Check Your Punjabi Privilege: The Hijacking of Malala by Non-Pashtun Pakistanis


When Malala Yousafzai won the Noble Peace Prize, Afghans and Pashtuns internationally rejoiced. A member of the tribe won!

But quickly, this state of joy and pride was robbed from us when non-Pashtun Pakistanis began to claim Malala as their own. To me, this is equivalent of a white American pretending to know or even understand the Ferguson struggle. Please – check your Punjabi/Muhajir privilege.

For those of you who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Malala is an ethnic Pashtun. She is from the Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, also known as KPK, which was formerly known as the North West Frontier Province. The changing of the name to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or “land of the Pashtuns”, was a minimal demand by Pakistani Pashtuns, but even that was met with strong resistance from the Punjabi & Muhajir majority which controls the government and military.


This is a place where my relatives hail, and where my entire nuclear and extended family lived before their transition to America. This area is known as the “drone capital of the earth”, where my people, the Pashtuns, are “collateral damage”, and “casualties” in the fight against the Taliban.

The prevailing jokes of Pakistan culture are that Pathans (Pashtuns) are dumb and uncivilized Talibs. But all of a sudden, when an intelligent, educated and prolific Pashtun makes headlines, she becomes the symbol for the “Pakistani struggle”….fasho.

Let me tell you a little about our newly moved in neighbors to the south. The political and social structure in Pakistan is unevenly distributed, with Punjabis and Mohajirs (immigrants from India) at the top, and indigenous Sindhis, Pashtuns, and Balochis, at the bottom. Illiteracy, extremism, and violence plague the KPK, as the people suffer at the hands of both the Taliban and the Pakistani military.

In the east is the Punjab, where the Green Revolution of Pakistan boosted the economy. Lahore and Islamabad took off, while the Pashtun provinces struggled to even get a small benefit from the programs.

And even though Pashtuns are a major ethnic group within Pakistan, their language is overlooked and unrecognized, with Urdu and even English making the list of national languages.

Pashtuns are treated like second-class citizens in a place that’s been home for 6,000 years. My mother tells us stories from her time there, when she lived in Hangu and Peshawar, and how she was amazed at the differences between Pashtun/Afghan occupied areas compared to Punjabi areas.

Malala is an Afghan by ethnicity and a Pakistani by nationality/citizenship. And Afghans know much more of the struggle of being from the KPK and other Talib-controlled areas than anyone living in the Punjab would know.

Her name is even a testament to her heritage. She is named after Malalai of Maiwand, a famous Pashtun poetess and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan, who we consider our heroine, and the symbol of the Afghan struggle against Great Britain. Her last name, Yousafzai, is that of a large Pashtun tribal confederation that is predominant in the Swat Valley. Swat is a historic Pashtun land, and my family, being ethnic Pashtuns, would know how to navigate there much better than any Urdu-speaking Pakistani.

So when non-Pashtuns rejoice and revel in the fame of Malala, how can Afghans and Pashtuns not be annoyed? This cultural hijacking of the Afghan struggle in Pakistan is an example of Punjabi/Mohajir privilege going unchecked.

If you are a non-Pashtun of Pakistani nationality, please do not pretend to know anything of what it means to be an Afghan living in Pakistan. Don’t try to pretend for one second that you know what it means to be Pashtun:

Since 2001, Pakistani, Afghan, and NATO troops have rushed into Pashtun lands. US drones fill the sky. This year has been especially rough for Pashtuns in Pakistan, with more than 2 million forced to flee military offensives in Swat and nearby areas.

“It’s like a Pashtun genocide,” says Ayeen Khan, of Swabi, NWFP, echoing a phrase heard across the region. “In different areas a lot of Pashtuns are being killed. They need someone to stop the killing.”

Many who fled the fighting said they want neither the Taliban nor the Army in their lands. They say the Punjabi-dominated security agencies control both forces, with the Army periodically fighting the militants, then receding and letting the Taliban reimpose their terrorizing rule. Pashtun civilians say they are caught in the middle of this “double game.”

And even if Malala identifies with her Pakistani nationality, I think she would agree with my notion of Punjabi/Mohajir privilege.

When we ignore Malala’s Pashtun identity, we are denying her from thousands of little Afghan girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan who share her struggle.

She was targeted by what YOU created, not us.

