An Afghan Leader We Can Admire

By Margaret Benefiel 11-30-2009

091130-malalai-joyaThe media coverage of Afghanistan focuses, on the one hand, on the evils of the Taliban and, on the other hand, on the necessity of rooting out corruption in the current U.S.-backed government. Where are the leaders we can admire? Who are the Afghan leaders who can lead their country into a promising future? Who is exercising soulful leadership in Afghanistan?

Malalai Joya, born just a few days before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1978, grew up in a country at war and in refugee camps outside its borders. As a teenager, she began teaching in secret schools for girls, defying the Taliban. She wore the hated burka, for her a symbol of women's oppression, in order to hide herself and the books she smuggled into the girls' schools.

Joya moved on to leadership in her country, building schools, clinics, and orphanages for her people, especially women and children. Speaking out against the Taliban, drug lords, and warlords alike, Joya won the hearts of the Afghan people (and the ire of those she criticized) and was elected to the Afghan Parliament in 2005 as its youngest member.

On her first day in Parliament, Joya looked out and thought, "In every corner is a killer, a puppet, a criminal, a drug lord, a fascist." She started her first speech with, "My condolences to the people of Afghanistan." The warlords interrupted with shouts that they would rape and kill her. Fearless, Joya continued to speak out against women's oppression and about corruption in the government.

When tempted to despair, Joya remembers the ordinary Afghan women and girls she represents, and she is re-inspired to fight for them. For example, a 16-year-old girl ran away to one of the orphanages Joya helped organize when her uncle told her he would force her to marry his son, a drug addict. The orphanage welcomed her and educated her. Later her uncle appeared and apologized and asked if his niece could come home for a weekend visit to her family. She went and was forced into marriage and sent to another part of the country. Six months later, Joya learned that the girl had poured gasoline on herself and burned herself alive.

In 2007, Joya's opponents suspended her from Parliament on the grounds that she was speaking disrespectfully toward them. While her case is being appealed, she continues to travel and speak. For the past month and a half, she has been traveling and speaking in the U.S. and Canada about her new book, A Woman Among Warlords.

Joya has survived five assassination attempts. Now she travels with bodyguards and sleeps in a different safe house nearly every night. Joya expects that her life will be short, and she wants to make the most of it while she can. She is confident that the Afghan people will carry on after her death, claiming, "You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring."

May the U.S. open its eyes to the coming of the Afghan spring, and support the development of the Afghan people and leaders like Joya. As Jim Wallis and Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, focusing on development, building schools and clinics, would cost a fraction of what the war in Afghanistan costs and would achieve our stated aims much more effectively than war. It's time to wake up to the realities of Afghanistan and support the people who can make a difference.

portrait-margaret-benefielMargaret Benefiel, Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her Web site.

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