Meeting Malalai

When I heard that Malalai was touring the US, I flew to Sonali Kolhatkar’s (author of Bleeding Afghanistan) California home where the young Afghan would be staying, to meet her. When Malalai walked into living room she seemed quiet and shy but once we began the interview, she became animated and energetic.

Malalai is most famous for her short speech as an elected member of the constitutional Loya Jerga (2003), when she addressed the elephant in the room that Afghans were already cognizant of and asked, how Afghanistan could become a democracy when there were warlords and criminals in the government.  The audience erupted into angry chaos and her three-minute allotted speaking time was cut short after only a minute and a half. Angry lawmakers threw empty water bottles at her and shouted insults and death threats. Supporters and UN security forces gathered around to shield her. She was only 24 at the time. I met her during her first tour of the United States in 2006, after she had been elected as one of 249 Members of Parliament. Her outspokenness got her in trouble there as well and a year and two months later she was banned from that institution also.

At first, I wondered why she didn’t bite her tongue and try to work peacefully to make changes in the laws affecting women. ¬†Surely, that would be a more effective way to change women’s lives. Why stir the hornet’s nest? But then I realized that she wasn’t speaking to the other MPs, who already knew the situation, but to the international press and development leaders who were ready to pour billions in to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. They, too, were likely aware of the horrific human rights records of some of the MPs, but Malalai’s speaking out made that awareness public.

Malalai is also important because she’s a voice from a region across the country from Kabul. Most non-embedded reporters work from Kabul and investigate stories from there. Their view, the dominant one in the media, comes from that perspective and it’s very helpful to hear the voice of someone from conflict areas, especially a woman’s voice.

There is more of my interview with Malalai as well as with other Parliamentarians and women from all walks of life in my book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women which is available in many online bookstores as well as my publisher’s site, Pomegranate Grove Press.

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Peggy Kelsey created the Afghan Women’s Project and in 2003 and 2010 traveled to Afghanistan to photograph and interview women. She shares her dynamic slide presentations with audiences around the world. Her book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women, came out in October, 2012.

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