She suffers from YOUR meddling, not ours.

The KPK is broken because of YOUR drones and attacks, not ours.

Her struggle is the Afghan struggle, not the Punjabi one.

When a Pashtun is a freedom-fighter, or when a Pashtun is a displaced refugee, he is “othered”. When he is portrayed in the Pakistani media, he is a savage, with an archaic culture and no brains along with it. I remember hearing that a group of young Pakistani-Americans, when finding out that my cousin was a Pashtun, said, “Oh, Pathans. Yea, we consider them the ‘blondes of Pakistan'”. Okay. Forsure.

But when a Pashtun makes a TIME Magazine cover, lets praise them and post it all over Instagram.

This is what bothers me the most. How we are exploited when there is a gain, but left to die when they’re done parading us.

There is no way for a non-Pashtun to know what Pashtuns in Pakistan go through. Even I can’t fathom it. I in no way want to take ownership of these people and pretend like I understand their struggle, because at the end of the day, I’m sitting in sunny Los Angeles.

But what I do know, as a Pashtun woman who has grown up in a Pashtun household, who only spoke Pashto until grade school, whose family lived in the KPK for years- is that any non-Pashtun claiming a connection or taking pride in the Pashtun struggle is just wrong. Just like a white guy in America can’t pretend to know what 2pac is rapping about, stop fronting like Malala is the champion of all Paki girls everywhere.

So please, do yourself a favor. Check your Punjabi privilege.




Filed under Uncategorized

20 Responses to Check Your Punjabi Privilege: The Hijacking of Malala by Non-Pashtun Pakistanis

  1. Abaseen

    I agree. The appropriation of Malala reminds me of how Ayan Hirsi Ali tried to appropriate Malalai Joya’s work, and shamelessly misrepresented her views in Time magazine.

    Pashtuns in Pakistan have been completely destroyed by the Pakistani establishment. They built madrassahs to brainwash an entire generation of us during the ’80s, helped the U.S. occupy neighboring Afghanistan, allowed the U.S. to carry out drone strikes in our areas, launched military operations with very high civilian casualty rates, imprisoned and repressed our progressive leaders from the very beginning (like Bacha Khan), and stereotyped and essentialized us for decades in the media, making us seem like terrorists and fools. Pakistani nationalists do not have the right to claim Malala, because they are largely responsible for the misery we’ve had to endure. Malala is our hero and bright shining star.

  2. Neelum Rukh

    I’m a Pashtun that is also from Swat valley although, I was born and brought up in oxford, England. I know that the blood of Pashtuns whether situated in Afghanistan or KPK is one and will never change. I know that Punjabis have a completely different blood lineage to us. Punjabis have no right to claim the work of a Pashtun as their own. Malala is Pashtun, a completely different race from Punjabis. It angers me that when Pakistan wants to give promotions or powers within government, they will always give these to a Punjabi but when Pakistan is promoting its lands, it shows our beautiful Khyber Pakhtunkhwa land which is Afghan land, NOT Pakistani land. For those that disagree with the last statement, KPK has always been Pashtun, before and after the Durand line was created. However, there are obvious problems with the treaty that established the Durand line. The line was supposed to become null and void after 100 years which was in 1993 but the west were worried that Pashtuns may unite once more and become too powerful for them to overcome (This was the initial reason why the Durand line was created) so, they state that the border remains in place. Their justification is to state that there was no time limit to the Durand. If the Pashtuns were told that there was a time limit but this was not stated in the original treaty, which may I remind you was not in Pashto but in English, then trickery was used to obtain a signature. In such an instance, the contract automatically becomes null and void. Go and find your own figures of prominence you idiotic Punjabis, stop claiming one of ours as your own.

    • Madinah

      I wish more people understood history like you! Thank you for this comment!

    • Pakistani

      What an idiot, have you checked genetic studies or are you just going by your nationalist agenda? Punjabi isn’t an ethnicity, you have Jats and Gujars who are scattered throughout Afghanistan and India, even Tajikistan, who are also Punjabi just because they speak Punjabi also.

      • Madinah

        Whatever your definition of a Punjabi is, the point is that they have great advantages over Pashtuns in Pakistani society. If you disagree with that, then you’re not even worth a debate.

