By: Afiya Shehrbano
Politically speaking, Malala’s gravest error was to survive the attack by the Taliban gunmen who shot her in the head on her way back from school in 2012. Had she succumbed to her injuries or deteriorated to a vegetative state in some underequipped Swat hospital then she may have been forgiven (and forgotten) as a passive patriot. Survival has earned her suspicion and accusation of being an anti-Pakistan agent of the west.
Or, had she continued to live in Swat and waited for the Taliban to complete their botched first attempt or, even if she had caved in to their demands and shut down her campaign and ‘secular’ pursuit for girls’ education, then perhaps conservative Pakistanis and post-secular anti-liberal sympathisers may have grudgingly acknowledged her as worthy of some real, rather than conditional sympathy. Even then not for being a target of patriarchal violence motivated by religious politics of course, but, at best, for her being an indirect victim of US imperialism.
The compatibility and symbiosis between masculinist patriarchy, religion and imperialism is a convenient oversight in such analysis. In the eyes of such ‘analysts’ it is the Taliban who are viewed through the singular lens of imperialist violence and as victims, while women activists who oppose or resist their agendas are caricaturised as anti-Muslim agents and collaborators.
Conservatives are happiest when women conform to their roles as victims and do not behave as agents or activists. Yet, after a decade of a targeted gendered pogrom by the Taliban in Swat, these commentators remain silent on the case histories where women have been victims of the violence practiced by the Taliban. The defence of the Taliban as misguided guerrillas is based on a confused theory that alternates between seeing the Taliban as victims of imperialism but also as agents of anti-imperialism. The argument that they must not be judged as agents out of context empties them of purpose. Instead, they become flattened non-actors who are exacting passive revenge for drones and US imperialism. This avoids any discussion on their agency as exercised through the nature of atrocities committed specifically against women actors.
No explanation has been offered over why these so-called anti-imperialists exact revenge on women with such enthusiastic vengeance? Malala’s own explanation is “They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them…That is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.”
This is not rocket science. Is religion – in this case Islam – void of political agency and has faith nothing to do at all with the Talib’s demand for an authentic Shariah-based Pakistani state? Why is it presumed that only the Taliban’s is a ‘misguided’ view of Islam especially when we consider that much of their worldview on women, minorities and their role in Pakistani society overlaps with and is shared by so many other Islamists and conservative men?
Activists for women’s equality remain the permanent symbols of progress, westernisation and freedoms and, therefore, they continue to be punished for promoting this cause. That is why I suggest Malala would have done everyone a favour had she just become a victim – and been ossified into a mute icon of permanent grief. Her death would have deprived the west of a ‘pawn’ which, according to conspiracy theorists, is obviously being deployed for the purpose of defaming Pakistan and Muslim men and for becoming the kind of collaborator of western Islamophobia that she is now seen as.
Malala symbolises Pakistan – whereby the preferred role for both would be one of permanent victimhood. If either seeks to become autonomous, secular, liberal or westernised then the whole national narrative as well as representation of Muslim womanhood comes under threat. In the conservative worldview as well as in the eyes of those so-called ‘radical new leftists’ who live in the heart of the Empire themselves, a Muslim woman should be passive, otherwise she can only be one kind of agent– a foreign agent, the other.
The argument of why Malala was singled out for cooption by the UN and west-based campaigns is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when Pakistani women make professional contributions or achieve mainstream success, it is considered a conspiracy that their agency is not recognised and they are sidelined precisely because they are Muslim, veiled or brown. But when they are recognised for their courage and resilience, then they are accused of being sold-out, foreign or agents. The Cause is only important if it is directed towards those collective goals as defined by Muslim men.
This is why when Afia Siddiqi was indicted by the US courts, she was seen as a pure victim and there were no questions over her credibility nor any objections over her singular iconoclastic status amongst Islamists all over the world campaigning for her cause – including at Imran Khan’s jalsas. Never before had these sympathisers fought for the hundreds of Muslim women trafficked or women labourers around the world who are wretched victims of the neoliberal economic order. They are not the right kind of victims for The Cause.
This is not new. For decades, military dictators, Islamists and conservatives have accused women’s rights activists and human rights defenders of being Raw agents, Zionist sympathisers and anti-Muslim westernised collaborators. Now, a new breed of self-defined ‘radical’ commentators who are embedded and invested in the heart of the Empire have joined this criticism of ‘imperialism’ based only on delegitimising women activists of Pakistan too. What these critics all share is the view that Pakistani women can either be anti-imperialist victims or foreign agents – there is nothing in-between.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org