Jonathan Steele wonders if an Afghan activist can find common political cause

By Jonathan Steele published in The Guardian, Aug.15, 2009

Malalai Joya is an activist, a dissident, and one of the bravest women in Afghanistan. But she is not a politician, and in this part-autobiography, part-manifesto, the youngest MP in her country's parliament reveals the multiple tragedies of Afghanistan. They include the pervasive oppression of women, about which she writes brilliantly, but also the chronic unwillingness of almost everyone who emerges in a leadership role - herself included - to make compromises, build alliances, and take the long view.

Moral denunciation of those who think differently crowds out the chance of making common cause on tactical issues. For activists who seek mainly to raise public awareness or battle for justice for individual victims this is no problem. Courage and dedication are the key. It is no coincidence that Joya was the second recipient of the award given in memory of Anna Politkovskaya, the fiercely uncompromising Russian journalist who publicised atrocities in Chechnya and was murdered in Moscow three years ago. (The first recipient, Natalya Estemirova, a more low-key human rights fighter who quietly helped Chechen families whose wives, mothers and daughters had been abducted, was killed last month.)

Cover of Joya's book
Raising My Voice
by Malalai Joya
288pp , Ebury, £11.99

Joya is in the same league. Through the health clinics, orphanages and self-help centres which she set up for women in her native province of Farah in western Afghanistan, she has a record of local activism and hard work like Estemirova's. With her passionate public speaking, foreign tours and star quality, she mirrors Politkovskaya. But Joya aspires to more than her Russian counterparts. She is in politics and hopes to remain there.

Her anger is directed mainly against the Islamist fundamentalists and warlords who took power in 1992. Ousted by the Taliban in 1996 but brought back by the US in 2001, they still play a major role. (If Hamid Karzai is re-elected president later this month, one of them will be his vice-president.) Elected to parliament from Farah, Joya used every opportunity to attack them for their repression of women, as well as for killing tens of thousands of Kabul residents during armed clashes in the 1990s. Her microphone was routinely switched off. Later, she was suspended altogether. This graphic book describes how she has experienced several assassination attempts, despite travelling everywhere with armed guards. Even at night, she has to be on the move, sleeping in different houses and concealing her husband's name for fear of putting his family in danger.

Her condemnation of the jihadis who claim they brought freedom to Afghanistan by forcing the Russians out is an important antidote to the uncritical support they have long had from most western commentators and politicians. Describing them as no less bigoted than the Taliban, she does not even spare Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader once dubbed by western journalists "the lion of the Panjshir". Her opposition to the US war and Nato-led occupation is no less significant. "The longer foreign troops stay in Afghanistan doing what they are doing today, the worse the eventual civil war will be," she writes.

What diminishes Joya are frequent lapses into a self-righteousness that alternates between sectarianism and bombast: "When I speak around the world, I represent all the suffering people in every corner of my country." The daughter of a resistance fighter who lost a leg during the Soviet period, she was educated in a Pakistani boarding school run by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). She remains under this secular madrassa's influence. Fair enough that RAWA and its many Maoist adherents would oppose the Soviet occupation. You did not have to be a Maoist to do so. The sad thing is that, even with hindsight, Joya has nothing good to say of the other secular modernisers whose desire to change Afghanistan was no different from hers, except that they felt they had to take Soviet backing in the civil war against the fundamentalists. Many Kabulis look back with nostalgia on these socialists who ran the country for three years after the Russians left and whose repeated offers of national reconciliation were spurned by the western-backed mujahideen. To Joya they are nothing but "former Russian puppets".

She also criticises other secular anti-fundamentalists such as Sima Samar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Ashraf Ghani, one of the leading candidates against Karzai in the imminent election. They are ruled out of court for once having served in Karzai's government. What, then, does she propose? Friends sometimes urge her to create a new party, she reports. "If at some point we can be sure that such a new party could help to unite progressive-minded Afghans and make us stronger, then I believe we should consider it," she answers. It sounds like Gordon Brown on a bad day: "at some point", "can be sure", "should consider it".

Afghans surely deserve more than this. No one can question Malalai Joya's courage. But she needs to be part of a movement, not just a voice.

Jonathan Steele's Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq is published by IB Tauris

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/15/afghan-activist-malalai-joya