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Malalai Joya and a Gandhian Paradox

August 11, 2009

My dear friend Adaner posted this article on Facebook: an interview with Afghan women’s rights activist Malalai Joya.  Barely out of her twenties, Joya continues to courageously oppose Taliban and warlord oppression, expose U.S. propaganda, and inspire thousands of people  — at the cost of her own personal safety.  Though her efforts have been completely non-violent (illegally educating girls and speaking her mind as an elected representative) the resulting death threats have forced her to live under constant armed guard, sleeping in a different house every night and adopting a pseudonym to protect the identity of her family.

It’s a powerful interview.  One point in particular stuck with me, in conversation with my recent reading on the life of Gandhi, to whom these words are attributed:

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Joya is expressing the same idea, I think, when she says,

“I am young and I want to live. But I say to those who would eliminate my voice: ‘I am ready, wherever and whenever you might strike. You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring.'”

Just as a flower is not a season, but an expression of it, a good activist is not a hero, but an expression of a greater heroic impulse.  At some point or another, almost everyone I know who has worked for social justice in some way has confronted this paradox.  We want to contribute; we want to do our duty; we want to give.  But how do we do this, knowing that though we may work ourselves literally to death, ultimately our contribution will be insignificant?

What we give may be minuscule, but that we give, and give purely, is what matters.  To give purely means to be guided by something greater than ourselves, our clever ideas, our generosity, our solidarity, our unflagging commitment.  To give purely means simply surrendering ourselves to the heroic impulse.  After that, the gift will express itself in whatever form it wants to.

But of course, self-surrender is one of life’s most difficult goals.  Requires an enormous amount of faith.

In Joya’s case, much of her faith seems to rest in other people.  She trusts them to continue, even if she cannot.

“If I should die, and you should choose to carry on my work, you are welcome to visit my grave. Pour some water on it and shout three times. I want to hear your voice.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Cat permalink
    August 11, 2009 9:12 pm

    Katie, I am so dog-gone dead tired as I read this page that a part of me missed 90% of it. Just a complete lack of comprehension, of sinking in. But what did has really moved me. When I am more awake and less tired, I will return and make a more articulate comment.

    But just suffice to say, I needed to hear this wisdom. Or as you put it, receive this “tranfusion of wisdom” :)

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