Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday 12 December 2006

A Pakhtun on Burnett's 'Shameless hellions'

The other day, I followed a link from Information Clearinghouse (ICH) to find an excerpt from Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent by award winning journalist, John F Burnett. He describes a very conservative society obsessed with ‘honour’, where any mother in her right mind wouldn’t hesitate to murder her own daughter if she had dishonoured the family.

My own experience relating to purda in the Pakhtun area was when I spent an Eid weekend in a village near Mardan, which Burnett describes as a ‘frontier town’, but is actually about 130km from the Afghan border, as the crow flies. In the poor households, women wore the same kind of loose scarves over their hair as you’d see peasant women wearing anywhere. They slipped partly or completely off as much as they stayed on and nobody seemed very fussed about it. Women and girls were a bit shy of the ‘sahib’, but had no problem looking at me, speaking to me, or shaking my hand. When they took me to visit the local godfather, Bader Khan, it was a completely different story. In several hours hanging around with Bader Khan and his relatives and retainers, I never saw so much as a cow or a bitch, much less a girl or a woman.

I sent the article around to a few people, including Khadim Hussein, a Pashtoon student I worked with a bit in Pakistan, who writes,

This is in fact a travelogue by an American who describes the Pushtoon way of life after staying in Peshawar for a couple of days (though he does not mention his duration of stay explicitly) and visited the tribal areas only once in passing. Mr. Burnett mentions only three people—Musarat Hilali (a lawyer by profession), Hasan Khan (who is now working for a private Pushto channel) and one Muhammad Akbar, an unknown Pushtoon tribal elder – as his informants. I would like to give my opinion about the following points of Mr. Brunett's captivating travelogue (which is closer in format to a short story):


Talibanization of Pushtoon Society

Purda (veil) and Burqa

Honour and Revenge

Pushtoonwali, as I understand it as a Pushtoon and as a keen observer of Pushtoon society, revolves around the basic concept of collectivity and collective ownership of culture, customs and traditions. The core value of Pushtoonwali is a consistent consultative process which the Pushtoons call 'Jirga'. It is the Pushtoon Jirga that decides the meaning of every cultural symbol of their society, whether it is the concept of honour and revenge or the concept of their tribal and social rights. Because of their geographical location over a period of centuries, the Pushtoons have had to repel invaders from both east and west on a continuing basis. This has locked them in a state of insecurity and cultural isolation. The Pushtoon Jirga only once asserted itself to form a Pushtoon state when a number of factors conspired simultaneously to weaken the Safavi Empire in Persia and the Mughal Empire in India.

This Pushtoon state could have institutionalised their socio-cultural development, but it was curtailed by the 19th Century British imperialist invasion. The British divided the Pushtoons into several isolated enclaves — in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Baluchistan, and Afghanistan. This colonization created a socio-cultural vacuum on the Pushtoon soil, intensified their insecurity and made them more conservative in their worldview.

In the early 20th Century, the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement (called the Red Shirts Movement by the British) led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (alias Bacha Khan) and his friends, made a concerted effort to bring Pushtoon society into the mainstream. The movement was based on the concept of non-violence. Its daring leaders established free educational institutions, raised their voice against every kind of discrimination and worked for the socio-political empowerment of the Pushtoons.

The Khudai Khidmatgars 'Pushtoon' remained a harbinger of enlightenment, non-violence, democratic values, world peace and secularism for a long time. This movement could also have helped the Pushtoons emerge from their socio-cultural isolation and could have changed their worldview. But its leaders were persecuted and jailed, first by the British imperialists and later by the Pakistani establishment. This helped the conservative elements rule the roost on Pushtoon soil.

In the Seventies, the US and its allies against the Soviets manipulated the Pushtoons’ sense of cultural insecurity for their own ulterior motives and turned Pushtoon soil into a battleground. They were admired for their 'bravery' and 'honour' and were induced to take up arms again, and so they did. I don't remember that any scholar from the west indicated any conservativeness on the part of Pushtoons during all those decades of war against the Soviets. Religious extremism and Jihad were theoretically upheld by the think tanks across the globe under the US financial and intellectual umbrella.

The Zia ul-Haq regime of the Eighties fully supported this paradigm and did everything to turn Pushtoons into religious zealots. The enlightened, secular and non-violent elements of Pushtoon society were persecuted and jailed during this era. The process of Talibanizing the Pushtoons went on for decades until the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and the warlords took control of Pushtoon soil.

Veiling women (purda), and especially the burqa, had never been strictly observed in Pushtoon areas. Mr. Burnett must have seen only the villages in the suburbs of Peshawar populated by Afghan refugees where the culture is more conservative and requires the burqa. I wish he could have also visited Charsadda, Swat, Malakand, Buner and Swabi, where he would have observed few veiled women. In most of the tribal areas, the women work on farms and never wear the veil.

It is sheer exaggeration to say that the burqa is ubiquitous, even in Peshawar city. Mr. Burnett was staying at the Pearl Continental Hotel, only 20-25 minutes from Peshawar University, where he could have met Pushtoon women from different areas study different courses. He could not only talk to them but also exchange views regarding purda and the burqa. Mr. Burnett has exaggerated the generality of this issue in his travelogue.

The concepts of honour and revenge in Pushtoon society arise from the Pushtoons' insecure feelings due to the political factors I’ve mentioned. But to say that honour and revenge is the core of Pushtoonwali displays sheer ignorance of the Pushtoon way of life.

The core of Pushtoonwali, in my view, is freedom and social cohesion on a consultative basis. Pushtoons never like to be dictated to and vigorously resist any attempt to tell them how to behave. This does not prove that they are Talibans. Moreover, despite conscious efforts by the American and Pakistani agencies to prove them extremely conservative for all these years, they have actually become significantly more flexible.

I myself have married a woman I loved and nobody has harmed me or my wife (who is now the mother my two kids) because of this. There are honour killings but they are not particular to Pushtoon society. Baluchis, Sindhis and even Punjabis are involved in honour killing, while most Pushtoon men and women have been struggling to end this phenomenon. There are a number of Pushtoon women, not in scores or hundreds but in thousands, who have been working for the socio-political and economic development of the Pushtoons for a long time. They are all secular, non-violent and enlightened. It is unfortunate that Mr.Burnett only managed to meet Musarat Hilali.

A small part of Pushtoon society might hold extremist views but this is so in every society. Mr Burnett generalizes from his limited experience out of sheer ignorance or as intentional distortion, in accordance with the policy of the Pakistani establishment for many years.

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