The assassination attempt on 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan throws into sharp relief the hard nut that remains to be cracked in the confrontation between modernity and the tribal civilizations of Asia.
In his column below, Nicholas Kristof describes the issue of gender equality as the “paramount moral struggle of this century.” Kristof has been a champion of women’s rights — from the girls who are trafficked into the brothels of Cambodia or of Los Angeles to the girls and women throughout the world who are seeking an education.
The region of Pakistan and Afghanistan that constitutes the Pashtun homeland is a place where the United States remains militarily and strategically involved, and it remains one of the most repressive, closed and insular places in the world. That is the region where Malala had become an outspoken advocate of education for girls.
The Taliban answered her activism with bullets, and Malala was in critical condition as of Thursday. Pakistanis themselves have been outraged by the Taliban’s action, recognizing it as an act of barbarism from a movement that remains rooted in a primitive, tribal world view. In urban Pakistan and Afghanistan women are educated and active in the nation’s cultural and professional life. Pakistan has even had a female prime minister. But in the Pashtun heartland tribal traditions prevail.
The Pashtuns are a people with a warrior tradition. They occupy the remote mountains on the Afghan-Pakistan border and have never been conquered — not by the British, Russians or Americans. They live by their own code of conduct, characterized by concepts of honor, hospitality, loyalty and revenge. They have long made their living through smuggling and remain largely outside the law in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pashtuns have ruled Afghanistan since the 18th century, and they number among the cosmopolitan elite of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun from the city of Kandahar. But in the border regions they remain a largely untouchable force, and they have constituted themselves into several groups, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, which is, more or less, a borderland mafia.
Keeping women as chattel characterizes the tribal way of life in what is called Pashtunistan. According to the tribal view, women who have become rape victims have brought dishonor on their people and consequently are sometimes murdered. Male power entails absolute control over women, which means refusing to allow women to be seen or to live independent lives.
Education is the ultimate avenue toward independence, and as women in that part of the world have struggled to establish schools for girls, violence has sometimes been the response. Forty years ago mullahs were throwing acid into the faces of women who went out unveiled, and similar punishments are still enacted.
As Kristof points out, the West does not always live up to its creed that dignity and respect are the birthright of every individual, male and female. Women continue to struggle for equality in the United States, and the tides of reaction continue to threaten an erosion of women’s rights.
Pakistan and Afghanistan, as much of the Muslim world does, face a starker, harsher struggle. But the world is at a historic juncture where women and girls are the standard bearers in the struggle for freedom, opportunity and openness in society. Male power based on the oppression of women cannot last if girls as brave, articulate and determined as young Malala continue to step forward.
We ought to recognize that we in the West are not so different. Until the early 20th century the predominant view held that women required protection from and guidance in the world and their dependency justified their disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity. The struggle for women’s rights in this country depended on brave women willing to stand up to the scorn of those who are afraid of seeing their power seep away. Now Malala is the emblematic figure for that struggle.
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