I didn’t realise I needed a reminder of how important it is to turn out and vote this Thursday until this morning I watched a True Stories documentary that I recorded last week.
In 2003 the extraordinary Malalai Joya addressed the Afghan Loya Jirga (or Constitutional Assembly), and denounced the war lords who she stated were responsible for Afghanistan’s situation. She accused them of oppressing women and ruining the country, and stated that they should be prosecuted. She said that although the Afghan people might forgive them, history would not.
While part of the mainly male audience cheered and applauded, another part demanded that she should sit down, and then that she should be thrown out, and in due course she was. Her bravery in making the statement in a room where some of those she had branded “criminals” and “war lords” were sitting with guns at their feet was absolutely breathtaking.
A Woman Among Warlords follows Malalai Joya’s attempt to be elected as a member of the first Afghan Parliament in 2005. By then, two years after her historic speech, she had been the subject of countless death threats, and had had to move on a number of occasions in response to warnings about imminent assassination attempts.
It’s clear from the film that the pressure has affected her. She hasn’t bowed to it, though, and the documentary shows her campaigning (within the limits of the restrictions which arise out of the security issues that surround her appearance in public without her (hated but necessary) burka), and also dealing as an arbitrator with disputes between neighbours in her local community. She has boundless natural authority, but from time to time her mask slipped just enough to provide a glimpse of a charming and vulnerable young woman underneath. At the time of the elections in September 2005 she was only 27 years old.
For me, the most moving part of the entire documentary was that where an ancient Afghan woman–she claimed to be 100 years old–arrived to pledge her vote. She carried with her a gift of herbal medicine, from others in her district, and said that the journey had taken her two hours on foot.
She explained that she had fought under the Mujahedin during the Jihad, and killed Russians, and she showed her injured legs and then got down on the floor to demonstrate the way in which she’d crawled forward to dig a hole with her hands, in which she’d placed a mine which had exploded and destroyed Russian tanks. She said she’d decided to come the moment she’d heard about Malalai Joya–that she hadn’t hesitated for a second–and that she would be voting for Malalai because of her behaviour, which she called proper and Islamic, and because Malalai treated people decently. She said her whole village would be voting for Malalai. On the day of the election the elderly woman and Malalai went to the voting booths together.
Malalali Joya secured the second highest number of votes in her district, and was duly elected to parliament. In 2007, though, she was suspended. It was alleged that she had insulted fellow representatives in a television interview. She’s appealing against her suspension, and last February she announced her intention to stand in the next Afghan parliamentary elections, which are due to take place next September.
I know that when I go to cast my vote on Thursday I’ll have Malalai Joya in mind. I only wish there was anybody standing who has even a fraction of her ability to inspire, and her determination to bring about fundamental and lasting change.