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Time To Rewrite The Pashtun Woman Back Into History

As a researcher digging through books and archival records, I seldom came across any mention of Pashtun women. When I did, it was often in relation to men as their objects, serfs. These texts rendered women invisible not because they weren’t there, but because they weren’t important when considering knowledge production and policymaking. Since colonial officials were concerned with capturing territory and using it for strategic gains, they had little interest in how Pashtuns conceptualised themselves, narrated their histories and perceived their surroundings and place in society. 

The British wrote their own history of Pashtuns, shaped by a white gaze that excluded indigenous and grassroots sources of knowledge vital in understanding history and self-perception. Since women were considered of no value in this discourse, they were erased and limited to the private sphere that these officials then imagined into being as an entirely oppressive space since they had no real access to it. It is no coincidence that most of the earlier work written on Pashtuns is by white colonisers, and contemporary writers have built on this misrepresentation.

Recently, in visual and written discourse alike, the Pashtun body has emerged as a racial caricature of its identity; a ludicrous distortion that depicts Pashtuns in terms of war, militancy and hypermasculinity. These orientalist representations have been lent credence by narratives conflating Taliban and Pashtun identity. These racial tropes provide a simplistic answer for a very complex problem; Pashtuns are scapegoated as a reason why militancy exists in the region as opposed to delving into a deeper analysis of state making. As a result of all of this, women are either absent in statist history and archives, or are reduced to victims of a male imposed order. 

As a Pashtun woman, the most remarkable personalities I have come across or heard of have all been women. The women of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement against the British, who would organise their own rallies. The wives of male members of the movement who would be resolute when their husbands would be rotting in prison subject to the worst kind of torture, and would reportedly remind them of the dishonour it would bring if they were to renounce the movement. As Bacha Khan stated, the movement would not have been possible without the involvement and support of women in the community. 

Bakhtnama Kakar who was a freedom fighter in Balochistan against the British from 1925 to 1930, and was later arrested and hanged. Halima, who was the daughter of Khushal Khan Khattak, and a poet herself. The lesser known Laleena Mahsud who refused to leave her house in Waziristan during the 2009 operation, and survived 6 years in a region torn by war and destruction. From Malala Maiwand to Wrranga Loni, there are a multitude of anecdotes central to identity making and history writing that have been missed out. 

There are also many women who might not make it to history as revolutionary or political heroines, but still resist tropes of Pashtun women in their everyday lives. My grandmother who was the wittiest, strongest woman I have ever come across. She was a master of Tappay (folk poetry), and a repository of our family history; through her stories I vicariously roamed the valley of Badar. Her recent passing has left a hole in my heart. 

My mother who taught me compassion and kindness, and taught me Pashtunwali not by telling me what it is, but through her actions, her strength, and her ability to forgive. She told me that if an enemy were to set foot in our home, I would have to treat them with kindness. It was only much later that I realised she taught me the concept of melmastia (hospitality), central to Pashtunwali. 

My aunt who sent off her husband to do right by his people despite knowing he wouldn’t come back alive; he was killed by the Taliban in Waziristan. 

 All the countless women in my village in former FATA who guard their homes, who kill snakes and scorpions with their bare hands, who give birth behind closed doors because there aren’t any hospitals nearby, women who send their husbands off to faraway lands to earn a living while they hold the fort back home in a region militarised to the teeth; their resilience, bravery is far greater than that of any man I’ve come across. I wish we can rewrite the women – the unsung heroes – back into our history, and I hope we don’t silence them in the present, and I dream of a day when they are our future.

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  1. Aman September 23, 2020

    There is a powerful political role played by multiple Afghan queens, and mother queens, all Pashtuns over the course of more than three centuries. The most famous was Queen Surraya Barakzai, the wife of King Amanullah Khan.

  2. Sareer Ara September 25, 2020

    Good article @Xenia Rasul. I am happy you have included the countless women who work tirelessly behind the closed doors of their houses to bring up good children and make them responsible citizens for the society and the country , not only in FATA all over Pakistan.

  3. Razya Kirmani October 14, 2020

    Hi Xenia

    I am sorry for your loss. Having recently lost far too many of that generation, I can feel your pain.

    Your article is serendipitous on multitude of levels. I was reading a book review earlier today (have yet to buy the book): The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker which is a retelling of the Iliad from the women’s perspective. Perhaps you will write your own version based on the stories of Pashtun women.

    Separately, I’ve recently started on a project collecting regional / ethnic Pakistani folklore. I discovered an online repository for Sindhi folktales collected by Nabi Bux. Do you know if there’s something similar for Pashtun stories or books? I’d like to turn them into stories that can be more widely shared so they are as familiar to our kids as mother goose nursery rhymes.




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