      • Neelum

        You are obviously the idiot. Jats, Gujjars etc all have the same origins which lie in the Punjab. You are all Indians by origin. You must be really idiotic to be painstakingly looking at genetic studies in order to establish some kind of difference between yourself and your race- you are pathetic! I never stated that Punjabi is an ethnicity, it is made up different ethnicities who are collectively coined Punjabis. It does not matter if some Punjabis emigrated elsewhere, the Punjabis IN Pakistan are the ones that I am talking about which is made very clear in my original comment. Your argument actually has no basis in the comment that I posted so just go away you stupid cretin! What was the point of your comment, how in any way does it relate to the message of mine? As Madinah kindly stated, you are not even worth a debate!

      • Harrydas

        Not so fast Einstein! FYI population genetics studies on various castes in Punjab conducted by UK univerities have revealed no apparent genetic differences among various castes. Further, there is evidence of great deal of intermingling that came to halt only five or so centuries ago.

    • Pakistani

      Actually Punjabi isn’t a race, Gujjars are Punjabis and they’re in India and all throughout central asia, they’re called Punjabis.

  3. anon

    kpk is not the drone capital of the world, and saying so is disrespectful to afghans, who live in the most droned country in the world and are constantly facing the threat of sudden death.

    • Madinah

      Actually Waziristan is the drone capital of the world and it’s located in KPK. Sorry you’re wrong buddy!

    • Harrydas

      One is very saddened by genocide in Waziristan that is so much bloodshed, destruction and misery. It’s dangerous mix of interpretation of religions, nationalism and ethnicity. Yet it’s almost impossible to decide whichor decides is to blame.

  4. BigPapaBojo

    The Punjabis are always trying to appropriate Pashtun culture because they are embarrassed by their own culture and looks. They want to take beautiful Afghan culture and pretend it is their own — where they will never look like an Afghan in their wildest dreams. Such silly Panjabi people they are ethnically, culturally and biologically Indian.

  5. Harrydas

    My ancestral home is Waziristan and Pushtun yet I am Hindu.

  6. The only way to finish with all these discrimination against pashtuns by Panjabi totalitarian establisment is;Take a stand for fight there rights till create a PASHTUNISTAN, where they can safe there lenguage/culture and finish with the terror and Talibanzation.
    Bye bye Panjabistan and well come Pashtunistan.

  7. Kia

    I wouldn’t generalise a community because some have decided to ‘claim’ her. The media is very fickle in Pakistan, as it is in many countries. They will latch onto an idea they feel will get more attention at the time and very soon forget they are contradicting themselves. I think fear has affected a lot of decisions and thoughts and people will believe whatever is fed to them unless they feel brave enough to deny it and educate themselves.
    I am a Punjabi Pakistani, my mother from Lahore but my father was Kashmiri. I don’t pretend to know discrimination because like you I grew up in the western world but always taught to love. My friends and colleagues from all walks of life.
    I do admit that I harshly judge people who talk about another’s heritage negatively- I don’t mean negatively about Pakistanis- I mean negatively about any heritage. Mainly because I don’t think anyone can generalise about millions of people when they are not the same. No one person thinks the same, feels the same or indeed does the same.
    What I will say is that yes I wish people stood up for anyone discrimated against especially if they’re the majority. But people can be dominated by fear and self serving ideologies.
    I know many punjabis who do not claim this intelligent and brave Malala, she is Pashtun and that doesn’t change no matter what some might say. But honestly, that has never even come up in a conversation with people I know.
    What has always been highlighted is her bravery and fierce determination against an oppressive group. Perhaps that should be linked to her Pashtun heritage, perhaps not. Maybe she’s just an incredible young WOMAN who could teach the men of this world a lot. Perhaps then this world would be a more positive place.
    Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with parts of what you’ve written, I just worry that the world does generalise about much and that’s how hate flourishes. Education is the key and being open minded can change the world.
    Seeing the comments above I wish punjabis/ Pakistanis/ Pashtuns/ afghans/ Indians would all have an open mind and listen to what the other has to say instead of dismissing each other’s opinions.
    Malala stood against the Taliban and I for one do not generalise the Afghan people in that way so how can another generalise punjabis or indeed Pakistanis to be the same?
    I do wish though that those who do ‘hijack’ cultures would instead embrace it and honour the positive differences and question the negatives.

Leave a Reply