Malalai Joya- Raising My Voice/A Woman Among Warlords (Review Part 1)


‘The truth is like the sun: when it comes up nobody can block it out or hide it’

Malalai Joya is an Afghan woman, the youngest MP in the Wolesi Jirga, elected in 2005 and barred from it since 2007 because a woman telling the truth is still forbidden in Afghanistan. In her book Raising My Voice she attempts to get her story out to tell the people in the nations currently assaulting her country that their governments are lying to them. She is asking us to support the Afghan people in their struggle against both occupiers and a puppet government packed with warlords and Taliban.

Malalai Joya has survived five assassination attempts, she taught in secret girls schools under the noses of the Taliban, risking life and limb daily, she ran Hamoon Health Centre opening in 2003 even as a governor’s representative told her ‘Open your clinic, but we will not guarantee your security’. However at the opening ceremony many Afghans attended, telling Malalai ‘The people will guarantee your security’, this is a recurring theme in her book, the resilience of Afghan society against the Taliban, the warlords and the occupiers. The US/NATO forces did not try to establish democracy they turned to those with existing networks of power- warlords (power maintained like the invaders through overwhelming violence, perhaps this is why they see them as legitimate partners, it should also be noted these are all overwhelmingly male institutions trading power). They swapped one tyranny for another. It’s hardly a cause worth our troops dying for and as Joya lays out in the course of her book the other purported reasons- to stop terrorist attacks in the West by destroying safe havens in the region or to free the women of Afghanistan from murderous oppression- are little more than cover for a very old game of power, geopolitics and resources. What began as a furious lashing out by the US in response to 9/11 has become a toehold to remake the entire region into something more to Washington and international capital’s liking (and yes that does include the hundreds of billions from narcotics). Even if the stated aims were sincere the means to achieve them are shown to be thoroughly counter productive, as she writes-

The Afghan people are not terrorists we are the victims of terrorism… what we really need is an invasion of hospitals, clinics and schools for boys and girls.’

Malalai Joya was born the second of ten children in the small village of Ziken in Western Afghanistan on 25th April 1978, three days later the Soviets entered Afghanistan ‘since then war is all we Afghans have known’. She was named Malalai after Malalai of Maiwand, a young woman who fought heroically against the British Empire. Her father was largely absent during her first years, he fought against the Soviets after having been a politically active medical student in Kabul and so was hunted by the authorities. For many years they heard nothing of him until a message came he was alive and living in a refugee camp in Iran (albeit having lost a leg to a landmine, she recounts how with his medical training he was able to instruct his brother how to treat him in the field, probably saving his own life. Injuries from landmines and unexploded ordnance are ubiquitous, a 2005 survey by Handicap International found 867,000 Afghans were severely disabled in a country with a population of 33 million). Her family rallied round, her uncle Babak (a survivor of Soviet torture) helped out, and she became close to her paternal grandmother who delighted in spoiling the young Malalai (as is a grandmother’s prerogative the world over!). As a sign of their affection her grandmother asked that after her death Malalai should go to her grave, put water on it and shout three times ‘I want to hear her voice’. Her grandfather was a well respected man who loved language & socialising, he even managed to make policemen ashamed of themselves when they periodically came to ransack the family home looking for her father. She thinks it is from him she gained her remarkable political skills.

