Malalai Joya

Inspired by documentary Enemies of Happiness
about Afghan MP and activist Malalai Joya –
OOMK chair a discussion on how to create space
for Muslim, female empowerment in 2018

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

Ahead of our Nevertheless She Persisted film season, guest editor Claire Marie Healy has invited three agenda-setting zines to weigh in on the docs. In this edition - Sofia Niazi and her fellow OOMK collaborators discuss the impact of Enemies of Happiness (2006).

‘I would like to speak’, says Malalai Joya in the clip which has racked up over 50,000 views on YouTube and which opens the documentary by Eva Mulvad, Enemies of Happiness.

‘I wish to criticise my compatriots in this room.’

The location is the Loya Jirga in Kabul, Afghanistan’s assembly to ratify its constitution, and the year is 2003. A powerful riposte to the domination of warlords at the assembly and in Afghan politics as a whole, on first viewing it’s a moment utterly relatable for any woman who has dared raise her voice where it was not welcome. In actuality, it was only the initial spark for a career dedicated in its entirety to critiquing what others didn’t dare confront: the presence of warlords in Afghanistan’s parliament, and also the US intervention which ultimately wreaked havoc on a nation already plagued by external ‘intervention’ and conflict.

'It’s a moment utterly relatable for any woman who has dared raise her voice where it was not welcome'

Taking a specific, focused look at Joya’s day-to-day life as she campaigns for election to Afghanistan's National Assembly in 2005, Enemies of Happiness documents private scenes in which she acts as an intermediary for local residents with disputes, as well as her bigger moments as a national activist fighting for security and equal rights for all people of Afghanistan. But beyond and outside that lens, Joya had spent most of her life working to improve access to health and education for people in Afghanistan.

She taught secretly at an underground school for years and opened Hamoon Health Centre (Farah) at the age of 25 (the same year as her incendiary speech). Born in western Afghanistan in 1978, a Soviet-backed coup days after her birth set her life on a difficult path. Her father had been politically active against the government and was forced to flee the country shortly after. Joya was reunited with her father four years later in Iran, where along with her sibling she spent most of her childhood as a refugee. Unable to attend any school in Iran, her family decided to move to Quetta (Pakistan) to attend Watan School, the only school for Afghan refugees in the area. She started teaching in refugee camps as soon as she could, and returned to Afghanistan with a mission to improve access to education for girls, in the face of the ban on women’s education that had been put in place by the Taliban.

The documentary is a rare glimpse into the political life of a female politician in Afghanistan and, although the context is very specific, it depicts many of the struggles that women politicians face all over the world. With the backdrop of threats to her life, attempts of suppression and mounting tensions, Joya is able to push through and win a seat in Afghanistan's National Assembly. But as we revisit documentaries like Enemies of Happiness in the present-day era of Muslim bans and campaigns like ‘Punish a Muslim Day’, do depictions of Muslims, in particular women, in film and the media help us attain basic equality and safety – and how can they?

One Of My Kind (OOMK) is an artist collective and bi-annual zine which has been running since 2013. With a focus on the art, ideas and activism of women, in particular Muslim women, we’ve been making space on our own terms so that we don’t have to rely on mainstream media to tell us who we can be.

While there are many similarities in Joya’s story to the political and personal struggles of women everywhere, we want to unpack the complexity of her character from our own perspective: too often do depictions simply satisfy a western audience’s undying fascination in the appearance of Muslim women, and to discover what lies ‘behind the veil’ (spoiler: it’s normally just hair).

With this in mind, we sat down with OOMK collaborators Hudda Khaireh (curator/research), Abeera Kamran (artist/designer) and Arwa Aburawa (producer) to talk about women, power, and what our own experiences as Muslim creatives in London tell us about the conditions and perils of ‘acceptance.’

Collage by Sofia Niazi, editor of OOMK

Collage by Sofia Niazi, editor of OOMK

Sofia: Malalai has become a global heroine for her bravery, usually prefixed with the word ‘fearless.’ What's your take on the use of that word when it comes to activism? Is it overused, or even accurate?

