Changes Start with... THE SPARK "at the heart of the alternative west country"

Raising My Voice by Malalai Joya, reviewed by Alex Cater.


When is an autobiography not an autobiography? When it's written by a human rights campaigner of course!


Raising My Voice is an open letter from Afghanistan; it describes the realities of a country still finding its feet again after its third violent regime change in thirty years.


Malalai Joya is an internationally recognised female political activist; a target of assassination attempts who continues to campaign for lasting democratic peace in the region. Though presented as autobiography the book, like its author, is deeply rooted in the political. Joya weaves her life story into the wider picture of her homeland’s recent past, vividly portraying the corrupting nature of power and the friction evident when ideals such as justice or truth must be compromised in morally ambiguous circumstances. There’s a fair deal of criticism for western foreign policy thrown in for good measure too.


The book is full of the wisdom and humanity Joya gained whilst secretly educating girls (an activity punishable under the Taliban), and as the director of a medical centre and an orphanage. These early experiences, dealing first hand with the human cost of war, have instilled in her a completely uncompromising belief in the need for war criminals to face justice, and the necessity of truth and transparency for lasting peace.


After the dust had settled on the invasion she began her political life, and it is this that the book is mainly concerned with, detailing her efforts to bring about a real democratic and respectable government in Afghanistan, a difficult and dangerous task as Human Rights Watch state that key members of the country’s current government are implicated in war crimes. The book works best in describing her experiences in government, where the shortfall between hopes for the region and the realites are most obvious. Her depiction of a government mired in corruption and controlled by warlords and drug lords as well as the intimidation she receives is vividly claustrophobic.


The over arching impression I was left with was one of clarity, curing the confusion and moral uncertainty I had felt about the situation. The book goes against the understanding I had on ‘The War on Terror’ by way of the odd newspaper article or snatch of late night news. Not for the faint of heart, it is a much more pessimistic portrayal of the situation, the motives involved and hopes for the eventual outcomes, and maybe rightly so. I was well aware, as I read, of the possibility that Joya herself may be bringing her own bias to the topic, yet her narration was markedly fair; statements were always meticulously back-up with figures and quotes, researched by impartial humanitarian organisations. This book could very well have ended up a two-dimensional attack on American and British foreign policy, what turned it around for me was that beneath the antipathy were moments of Ghandi-like wisdom. The arguments she makes against the invasion are far from reactionary but instead visionary.


Raising My Voice is an insightful, inspirational and ultimately rewarding work from a fantastically brave and uncompromising woman. Joya eloquently guides the reader through the hows and whys of a complex region, providing much need perspective. How helpful it is to have the international made personal and equally how fascinating to see the private life of one of Afghanistan’s most public figures.


Rider Books, £7.99.


Proceeds go to humanitarian projects in Afghanistan.

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