, however, an unnamed senior official admitted that avoidable mistakes were made by American forces at the expense of dozens of civilian lives.
Born in Farah, Ms. Joya grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran after her family fled the war against Soviet occupiers. She returned to Afghanistan in 1998 and organized underground literacy classes for girls who could not attend school under the Taliban.
Then, in December 2003, at the age of 24, she stepped up to a microphone. As the youngest elected delegate to the Loya Jirga, or grand council, called to ratify the Afghan constitution, she publicly denounced assembled mujahideen leaders as warlords guilty of destroying the country during the civil war of the early 1990s.
When the stunned assembly chairman demanded an apology, she refused. Shouts of "whore" and "infidel" shot back. The video clip was broadcast around the world and the plucky Ms. Joya became a small sensation.
Since then, she has stayed visible in the media despite the threats and traveled abroad to receive awards for her activism.
Progress on the home front has been mixed. On one hand, women now account for nearly a quarter of the parliament, 35 percent of schoolchildren are girls and a law banning marriage for girls under 16 is in the books. However, most Afghans are not aware of its existence, and enforcement is lax in conservative rural areas.
And the warlords Ms. Joya loathes are still very much at the core of Afghan politics. Her May 2007 suspension, still under appeal, stemmed from remarks made in a local television interview: "The parliament is worse than a stable," she told Tolo TV, an Afghan station. "A stable is better, for there you have a donkey that carries a load and a cow that provides milk."
The suspension sparked protest abroad, with human rights groups and European lawmakers demanding her reinstatement.
Some say Ms. Joya has invited trouble by going too far. Shukria Barakzai, a respected member of parliament and a women's activist, would not comment directly on Ms. Joya, but made an oblique criticism that Afghan women must be "sharp enough, and clever" in their efforts to secure greater rights, likening it to a "long journey" that will require patience rather than bullishness.
The head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Nader Nadery, also measured his words. Ms. Joya "is a populist," he said with a smile. "This is not always helpful."
People "tell me, be more diplomatic more careful, but [speaking out] is the best chance" to make a change, Ms. Joya said. "Even if I am killed, people around the world now know what is happening here."
The prospect of a violent death looms large. In April, two men who got wind of her whereabouts were preparing to target her from a building next door to one of her safe houses before a servant revealed the plot. It was the fifth assassination attempt against her.
After a third meeting at yet another new location, Mr. Joya conceded she was having a hard time sleeping. The daily maneuvering and seclusion from supporters and loved ones were taking a toll, she said, her gaze downcast. Then the zeal returned.
"My enemies, they have money, guns, power. But I have the powerful support of the innocent people of my country. This gives me the will and courage to go on."
This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.