Arwa: I don’t think anyone is fearless - we’re all afraid sometimes, and the thing they say is that it’s how we deal with that fear that matters. There was one really touching scene in the documentary when Malalai’s friend tells her how she’s really proud of her but also that’s she afraid of what will happen to her and Malalai breaks down in tears. It’s clearly a fear that Malalai has - that she will be killed or attacked. I mean she wouldn’t be the first or the last, and she should be afraid, it’s the logical reaction to her situation – but she just gets on with it. She doesn’t let that fear immobilise her and for me, that’s what actually counts. What you do when you are afraid.

Hudda: I agree. So often we act from fear not despite of it and that's truly remarkable.

Abeera: In fact, it's a little strange to use that word for activists because it erases the very human and very inspiring fight people like Malalai put up against fear. I found the instances in the movie where Malalai seemed vulnerable or afraid the most illuminating.

'She doesn’t let that fear immobilise her and for me, that’s what actually counts. What you do when you are afraid'

Sofia: Here in London, across film and art, you are each able to pursue your own interests to a large degree - addressing issues that you feel strongly about, as well as be yourselves at work. What are the main factors, or stories, that helped you get to where you are?

Hudda: Thanks Sofi for your question! MashaAllah, that is a kind and generous appraisal of how we occupy ourselves, very characteristic of how you see the world. As I understand it, we are very much made up of the stories that are told of us, and to us, of the world we live in. It all goes towards how we ultimately narrate - which is to say, live out our lives. The stories of black women like me, be they my mother and grandmother or historical figures, characters in fiction or song, have nourished, informed, guided me to what can be done or needs to be done. My life, if it's of any note, is (about) making sense of those stories. The dissonance between how I understood the stories of black women and how society speaks of us has been a defining factor in my work to figure out why that is and to change that.

Arwa: Yes – I was always curious about the power of the media, because of the way that the Palestinian cause was portrayed and the discrepancies I saw between my own family’s lived experience and their portrayal as terrorists on the news. It made me realise that the news was very much a man-made thing and so if you wanted to change it, you had to be a part of it no matter how problematic it is.

But in all honesty, I think the biggest factor that allowed me to just try lots of creative practices, to take risks in my career, to do all the unpaid and volunteer work which lead me to filmmaking, was the simple fact that I didn’t need to (or want to) earn a lot of money. I lived with my family for a lot of that time and when I didn’t, I lived very frugally which meant I could make very creativity-orientated, but also very financially unwise, decisions! When a lot of my friends were becoming managers, getting nice cars and buying their first homes, I was okay with being a bit poor. I always joke that filmmakers are either rich white boys who didn’t need to work or poor brown people who lived in a council estate with their mums...

Abeera: I totally agree with Arwa! One of the main reasons I was able to pursue a research-driven creative practice was because I didn’t have to pay rent and then being frugal in my daily life. How do we build sustainable art practices as women of colour? This is a question that deeply occupies me. I have found that community solidarity and support have been really important for me in the search for financial stability and artistic growth. I have had very rich collaborations with my friends, (like how I’ve worked with you, Sofia, on the OOMK website). Sometimes we hack the system to monetise our intellectual labours, and sometimes we conspire to build better systems.

But it’s definitely an uphill struggle!

'We are very much made up of the stories that are told of us, and to us, of the world we live in'

Sofia: There’s a link that people tend to make between increased representation of marginalised groups in mainstream media and the move towards gaining inclusivity, or acceptance. How can we move beyond tokenism and really benefit POC?

Arwa: I think that’s a really difficult issue which is in a way brought out by the fact that you – and myself included – use the word ‘acceptance’. That means that we are looking for acceptance from someone else, that there is a chance that we could be rejected. This really shows where the power dynamics are, how warped they are and why it’s so difficult for representation to actually shift them.

