Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out by Malalai Joya
|Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out by Malalai Joya|
|Genre: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: I come from a land of tragedy called Afghanistan, runs Malalai Joya's first line. We'd all agree with the sentiment, but do we really know what's going on in this war-torn country? Evidence from a young women's rights activist might help you to make up your mind.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: August 2010|
|Publisher: Rider and Co|
Forget entertainment – this is a book to read if you have any interest in the war in Afghanistan. My particular view has developed from a British armchair, comprising part emotional reaction, a smidgeon of history and an over-reliance on British media sources. In a war zone where truth has been a casualty throughout, this book gives the general reader an authentic view of conditions in Afghanistan over the past twenty five years of continual warfare. Written by a young and hot-headed, wildly patriotic 'ordinary' woman, this is no more reliable than any other partisan view, but its value is to help put official news sources into their proper context. I found it educative in several senses.
Malalai Joya is a political activist for women's rights in Afghanistan. Her stand against war criminals, Taliban extremism and the NATO Alliance has endeared her to the ordinary population of Afghanistan, but made her dangerously unpopular with ruling warlords and Islamic extremists in the country. She was elected to the lower house in the elections of 2005, but soon ejected from the chamber and prevented from taking her seat for the duration of the parliament. Currently she lives a virtually fugitive existence, but tells us that she refuses to ensure her safety by leaving her country permanently. Although her name is not hugely well-known in the West at present, it's likely that we will hear more about her in the future.
Malalai points out that Afghanistan has strategic importance historically as the crossroads of Central Asia for conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Afghanistan is also traditionally the world's major opium producer. Now it has a further strategic value for energy pipelines and the like. According to Malalai, both the Soviet Union and the USA were both interested in the vacuum that followed the departure of the British Empire. When the Soviet army invaded the country in 1978, the United States also became involved, by arming resistance fighters, including fundamentalists recommended by Pakistan.
Since the country is an amalgam of four major ethnic groups and many minor ones, this policy produced well-armed warlords intent on power and wealth. When the Soviet Army retreated, Afghanistan was left in Civil War, alternately oppressed by ruthless rival gangs of Taliban and warlords. Afghani refugees poured out to neighbours Iran and Pakistan in their thousands, to escape the horrific rapes and killings that ensued in the chaos.
Malalai herself spent her early years in poverty in refugee camps in Iran, but her father encouraged his highly-intelligent daughter into education whenever possible. As a teenager, she started teaching literacy to other refugee women, and it wasn't long before she moved on to become prominent in the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, sorely needed in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. This very successful and popular women's rights movement provided clandestine education for girls and established health facilities and orphanages. The movement gained widespread support from both men and women. Malalai became well-known and was elected to the Loya Jirga which was held to thrash out a new Afghan constitution. Then she was elected member of parliament in the first democratic elections, held in 2005. Her unsophisticated political style, including confrontational demands that other members should be tried for war crimes, led almost immediately to her ejection from the chamber.
Malalai is at pains to point out that her personal support extends from the poorest right up the social scale, including the President's wife, UN observers and parliamentary officials. Nor is it confined to women, since the atrocities she details were targeted at men belonging to other ethnic groups. However, her NGO is not nowadays funded by international aid, because of her opposition to the current regime.
This book is at its strongest when Malalai tells her own story and bears witness to the atrocities committed against people known to her in her official capacity in Herat and Farah. It is irritatingly weak where she rails against her enemies without evidence other than assertion. How are we to know where truth lies?
Malalai seems to think that immediate withdrawal of foreign armies would enable the Afghans to sort out their own destiny. That would certainly be popular with ordinary folk in Europe! But history indicates that this nation, fractured as it is into disparate ethnic groups, will only continue to fight to the death in internal feuds. It seemed to me from my reading of the book, that a powerful voice of the people like Malalai Joya, would be better placed to unite a divided country if she could raise herself to a more sophisticated level of conflict resolution. This inevitably means political study at a Western university. If there was one point in the book where I held my breath in hope, it was when she told us that she was offered a place at several institutions. Just for a moment, it looked as if this courageous and dedicated Afghani might be launching herself into the history books as a future leader, rather than a martyr.
Many thanks to the publishers for raising Malalai's voice for us to hear, and sending this book.
Suggestions for further reading:
For a readable background on related Islamic countries of the Middle East, I'd recommend The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar.
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