By 1982 the conflict with the Soviets had become so bad that when news of her father in Iran came they left their home in Farah Province to join him in Iran. Joya notes that for many of her generation it was common to spend most of your life in refugee camps outside of Afghanistan. Millions were displaced by the war with the Soviets from 79-89 and over a million killed. It was at this time that US (and Saudi Arabian) funding of fundamentalists expanded the infrastructure of the warlords, Taliban and later Al Qaeda, the capacity for extreme violence was the qualifying requirement for US taxpayers money. She explains an interesting dynamic of the refugee crisis, the Afghan regime was trying to stem the flight while the US, Iran & Pakistan encouraged it, seeing refugees as easy recruits to form Mujahideen cadres who would pursue their proxy interests (both Iran and Pakistan’s ISI secret service created political parties in these camps too). Refugees also meant money from the UN, money which could be skimmed before it reached the displaced Afghans. The refugees were largely confined to camps (they were second class citizens to the authorities) where the newly flush fundamentalists would target democratic activists. As such her father lived off camp in the town Zahedan, being only four Malalai did not at first see the one legged stranger as her father, over time and with generous bribes of ice cream (you will learn from this book that Malalai Joya loves ice cream!) the relationship grew. When they were forced to move back to the more dangerous Khunuk Birjand camp Malalai’s mother fashioned a string device attached to her newborn sister as an alarm system, not just the roaming fundamentalists but wild animals were a threat.

‘Meena’s blood has fertilised the struggle of all Afghan Women’

The refugee family were denied schooling in Iran and so decided to move to Quetta in Pakistan where the children could attend schools even though it meant a perilous journey through bandit country. There in Quetta Malalai attended a boarding school for boys and girls run by RAWA [Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan]. It was here Malalai got to meet Meena the founder of RAWA who impressed her greatly (complimenting Malalai on her lustrous hair). In 1987 Meena was kidnapped in Quetta and killed, her murder is believed to have been carried out by fundamentalists associated with the party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar together with the KHAD, the Afghan branch of the KGB. Later the beloved school bus driver was also murdered by fundamentalists.

Joya is clear about her relations with RAWA (sometimes mere membership is enough to get you raped and/or killed, the warlords and fundamentalists simultaneously hating both the leftist progressive politics and feminism)- ‘I am an independent, but I am not ashamed to say I share many of the same ideals. If I ever decided that I could be more effective working within the framework of an organisation, RAWA is the first I would consider joining.’

The young Joya loved school even when an outbreak of lice meant her long hair, of which she was very proud, had to be cut off. Her father’s search for work meant they moved around Pakistan, most of the camps were now firmly under fundamentalist control, they even had their own prison camps within camps where political activist would be held in appalling conditions. They found a camp in Peshawar under a moderate mujahideen which was under occasional attack for its progressive atmosphere, many tribal and ethnic groups lived there together without the strife the extremists liked to engender. And while the madrass’s funded by Saudi Arabia in the conservative camps took boys only (these were factories for producing Taliban) her camp taught girls and boys. They also had combined sports (unheard of in the other camps) which allowed the Afghan girls some real freedom and joy in play.

The period following the Soviet retreat is where Joya fills in nuanced details that are vital to our understanding, one overriding concept is that of the mujahideen being two entities- the Real, meaning the resistance fighters who fought for freedom, and the Criminal who found power, money and fundamentalism more to their taste. They fought amongst themselves for the spoils once the Soviets had been beaten, between 65,000 and 80,000 civilians were killed in Kabul by these warring criminals factions who used ethnic division to establish their brutal fiefdoms. Joya is very clear on her stance on national unity, of equality for all groups and ethnicities. This is just one of the many stances that has caused her to be treated with such hostility by the powerful forces fighting for domination.

As the civil war continued women and children became the prime victims, the warlords closed schools and rape was pervasive. This is important because the simple Western narrative holds the Taliban as the chief villains which neglects to recognise how those now in power under the auspices of US/NATO are many of the same figures who in the civil war from 92-96 committed war crimes and oppressed women (& men) who were routinely tortured and raped by the well funded warlords. In 1995 Amnesty International released a report ‘Women in Afghanistan, a Human Rights Catastrophe’ the Taliban had yet to take power.

Malalai Joya’s Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of the Afghan Woman Who Dares to Speak Out has just been published by Rider Books, all proceeds go to humanitarian projects in Afghanistan. Buy it here, here or here. Or in the US where it is called A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, buy from Amazon.

Part 2, Part 3.