We owe it to Malala to not let extremists win battle of perceptions

By William Dalrymple

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Nov. 3 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year-old girl who was shot at close range in the head by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan, reads a book as she continues her recovery at the hospital. The Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban is in stable condition after undergoing two successful operations to reconstruct her skull and restore her hearing, the British hospital treating her said Sunday. (AP Photo/Queen Elizabeth Hospital, File)

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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 hideouts 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 Gand-hian 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.

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