Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out by Malalai Joya

Written by The Sunday Times Friday, 21 August 2009 19:19


By Christina Lamb, published in The Sunday Times, July 13, 2009

A few months ago in Afghanistan I met a woman who had been forced into hiding because she ran a women’s project making jam. Imagine the risk then taken by Afghanistan’s youngest female member of parliament, who speaks out repeatedly against the warlords who still dominate Afghan society. Malalai Joya has to move house every few days, and going to visit her feels like stepping into a cross between a John le Carré novel and a Harry Potter movie.

Raising My Voice by Malalai Joya

The last time I saw her, in March, I was directed to a crossroads in western Kabul where a man with a long white beard materialised and gave directions to a spot on a small muddy lane. There he mysteriously reappeared and led me through a corrugated iron door. Inside, six gunmen wielding AK47s guarded a small room in which Joya sat on cushions holding court to the women who had hidden her for a few days.

Just 5ft tall, she does not look like a threat to anyone. But for the past few years she has been on the run — “forced to live like a fugitive in my own country”. Now 30, she has narrowly escaped five assassination attempts and at her recent wedding even the bouquets had to be taken apart to check for explosives.

Joya’s crime is to have spoken out against the warlords whom most Afghans hold responsible for the destruction that has beset their country for the past 30 years, but who nonetheless sit in parliament or government. So aggrieved is she at what she sees as a betrayal of her people, particularly women, that her words come in an almost nonstop torrent.

Joya has won international awards for her bravery and I was looking forward to reading her memoir. But it is written in a flat manner and is curiously disappointing, the torrent of words losing their impact on paper without her accompanying gestures and sincerity.

Even so, this is an important book. Joya’s story gives the lie to anyone who believes that Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, ousted seven and a half years ago by US-backed forces, has been replaced by a free democratic society. “You may have been led to believe that when the Taliban was driven from power, justice returned to my country,” she writes. Instead, “we remain caged in our country without access to justice and still ruled by woman-hating criminals”.

Her namesake is Malalai of Maiwand, who inspired Afghan troops to defeat the British, and Joya has lived up to her bravery. Brought up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, she returned during the Taliban era and risked imprisonment and torture by running a secret school in Herat. But her real test came in 2003, two years after the ousting of the Taliban, when she was chosen as a representative for the national meeting to decide on a new constitution. When she entered the vast tent in Kabul, she was horrified to see all the front rows occupied by warlords.

“Nobody wanted to talk about the elephant in the room,” she writes. “The assembly was full of the men who had for the past decades destroyed Afghanistan, waged civil war and killed tens of thousands of innocents.” After four days of anodyne speeches, she could keep silent no more and managed to get onto the platform. Her call for warlords to be prosecuted was met with outrage and within 90 seconds her mic was cut off.

But her comments had made waves nationwide and many, particularly women, came forward to tell her their stories of rape and abuse. When elections were held in 2005, Joya was voted into parliament. But again she found herself surrounded by warlords and their allies. When she spoke up, they pelted her with water bottles and called her a prostitute. Two years ago she was susp ended after a TV interview in which she said parliament was “worse than a stable”. Asked to apologise, she retorted: “A stable is better, for there you have a donkey that carries a load and a cow that provides milk.”

Not all Afghan women activists support Joya. Many see her as publicity-seeking and think her aggressive stance has made it harder to secure change. But Joya’s pain and bravery are genuine and can be felt on almost every page. Whether the situation for women in Afghanistan today is actually worse than under the Taliban, as she suggests, is debatable. What is undeniably the case, though, is that it has worsened in the past few years.

I don’t agree with her that withdrawing American troops would improve their situation (it is more likely to result in civil war and even a return to the Taliban). But I would like to see those such as Tony Blair and George W Bush, who blithely promised freedom for Afghan women, read this book and ask themselves whether they delivered.

Raising My Voice by Malalai Joya
Rider Books £11.99 pp278

Source: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article6668688.ece

Tags: Joya Book Review