Global Resilience Solutions > Category:human rights

Resilience Secrets from a War Zone: Casting Out Fear

There are basically two ways in which we can choose to live our lives: in courage or in fear.  We can either create our own lives or be victims trapped within them.  I’ve written previously about the importance of cultivating courage in a deliberate way.  Today we’ll look at one of the truly outstanding examples of courage in our time.  Malalai Joya has spent her life in the most apparently hopeless set of circumstances, yet through courage, she has managed to create a better reality not just for herself, but for hundreds of thousands of other people.

Malalai was born in a village in western Afghanistan in 1978.  Less than a year later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  As a student, her father had been an activist arrested for participation in pro-democracy demonstrations, and would lose a leg fighting with the resistance against the Soviets.  After the Soviet withdrawal and ensuing civil war, the fundamentalist Taliban took control of the country, outlawing the education of women and preventing them from taking on any meaningful public role.  And then came 9/11 and the invasion by the United States, who turned for help to the criminal warlords whom the Taliban, if nothing else, had kept in check.  It may seem that there could be no more hopeless situation into which one could be born, particularly as a woman.  Most of us in that situation, if we were fortunate enough to be educated, would probably try to get out as fast as possible.

As a teenager living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, Malalai took a job instructing older refugee women in basic reading and writing.  Her father had always encouraged her to read and attend school, and thus she was more literate than many of her elders.  From this experience, she began to understand the power of education to change people’s lives.  Malalai also began reading biographies of resistance leaders, including Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.  They impressed her with their steadfast approach to dealing with injustice, and her reading list during this time suggests that she was deliberately cultivating the same quality of resilience.

When the Taliban took power, Malalai joined an organization dedicated to the advancement of women, and returned to Afghanistan, to Herat province, to teach in underground schools for women.  Despite the probability that she would be killed or imprisoned if she was found out, her family supported her decision and resolved to move back with her.  Teaching girls in basements, concealing forbidden books under her burqa and recruiting pupils by word-of-mouth, Malalai rose to become regional director of her organization just before the Taliban fled the American invasion.

With the Taliban gone, all the warlords came back to their fiefdoms and the weak central government not only did nothing about it, but allied with them.  At this time, Malalai became a public figure, spearheading clinics, orphanages and other important humanitarian measures in the region, getting things done despite the novelty of being a woman in such a position.  Seeing the direction her country was headed thanks to the fundamentalist warlords and the willful blindness of the Americans, Malalai decided to put herself up as a candidate for the Loya Jirga, the constitutional assembly.  She had no illusions that she could cause it to change course- she went only so that one person would speak the truth.

Of all of her district’s candidates, only Malalai spoke about the need to deal with corruption and to give women equal rights.  She won by a considerable margin.  Even then, the UN workers organizing the election warned her to be more circumspect in Kabul for her own safety.  In Kabul, she saw an assembly stacked with warlords whose ongoing abuses of human rights she knew all too well.  When it was clear that only the warlords and their supporters were being given a chance to speak, she approached the Chairman and argued guilefully that the younger delegates hadn’t had a chance to speak.  Once she had the microphone, Malalai denounced the corruption of the assembly in stark terms:

“Why are you allowing the legitimacy and legality of this Loya Jirga to come into question due to the presence of those criminals who have brought our country to this state?”


When her microphone was cut off prematurely, pandemonium was unleashed, but other delegates came forward to shield her physically from the angry mob.  She was ejected from the assembly, and that night there was an attempt on her life.  But her words were heard around the world, and more importantly, by ordinary people around Afghanistan.  Thousands of people, men and women, from fellow delegates to taxi drivers to old mujahedeen, found ways to express their support.  Wherever she went, huge crowds were there to greet her.

There has been much more to her journey in the years since that time- Malalai sat for a term in Parliament and has been finding new ways to help her people and to challenge the status quo.  She has become a unifying voice for those Afghans who want to change their reality, and a key facilitator for that change.  We in the West who have been watching Afghanistan for the past ten years must admit that it cannot be saved by any government or constitution or force of arms.  But every nation can be saved from within, if the people themselves become willing to strive for something better.  The courage of people like Malalai Joya brings that day closer.

The key is personal courage and overcoming the rule of fear.  When asked about how women can best defend their rights, Malalai said, “Once women understand that the key to freedom is in their own hands, they will dare to be brave, remove obstacles from their path, and be prepared to make sacrifices.”

We may not have warlords to fight, but fear has its claws in every human mind, preventing us from reaching our potential through internal threats just as they used external ones.  To refuse that oppression really is the first step to resilience and personal fulfillment for every person, everywhere.

Remember, courage (an essential ingredient of human resilience) is only a DECISION away.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger