Before Malala

William Dalrymple (Credit:
William Dalrymple (Credit:

NEW DELHI — 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 fiancé 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. (The British praised her for her “coolness and intrepidity.”) When the shah was overthrown and imprisoned in Kashmir, his wife negotiated his release in return for his most valuable possession, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the largest in the world.

She then played a crucial role in freeing him from a second captivity in Lahore. She helped organize an elaborate escape plan involving a tunnel, a sewer, a boat and a succession of horses. Wafa Begum later charmed the British into giving her asylum, thus providing members of her dynasty with the base from which they would eventually return to their throne in Kabul. She died in 1838, just before the British put her husband back on the Afghan throne. Many have attributed the ultimate failure of that enterprise to the absence of her strategic good sense.

The region also has a great tradition of peaceful resistance. In the 1930s, the North-West Frontier, under the Pashtun leader Badshah Khan, became an unlikely center of Gandhian nonviolence against the British Raj. A prominent group of activists called the Khudai Khidmatgars, or Servants of God, drew direct inspiration from Gandhi’s ideas of service, disciplined nonviolence and civil disobedience to defy the colonial authorities. They also championed education, in order to marginalize the influence of the conservative ulema — the religious scholars. As the leading modern writer on the movement, Mukulika Banerjee, has shown, the Khudai Khidmatgars have been virtually erased from the nationalist historiography of post-partition Pakistan.

The fact that all this history surprises us as much as it does is a measure of how far we have allowed the extremists to dominate our images of what it means to be a Muslim in general, and Pashtun in particular. It is certainly true that both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have been lacerated by violent extremism and misogyny — ever since the United States, the Saudis and Pakistan’s intelligence agency armed religious extremists in Peshawar in the 1980s to take on the Soviet Union. But it should be remembered that the main resistance to extremism has been the local Pashtuns themselves.

We owe it to Malala and many others who share her ideals to refuse to allow the radicals to win the battle of perceptions. It is, and has always been, possible to be a Muslim Pashtun and to embrace nonviolence and a prominent role for women in public affairs. Indeed the greatest weapon we have in the war on terrorism in that region is the courage and the decency of the vast proportion of the people who live there.

William Dalrymple is the author, most recently, of “Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42.”


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