Ever tried googling “Muslim woman”?
For many Muslim women, it is a demoralizing experience. Try it, and it will quickly become very clear why. You are instantly bombarded with hundreds of images of burka clad, veiled women who have the word “oppressed” plastered all over their faces.
No two human beings on this earth look the same, and yet apparently, the worlds population of digital Muslim women do. Kohl-lined, sorrowful eyes peering out from behind swathes of cloth which inflicts oppression of the mind, oppression of the body; we’ve all seen it before.
But if any group of Muslim women could be dubbed as the poster girl of oppressed Muslim women, it is safe to say Pashtun (or “Pukhtun” as I pronounce it) women would take home the crown with ease.
Thanks to the war in Afghanistan, Pashtun women have become synonymous with that abominable O-word that is oppression. The presence of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has merely set this notion in stone.
That being said, this post is not a cathartic rant about the Orientalist trope of the “oppressed” Muslim woman. No. I knew what Google images had to say about Muslim women. But as a Pashtun woman myself, I was curious to see what “Sheikh Google” had to say about us.
So there I was, googling “Pukhtun woman” earlier today, and the results it yielded raised my oppressed eyebrows to say the least.
Some predictable photos appeared, such as Steve McCurry’s iconic photo of the young Swat girl Sharbat Gula who bewitched the world with her piercing green eyes. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see that only a few images of burka clad women cropped up here and there. It was of little surprise that the most searched term on the Google search engine for Pashtun women was “Pashtun women clothing.”
Naturally, Pashtun women are no exception to the grotesque fascination with Muslim women’s clothing. Again, predictable. Then my eyes glanced across the following images after I scrolled down the page a little further:
Before you jump to any wild conclusions that Pashtun women are rabid Kalashnikov wielding terrorists, just because the Taliban have a penchant for Kalashnikovs/AK-47s, does not mean Pashtun women do as well.
From what I can gather through a quick search online, these images were taken in the 1980’s during the Afghan-Soviet War, which is why weapons feature so heavily in the photographs.
That being said, I have to say, it is equally both disturbing and refreshing to see these images materialise on the internet.
Why disturbing? Because, let’s face it: even the Taliban would run the opposite direction if they were ever to encounter these formidable looking women. A gun is a gun, and a Pukhtun woman wielding one is a force to be reckoned with.
My grandmother used the famous South Asian weapon, “The Chappal” (a.k.a slipper to you Anglicised folk out there), with the ferocity of a Kung-fu chappal master when I was a child. Imagine what she could do with a weapon.
Why refreshing? Because better this image than a typical Orientalist depiction of a seductive, brown skinned woman with kohl lined eyes, lost in her veil and in need of saving.
Those kinds of images have been circulated in the media to oblivion, perpetuating these Orientalist narratives on Muslim and/or Pashtun women. The fact that the justification for the Afghanistan war was built on images of oppressed Afghan women, is testament to the very power of images.
If Pashtuns around the world posted images of what the female members of their family wore on Eid (especially those ever fashion conscious matriarchs of the family), to use the sophistry of Kim Kardashian, not only would these images literally “break the internet”, they would quite literally break the vision of millions too.
With the rainbow of fluorescent colours that South Asian Shalwaar Kameezes are available in, sitting with Pashtun women (or any South Asian woman for that matter) attired in traditional garb is both an illuminating and blinding experience. Fashion is always a must for Pashtun women, no matter what!
To conclude, there’s a lot of myth busting to be done. But for now, we’ll just have to make do with these Kalashnikov wielding femme-fatals.