Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Pashtun teenage women education campaigner, continues to receive honors since being attacked by the Taliban in her hometown of Swat last year. This week, Britain’s prominent contemporary portraitist Jonathan Yeo unveiled a portrait of Malala at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. Days before that she opened a 188 million pound library in Birmingham, a city where she was successfully treated for head injuries from the militant attack, and where she now lives with her parents.
Among other honors, Malala spoke this year at the United Nations, where she also celebrated her 16th birthday, and reiterated her plea for girls education.
That the Taliban claimed responsibility for attacking Malala and that the international community rose to give her support and honored her, is, as they say, history.
But what does or could the entire Malala saga mean for her fellow Pashtuns?
The Taliban attack on her should be a moment of reckoning for her fellow Pashtuns, individually and collectively as a qaum, or nation. Pashtuns usually think about themselves as a collectivity, especially in times of distress. The attack on Malala is a tragedy. But before anybody else mourns it, Pashtuns should take it as a tragedy laced with a sense of guilt.
Pashtuns normally think of themselves as one large tribe and react to individual tragedies and triumphs collectively: one Pashtun’s success is celebrated by all, and a single Pashtun’s tragedy is taken as tragedy of the nation. This is how the Pashtun culture has worked for centuries and this is how it seems to continue to work. Physical realities have certainly changed, traditional tribal structures have given way to modern life, tribes and families have moved from their ancestral regions but, still, the tribal Pashtun thinking has endured. In a region riven by geo-political upheavals, revolutions, unrest, militancy, an uncertain future and new boundaries that Pashtuns blame for dividing them, they still think of unity, dreaming of tearing down the divisive lines. This they believe would somehow bring prosperity to their lands.
The Pashtuns living in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are an enigmatic people. Brutes, warriors, thugs, insurgents, warm, hospitable friends, fierce enemies, freedom fighters and, in today’s parlance, militants. From earliest times to the present, almost any definition that others have used to describe them, seems to fit Pashtuns.
Late Ghani Khan, poet and philosopher and one of the greatest Pashtun literary figures, in his book The Pathans, writes this about his tribe: “The Pathan has a tender heart but tries to hide it under a rough and gruff exterior. He is too good a fighter to leave his weakest part uncovered.” “Don’t be so sweet.” he says, “that people may swallow you up nor so bitter that people may spit you out. So he covers his sweetness with bitterness, self-preservation pure and simple. His violent nature, strong body and tender heart make a very unstable combination for living but an ideal one for poetry and color. He keeps a rough face because he does not want you to see his soft eyes. He would rather you though he was a rogue than let you see him weep his eyes out for his wife.”
Since earliest times, Pashtun lands have been a playing field for foreign powers. That is a reality that Pashtuns continue to live with up to this day. To say otherwise, would be to deny the fact. To know whether Pashtuns have been willingly abetting the foreign games, depends on who you ask? But that may not be too relevant here, especially in the narrative after the attack on Malala.
The other reality is that foreign games on Pashtun lands have irreparably altered their way of life, traditions and culture. The present-day realities on Pashtun lands seem to have set Pashtunwali, the Pashtuns’ code of life or a sum of Pashtun culture and traditions, onto an uncertain future course. Or even on a path to extinction. The attack on Malala makes the latter so much more poignant.
Pashtuns would have bloody feuds—feuds between tribes, inter- or intra-families—but never would attack each other’s women, funerals, mosques or hujras (guest houses). All of this has changed now. In Pashtun lands, mosques, funerals, hujras and marketplaces have been attacked repeatedly. Girl schools have been blown up with particular vengeance. The attack on Malala not only symbolizes vulnerability of the traditional sanctity of Pashtun women, but also the fact that no woman can now be tolerated to raise her voice for education, rights and independence. And mind it, things have never been too rosy for women in the Pashtun society, but slow, subtle improvements have been happening. Even if they are up against tremendous odds, more Pashtun women are going to education and work now than a generation or two before.
In these times, while other nations and tribes have set on their course to progress and modernity, Pashtuns are still bonded by poverty, wars and brutality. Have not the presence of global powers on their lands lent Pashtuns opportunities to make progress? The answer could be a saga of failures. First and foremost, Pasthuns have failed themselves, for being unable to turn the tide of events for the better. And then every power, local or foreign, that has had anything to do with Pashtuns or their lands, has failed them. Foreign influence apparently hadn’t been constructive or if some foreign presence was friendly, it apparently hadn’t helped enough so Pashtun lands could have been a better place now. Or else, Malala would not have been attacked.
Is there any form of brutality that has not happened on Pashtun lands in these modern, civilized times? Beheadings, suicide bombings, public executions and now an attack on a small, schoolgirl. Can any other tribe bear so much of pain and tragedy and for so long? Can there be some respite coming or should Pashtuns watch out for more tragedies, perhaps, even darker than Malala’s?