Democratic Afghan Activist Malalai Joya: the Power of a Woman’s Voice

Malalai Joya (a pseudonym to protect her family from Taliban backlash) has been fighting both Taliban rule and US occupation for more than a decade. She was the youngest female MP (from 2005-2007) and continues to speak out for democracy, most recently at the First Middle East Women’s Conference in Turkey, organized by by DÖKH, a Kurdish women’s movement.

Joya demonstrates the power of a woman’s voice to challenge a deeply patriarchal culture and change the terms of debate. In many ways, women’s leadership is not that different from men’s leadership, especially  in countries where women have fundamental rights.

But in nations where women do not have civil rights, or only newly gained them, women leaders are an extraordinary presence. The sound of a woman’s voice, calling for reform and challenging the unspoken status quo shakes up the illusion that patriarchy is natural or Godly. Therefore, women who lead in such settings are in greater danger, and (despite cultural insults and condescension) have a special force when they are heard.

iferrae001p1I remember when I heard Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro speak at a rally. She was the first woman VP candidate, and simply hearing the voice of (potential) power speak from that political platform moved me to tears.

Sometimes, leadership from minority or underrepresented people is about simply being present, standing up, speaking clearly, and claiming a place of power. There is always a series of firsts before we get used to a different voice in politics or business or influence. Then the
game changes.

But at first, non-traditional or contested leaders have to balance the power of presence with the clarity of their messages in order to have the influence they deserve. Malalai Joya speaks with that clear and conscious voice:

imagesWhen women learn to read and write, many of them become extraordinary activists, and these brave women are running projects and organizations that are really working on behalf of women’s and human rights, like RAWA, like OPAWC, like the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers, and a few others that I know who are also justice-seekers.  And now women are even coming onto the streets and demonstrating, wearing the burka, in resistance against the U.S. and NATO and also against the Islamic fundamentalists. This is a positive example and a source of hope. In the history of Afghanistan, we have never before seen this kind of activism by women. 

In different parts of Afghanistan there are small protests — in Kabul, in Jalalabad, in Helmand Province and in Farah Province, and in many other places — and for the first time women are joining these protests.  I hope that with time, there will be a broader movement in Afghanistan like in many of the Arab countries.  It will take time.  

As the great German writer Bertolt Brecht said, “Those who struggle may fail. Those who do not struggle have already failed.”


  1. […] Democratic Afghan Activist Malala Joya: the Power of a Woman’s Voice ( […]


  2. […] spaces), women's roles must change. Malala Yousafzai's powerful, seemingly universal presence is only one of the leadership roles women can take — but one I've written about a lot because she is so inspiring, and raises challenging questions. […]


  3. […] like thinking about this leadership quality — whether we call it mindfulness, presence, or control over self-centeredness — as a step towards happiness. Unfortunately, I sometimes […]


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