Pashtun society was, for many years, a center of Gandhian
nonviolent resistance against British rule.
Ever since Malala Yousafzai recovered from her shooting by the
Taliban last year, she has been universally honored: As well as a
nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, she has been given everything
from the Mother Teresa Award to a place in Time Magazine's "100 Most
Influential People in the World."
Malala's extraordinary bravery and commitment to peace and the
education of women is indeed inspiring. But there is something
disturbing about the outpouring of praise: the implication that
Malala is a lone voice, almost a freak event in Pashtun society,
which spans the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and is
usually perceived as ultraconservative and super-patriarchal.
Few understand the degree to which the stereotypes that bedevil
the region -- images of terrorist hide-outs and tribal blood feuds,
religious fanatics and the oppression of women -- are, if not wholly
misleading, then at least only one side of a complex society that
was, for many years, a center of Gandhian nonviolent resistance
against British rule, and remains home to ancient traditions of
mystic poetry, Sufi music and strong female leaders.
While writing a history of the first Western colonial intrusion
into the region, I heard many stories about the woman Malala
Yousafzai is named after: Malalai of Maiwand. For most Pashtuns,
the name conjures up not a brave teenage supporter of education, but
an equally brave teenage heroine who turned the tide of a crucial
battle during the second Anglo-Afghan war.
Malalai does not appear in any British account of the Battle of
Maiwand, but if Afghan sources are accurate, her actions led to the
British Empire's greatest defeat in a pitched battle in the course
of the 19th century.
According to Pashtun oral tradition, when, on July 27, 1880, a
British force was surprised by a much larger Pashtun levy, the
British initially made use of their superior artillery and drove
back the Afghans. It was only when Malalai took to the battlefield
that things changed. Seeing her fiance cowed by a volley of British
cannon fire, she grabbed a fallen flag -- or in some versions her
veil -- and recited the verse: "My lover, if you are martyred in the
Battle of Maiwand, I will make a coffin for you from the tresses of
my hair." In the end, it was Malalai who was martyred, and her grave
became a place of pilgrimage.
Malalai was not alone. The more I read the Pashtun sources for
the Anglo-Afghan wars, rather than the British ones, the more I saw
that prominent women were in the story.
The Afghan monarch at the turn of the 19th century, Shah Shuja ul-
Mulk -- a direct tribal forebear of President Hamid Karzai -- was
married to a Pashtun woman, Wafa Begum, who most contemporaries
judged to be the real power behind the monarchy. …