Hudda: There's a misunderstanding that ‘representation’ is enough of a redress to the structuring logics that rendered you invisible in the first place. There's a danger that, if anything, it reboots that structure, now newly immured from critique with (the presence) of that ‘token’ because the only issue is that you weren't included – not, conversely, that (the original) conception of the ‘we’ was unethical off the bat. So when inclusivity and acceptance in an anti-black, racist system that is the media is the goal, inclusion will necessarily be tokenistic. But if getting more black and non-white people in the media is seen as a necessary first step towards addressing the systemic issues that resulted in exclusion, (and) is guided from those excluded to come to an appreciation and attempt at forging more ethical relations, that could be cool.

Arwa: Some POC have found acceptance but the question is on whose terms? And what did they have to give up of themselves to become palatable or relatable to that imagined white, male audience? It’s a constant struggle.

Abeera: I used to think that visibility and making myself understood to white people/cultures/institutions was key to not being seen as the ‘other’. But the more I interact with these colonial and racist structures the more I think that this ‘representation’ is closely connected to surveillance and power. Knowledge of the ‘other’ is collected and used to control the ‘other’. I think there is great power in opacity – in resisting being accepted, being ‘understood’.

'What did POC have to give up of themselves to become palatable or relatable?'

Sofia: For Malalai, her speech in 2003 changed her whole life, but turning points aren't always so public-facing, or apparently heroic. Was there a moment that gave you confidence moving forward in your creative work or changed your motivations for making work?

Arwa: I don’t there was a single moment or turning point (I think that only happens in TEDx videos!). One thing that always pushed me on was that whenever I felt I wasn’t good enough – that I shouldn’t be doing this, or I was just rubbish – was that I would think of at least five white men I knew who were doing a worse job than me. Men who always spoke for others without thinking about whether that was problematic, and who never even questioned their right to do what they did. So yeah, I was a bit like, ‘Why the hell not! I am just as qualified as anyone to be here.’ I guess feeling out of place in the industry that you work in can be tough sometimes but I also always think of building a space where I can work with others in the same situation, acknowledging that we exist and building a shared creative space so that others can join us. Creating those safe creative spaces for POC is something that OOMK does really well, and I would love to see more of it across other industries like filmmaking.

Abeera: Haha! Yes, what Arwa said is such a great strategy: imagine an average white man and then channel his bloated self-confidence! A key turning point in my career happened late last year as I concluded work on an exhibition I co-curated at the Birmingham Museum called The Past Is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire. Working with my co-curators Sumaya Kassim, Shaheen Kasmani and Aliyah Holder taught me to be resilient and brave. And (my disappointment) in the way the Birmingham Museum failed some of its decolonial objectives taught me that I don’t need to rely on institutions to manifest my politics. I have everything I need inside me: an utter abundance.

Collage by Sofia Niazi, editor of OOMK

Collage by Sofia Niazi, editor of OOMK

I have everything I
need inside me.

An utter abundance.

Enemies of Happiness
Dir: Eva Mulvad
Denmark (2006)


Enemies of Happiness (15*) screens on Monday 23 April in Barbican Cinema 2.

Nevertheless She Persisted: Suffrage, cinema and beyond is screening from 18–24 April in the Barbican Cinema

Illustrations by  Alexandra Bowman.

Part of  The Art of Change, our 2018 season exploring how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.

About the interviewees

Abeera Kamran is an artist and designer with a research lead practice and can be found at @abeerakamran

Hudda Khaireh is a researcher and member of Thick/er Black Lines artist collective.

Arwa Aburawa is a journalist and producer. Watch some of her documentaries on Vimeo.

Sofia Niazi is an artist and editor of OOMK Zine and can be found at @sofia_niazi

OOMK is available at oomk.net

Claire Marie Healy is Deputy Editor at Dazed and a culture writer and can be found at @clairehly

Watch the trailer for 'Nevertheless She Persisted'

Watch the trailer for 'Nevertheless She Persisted'