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Afghan activist urges foreign troops to leave

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She steadfastly maintains that the average Afghan wants peace and democracy but will not get it from the current regime.

Reviewed by Jackie Shymanski, Winnipeg Free Press, January 9, 2010

The author of this compelling autobiography has been called one of the bravest women in Afghanistan, by media and politicians the globe over.

The very basics of her story -- being a refugee in Iran, Pakistan and even in Afghanistan, having a parent hunted by rotating regimes, being female where that instantly means being second class -- could earn her the title.

Add to it her chosen vocation -- women's rights activist, the youngest ever Afghan parliamentarian -- and her memoir offer heartbreaking insight into today's Afghanistan.

A Woman Among Warlords
A Woman Among Warlords
The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice
By Malalai Joya, with Derrick O'Keefe
Scribner, 229 pages, $33

Born just three days after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1978, Malalai Joya writes of how she and her homeland have known only war ever since.

Joya does not use her real name, so precarious is her and her family's security, considering her chosen profession.

She describes herself as a blend of Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek, Nooristani and Baluch ethnicities and says she refuses to honour the various ethnic differences that have been used as tools to create ethnic strife over the decades.

In 2003, she called on the U.S.-installed government of Hamid Karzai to clean house and toss out the warlords, drug barons and cronies she alleged were within the ruling parliament.

Though elected to the parliament based on those bold words, she was subsequently expelled, because, incredibly, it is illegal for a member of the parliament to criticize another.

These days, Joya does not sleep in the same house twice, and has been the target of five assassination attempts since 2003.

Even though she is cloaked by the anonymity of a burka -- the infamous man-mandated shroud -- she travels with six bodyguards headed by an uncle she trusts to keep her safe. Her own marriage had to be held in secret.

This memoir, co-written by Vancouver-based writer and peace activist Derrick O'Keefe, reads like a very hard, long journey, more from content than writing style.

It is difficult for the outside observer to distinguish and understand the complexities of Afghanistan in such a short book.

Joya tries to explain some of the country's history as a battleground of superpowers, and how this subsequently ramped up tribal tensions until warlords and their fiefdoms led to the Taliban in all its extremism.

She lays plain the details that so troubled her as a member of parliament -- lavish and well-attended banquets held by President Karzai, while the average Afghan survived on less than $2 a month.

Perhaps somewhat alarming for Western governments with troops currently on the ground is Joya's belief that present-day Afghanistan would be better off without foreign troops.

She states more than once that though a withdrawal of U.S., Canadian and British troops might very quickly result in the internecine fighting that led to the Taliban, that is actually preferable to foreign occupation in support of yet another corrupt regime.

She steadfastly maintains that the average Afghan wants peace and democracy but will not get it from the current regime. She urges the U.S. to concentrate on nation building rather than increasing its military presence.

Joya has a steadily increasing international profile and her book is in print around the world. In a promise to the very people who have survived the armies and regimes with her, she has pledged that all profits will go to humanitarian projects in her battered but beloved homeland.

Jackie Shymanski is a Winnipeg communications consultant and former CNN correspondent.