Out of nowhere? The Taliban and Malala

Amidst calls for justice through the barrel of a gun and hopes Pakistan's army will break ties with the TTP, does an emphasis on the narrative of Violence against Women play into the very binaries that legitimate the Taliban's existence?

Nivi Manchanda
7 November 2012

The aftermath of the assault on Malala Youzafzai by the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has seen the emergence of a whole range of articles, op-eds and commentaries reacting to the attempted assassination of a 14-year old female education activist returning home on a school bus in the Swat region of Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, world public opinion has decried the atrocity and almost unanimously condemned those who orchestrated and supported it.

Whilst this rallying of public opinion in the face of gross injustice is both essential and commendable, the result is often an elision of the context: of the web of social, economic and political power relations within which acts such as these are embedded. In an attempt to underscore ‘individual agency’ the violence (both material and epistemic) that the region has been subject to for the last half-century or so, has been relegated to the realm of the unimportant.

One interesting response to the attack, misled precisely in that it understates the importance of the “context and sites where violence is ‘gendered’ and sustained”, is that of Afiya Shehrbano Zia. In calling for a return to the narrative of Violence against Women (VAW) and, in effect, the abandonment of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) as a framework, Zia argues that the latter “deflect[s] the direct responsibility of a crime away from the individual and place[s] it on the breadth of society, government, the state, global powers or imperialism”, which is problematic because it “empties the perpetrator of criminal motivation and refills him with a higher, larger-than-life, mission”.

To be sure, by blanking out the political climate, it becomes easy to assign culpability to the most visible actors – those caught on the scene and in the immediate act of the crime, as it were. These people with directed criminal intent are usually violent Islamic fundamentalists and “We” on the receiving end are liberal, peaceful and secular; “They” inflict pain, and “We” suffer.

However, this self-conscious distancing strategy amounts to a deliberate mis-recognition that plays into the Taliban’s own tactical internalisation and peddling of banal self/other, religious/secular, and East/West dichotomies. In Malala’s case, as Zia herself points out, the Taliban spokesperson takes full ‘credit’ for the attack, in an ironic twist, similarly repudiating arguments that situate the attack in its broader socio-economic milieu.

This ties into the bigger pitfalls of disregarding the socially constructed nature of masculinity, the symbolic politics of patriarchy, and of the historical amnesia that such overlooking necessarily entails. The danger of returning to the VAW framework is not only in that it seeks to resurrect some familiar binary oppositions (such as good v. evil and victim v. perpetrator), but also that it can, in fact, be co-opted by groups such as the Taliban.

Indeed, the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s illustrates the potency of the masculinised protector trope in favour of the use of violence under the guise of ‘saving women’. Specifically, the Taliban’s consolidation of power and support in Kandahar (their traditional stronghold) is attributed to the ability of a small group of Talibs – Islamic students – to rescue two young girls who had been kidnapped, and subsequently raped, by a local “warlord”. The Taliban meted out exceptionally harsh punishments for crime against women including rape and harassment, and this was used as a mobilizing narrative to increase the numbers, strength and vitality of the Taliban in its early years[1]. Mullah Mohammed Omar’s vow to avenge the rape of girls (and boys) by Mujahideen bandits gained him instant popularity and encouragement in his hometown, a city where sexual crimes had become pedestrian[2].

This fits nicely with the rather long history the ‘saving women’ trope has had in the Afghan context, dating back at least to the Soviets in the 1970s. The USSR’s 1979 invasion of the country was riddled with self-legitimising claims of the need to ‘rescue’ Afghan women from the country’s oppressive patriarchal structure. In response, Afghanistan’s Mujahideen (holy warriors) backed by the CIA and Pakistan claimed that they “were ‘protecting’ women from the military and ideological invasions of the Soviets”[3].

After the intervention of Afghanistan in late 2001, the US has taken the mantle of saving brown women from brown men (to use Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak’s formulation), with a renewed vigour. Except this time white men are not the only ones doing the saving. Organisations such as the Feminist Majority Foundation have been rallying against “Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” since 1996, its ranks now being joined by high profile politicians and celebrities around the United States, and the West more generally.

The focus, however, has been overwhelmingly on the burqa as a symbol of oppression rather than the lack of healthcare, endemic poverty, and high mortality rates – ills that have plagued the population of Afghanistan since before the arrival of the Taliban. Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood’s rhetorical question is particularly poignant and has been left largely unanswered: “Why were conditions of war, militarization, and starvation considered to be less injurious to women than the lack of education, employment, and most notably, in the media campaign, Western dress styles?”[4]

Without wishing to conflate the Afghan Taliban with the Pakistani Taliban, groups differing markedly in their histories, strategic aims and interests, the Tehrik-i-Taliban has likewise been vilified in the press, admittedly not without reason, but also in a manner that has made invisible the complexity of war, the effects of rampant poverty, and the embeddedness of the patriarchal social system; conditions that have facilitated, and perhaps even made possible, the rise of groups like the TTP. Indeed, the Taliban’s policies in the Swat found much resonance with the ordinary people initially, in protest against a legal and judicial system that was biased against the impuissant and vulnerable: women, ethnic minorities, and the poor.

In this particular instance, the magnitude of the crime against Malala and those like her, brave enough to stand up against brutality and discrimination, suggests that there is blame enough to go around. We can, and in fact must, develop a politics that is critical of both specific movements that preach intolerance and extremism embodied by the Taliban, and of circumstantial factors including war, foreign invasion and neo-imperialism, and the inevitable concomitant instability they bring about in their wake. In the final analysis, a true incrimination of the Taliban entails a necessary recognition of the conditions and forces that have engendered, nurtured and bolstered the movement and its ideology.

Additionally, by placing the blame solely on the Taliban, we are empowering the group and those sympathetic to it, by ironically agreeing with their statements and effectively giving in to their demands. To overcome the chronic violence against women, of which Malala’s case is a forceful reminder, it is as important to overturn the structures that perpetuate it, as it is to incarcerate those who have committed the crime.

Using Gender-Based Violence as a framework does not mean detracting from the reality of the crimes committed against women routinely on the sub-continent. On the contrary, it allows for an acknowledgment of how sexual exploitation and violence against women, homosexuals and children are implicated in the broader discourse and structures of hegemonic masculinity, exclusionary heteronormativity, and more recently, divisive neoliberal development agendas.


[1] Rashid, Ahmed. 2001. Taliban: Militant Islam, oil and fundamentalism in central Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

[2] Matinuddin, Kamal, The Taliban Phenomenon, Afghanistan 1994-1997, Oxford University Press, (1999), pp.25–6

[3] Luri,  Jennifer “The beautiful ‘other’: a critical examination of ‘western’ representations of Afghan feminine corporeal modernity, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography Vol. 16, No. 3, June 2009, 241–257

[4] Hirschkind, C., and S. Mahmood. 2002. Feminism, the Taliban, and politics of counter-insurgency. Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 2: 339–54.

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