No-frills account unveils Afghan realities


BOOK OF THE DAY: Raising My VoiceBy Malalai Joya Rider, £11.99, 278pp

TALES OF misery from “behind the veil” have been in great demand since September 11th, 2001. Honour killings, forced marriages and the subjugation of women have been described in books claiming to expose the so-called hidden world of Islam.

Simplistic, often unrepresentative testimonial or reportage narratives – most famously The Bookseller of Kabul – have made bestseller lists in the West, their target audience. And it’s no wonder – freeing women from Taliban rule was one of George W Bush’s arguments for the US invasion of Afghanistan.

At a first glance, Raising My Voice looks like more of the same. The cover features a photograph of a woman and boasts of an “extraordinary story of the Afghan woman who dares to speak out”. But while the packaging – and unimaginative title – suggest otherwise, this is in fact a fascinating account of Afghanistan’s political reality as seen by its youngest female MP.

Malalai Joya has been compared to Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and has won international prizes for her bravery. She made headlines around the world when, at 26, she denounced the presence of warlords in the government of Hamid Karzai.

Since then, she has survived five assassination attempts, lives in hiding and has been expelled from parliament for her “criticism”.

Ironically, it is by wearing the burka – which many of her fundamentalist critics support – that Joya has been able to travel around the country, rallying support for women’s rights.

Joya’s political drive began at a young age. As a refugee in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she struggled to get schooling in the poverty- and disease-ridden camps. She later became part of a secret teachers’ network and took great risks when she returned home, where the Taliban had banned girls from school.

She set up a free clinic in her neighbourhood, but not without resistance – bordering on intimidation – from the local mayor. Not long after, Joya decided to enter politics, where she has drawn a huge support base – and many enemies – in her determination to create a more just and transparent government.

Life for women is the same now as it was under the Taliban – the only difference, Joya claims, is the new rulers have US backing.

Despite Bush’s state of the union address in 2002 in which he claimed women in Afghanistan were “free”, it is now more dangerous for women to go to school, acid attacks and rape are still prevalent and poverty and suicide are on the rise. “The US,” Joya writes, “supported some of the worst enemies of women the country had ever seen”.

Co-written by Canadian author Derrick O’Keefe, this is a no-frills narrative. Joya lays out essential steps for Afghanistan’s future: the removal of foreign troops; a more transparent aid system; a refusal to allow warlords into parliament; and an end to the war in which civilians bear the brunt of suffering.

But it’s not all political. There are touching personal anecdotes, such as how lonely life can be for Joya, living away from her husband and constantly in hiding.

She also tells of how those around her have taken great risks in her name: the woman who sneaked out to vote for Joya against her husband’s wishes, only to be severely beaten when she returned home; the supporter who stood in front of Joya as a mob of angry parliamentarians lunged at her. Perhaps it is in these small gestures of resistance that change will finally begin to take root in Afghanistan.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Timesjournalist