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Malala and Sharbat Gula: Pashtun Icons of Hope

[Updated October 20, 2012] The tragic shooting of Malala Yousafzai has once again brought Pakistan in the news cycle as the country’s existential complexity remains elusive. The image of Malala draped in a demure head scarf, often expected in Islamic tradition, is reminiscent of another girl from this part of the world who remained nameless...

[Updated October 20, 2012]

The tragic shooting of Malala Yousafzai has once again brought Pakistan in the news cycle as the country’s existential complexity remains elusive. The image of Malala draped in a demure head scarf, often expected in Islamic tradition, is reminiscent of another girl from this part of the world who remained nameless for many years but captivated the readers of National Geographic magazine. The image then was of a young Pashtun girl in an Afghan refugee camp in North-western Pakistan, less than 100 miles  from Malala’s home town.

Many of the troubles which we see now in Pakistan and Afghanistan can be traced to that period in history in the dying days of the Cold War. The extinguishing rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, catalyzed by incipient religious zealotry in regional leadership, still ended up igniting the “Afpak” Frontier with militarized religious fanaticism for decades to come. The girl in that image from the cover of National Geographic (June 1985 issue) remained nameless for more than 15 years until National Geographic mounted a Herculean effort to track her down when Afghanistan opened up to the world in 2001. Using computer imaging analysis of her eyes, photographer Steve McCurry was able to find Sharbat Gula– the girl in the image – who was in 2002 a mother of 3, living a traditional life with her husband in a remote Eastern Afghan village.

Sharbat Gula - An iconic Pashtun girl who remained nameless to the world for years. Photograph by Steve McCurry; Copyright usage cost paid by National Geographic Explorers program

Sharbat Gula had returned to her homeland in 1992 and endured the turbulence of the Afghan civil war, the turmoil of Taliban rule and the ongoing strife, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She remains a survivor and a testament to the feminine spirit that we often find as the most promising beacon at any frontier of human despair.

As a Pakistani, what is most haunting to me about comparing these two young Pashtun girls is how they also symbolize the polarization which we hear about now in Pakistan’s political landscape. In the wake of targeted drone strikes by the United States, which may lead to civilian casualties, and deliberate Taliban attacks on civilians, there is a propensity to compare the lives and circumstances of victims, and to extricate some twisted sense of moral equivalence. The nameless, speechless Pashtun girl in a distant village whose plight and name might never be known; versus a bright and equally resilient girl whose narratives have touched the world.

Both lives and their struggles are equally real and neither should be trivialized. Instead, attempts must continue for us to find a better future across all social strata. Those of us who are privileged and educated have a role to play in promoting the cause of those who are unable to do so themselves. Malala Yousafzai used her celebrity status wisely to stand up for those like Sharbat Gula who have little choice but to be subservient to tradition.

As Malala Yousafzai recovers in a hospital in Birmingham, England we are also reminded of how our common humanity transcends boundaries. Sharbat Gula and millions of Afghan refugees were also assisted by humanitarian organizations from all over the world and particularly the West. Injustices of the past should not be forgotten but they should not prevent us from realizing that despite a history of exploitation and indiscretion, the West is moving closer to the East at a human level. Stories such as those of Malala and Sharbat Gula are defying Rudyard Kipling’s cynicism during his time in this region when he said: “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Indeed, the twain will meet over stories of human resilience and compassion that Kipling alluded to later in his Ballad of East and West:

“But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

As the cadence of Kipling’s  final couplet reveals, the West was also not as attentive to gender sensitivity at the time, and neglecting the rights of women has been a common human failing. Although much of the West has improved dramatically in this domain, gender-based discrimination remains a grave concern in this region. To find a better future for the next generation of girls in South Asia will require us to show solidarity with any and all who exemplify resilience against the vulgar vagaries of violence. Afghans and Pakistanis will need to dispense with xenophobia and demonizing sincere attempts to assist with humanitarian intervention. However, we will need to remember not only the Malalas of the urban educated class of Pashtuns but also the Sharbat Gulas of remote and uneducated parts of the hinterland. Their struggles – physical and ideological – give us hope that this precious part of the world will recover from the dark days that befall it today.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.