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.