“Full many a wonder is told us in stories old,
Of heroes worthy of praise, of hardship dire,
Of joy and feasting, of weeping and of wailing;
Of the fighting bold warriors, now you may hear wonders told.”
The opening verses of the grand Middle High German Poem Nibelungenlied aptly personify the heroics of some individuals from the Pakhtun/Afghan history. It is a history adorned with tales of valiant individuals whose valour and magnanimity could have easily been mistaken for something out of a Shakespearean play. And alongside stories of fearless lionhearted men are narratives of legendary women who truly outmatch the men in all departments of bravery. Throughout Pakhtun history, each century has had its own female warrior who later became a part of local myths and legends.
In the 16th century, there was a young Pakhtun girl called Shah Bori, who liked to dress up as a boy. She is remembered to have lived a life of a pious knight while refusing to get married when her youth was at its prime. Shah Bori was an excellent horse rider and outclassed her male companions during the battles fought against the Moghuls. Her skill in battle was equally commendable and she died a soldier’s death with her boots on while fighting against the Moghul emperor Babur’s troops.
As the chapters of history turned over, the fifth Afghan-Mughal war in the 17th century saw the rise of another female commander, known as Bibi Alai, who rallied up to 50,000 fighting men in the rugged mountainous terrain of Khyber to seek Badal (revenge) for her husband Ahdad Khan who was killed by the Moghul governor Muzaffar Khan. Bibi Alai, who has been dubbed as the most beautiful commander to have ever taken the reins of any army in this region, inflicted the worst kind of defeat on the Moghul army by inflicting around 40,000 fatalities and capturing a large number of prisoners of war. She triumphantly entered Peshawar with her army and took complete control of the city before the dust of the battle had settled.
Similarly, the story of the 18th century Pakhtun heroine Nazauna is still remembered for single-handedly defending the Zabol fortress. It was not until the late 19th century, during the second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), when the modern day icon of resistance movements in Pakhtun territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan came to the fore to change the course of history.
This revolutionary figure is popularly known as Malalai of Maiwand. Better known as Malalai Anaa (Grandmother) in Afghanistan, she was a native of a small village called Khig, which is situated on the edge of the Maiwand battlefield. Both her father and fiancée joined the Afghan army under the leadership of Ayub Khan to launch an attack on the British troops in Maiwand on 27th July 1880. Like other women of that time, Malalai was camped at the sidelines to tend to the wounded and supply water and weapons to the troops.
During the initial part of the battle the Afghan army was on the verge of defeat after being heavily pounded by sophisticated artillery used by the invading British forces. In the heat of the battle, Malalai saw that her fiancée was hit by a volley of canon fire after which she stood up, took off her veil and shouted to her fiancée at the top of her voice the following words which eulogized the revered Pakhtun tradition of standing up to the enemy under all circumstances.
“Ka pa Maiwand ki shaheed na shway, Khudai julalaya, be nangi la di sateena” (Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of eternal shame!)
The fear of losing their nang and namoos (honour and pride) to an invading army and living with the shame of defeat for the rest of their lives, prompted the Afghan army to regroup, stand their ground and double their efforts to achieve an impossible victory. After Malalai had evoked the spirit of vengeance in the Afghan army, she herself jumped into the fray, grabbed the national flag from the hands of a fallen flag bearer and sang the following famous landay (short poem usually composed by Pakhtun women) that would spread dread in the heart of the mighty British Empire for centuries to follow.
“With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood,
Shed in defence of the Motherland,
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden.”
According to local tradition, the flag bearer was in fact Malalai’s fiancée. Soon Malalai too was shot down by heavy artillery fire but her final words had spurred the Afghan army to attack the enemy with a renewed vigour and soon the invading army was left with no option but to retreat towards Kandahar.
Malalai’s account naturally does not appear in the accounts of Imperial historians, but Pakhtun literary and traditional sources say that the actions of that young damsel, who stood on the cusp of womanhood on her wedding day, led to the British Empire’s greatest defeat in a pitched battle against any army during the course of the 19th century. Malalai’s heroics were recognised by the commander of the Afghan army Ayub Khan who himself led her funeral and gave her a hero’s burial.
Since the time of her death to this day, Pakhtun and Afghan women have been epitomized as victims of the most atrocious human rights violations in the world. This thinking is so widespread that during the last three decades of constant war (starting from the Afghan War of 1980s till date) these women have been irresponsibly portrayed by the local and international media as voiceless, faceless and nameless.
On the contrary, many amongst these women have proven their mettle and demonstrated their prowess in war in the same manner as their celebrated role models did before them. The Pakhtun history of resilience has been repeated in modern times by the sixteen year old school girl Nahid from Kabul who was murdered in cold blood by Soviet gunship helicopters along with other schools girls who were protesting in the street of Kabul during the Afghan War or our very own Malala, Kainat and Shazia of Swat who were shot at but could not be bogged down by bigoted religious zealots for standing up to their intimidating dictates and provocative antics.
Then there is the “Heroine of Kandahar” known as Malalai Kakar who laid down her life to defend her countrymen and Malalai Joiya (the woman who could not be silenced) for advocating the rights of her people in a country that was experiencing the influence of cooked up democracy for the first time in its history.
Dig a little further and you would find stories of the brave lady from Kalam who shot dead five Taliban foot soldiers when they barged into her home or the little known lady dubbed as a contemporary “Warrior Princess” from Maiwand who returns fire from her rooftop whenever her village is put under attack by Taliban fighters.
Then there are indigenous groups like Da Khwaindo Tolana (The Gathering of Sisters) which is the first all female Jirga in Swat that addresses female issues or the Takra Qabailee Khwainday (Brave Tribal Sisters) toiling hard to improve the lives of women living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The encouraging thing here is that these women are proving themselves to be as courageous as their predecessors.
The Pakhtuns owe part of their freedom to Malalai of Maiwand who taught them not to compromise on principles, and defend these in a good fight rather than opting for a coward’s flight. She perfectly embodied the attributes of courage that inspire new generations of Pakhtun/Afghan women to fight on for their rights and their lands to this day.
These women of great stature proved their ability to act bravely in spite of fear, while also showing their ability to proceed in spite of hardships, desolation and imminent personal physical danger. Malalai Anaa was not a feminist nor were any of the above mentioned heroines of Pukhtu lore.
Actually, these renowned women represent the traditional but honourable Pakhtun women who could outshine their contemporaries as resolute defenders or warriors according to the requirement of time. All these stories that are born in reality clearly show an alternative representation of the Pakhtun/Afghan women outside the realm of portrayed stereotypes that otherwise define them as submissive and primitive victims of a mindset that does not really exist within but outside the Pakhtun territories.