Pashtun Personality of the Week: Malalai of Maiwand, the Heroine of the Second Anglo-Afghan War

Pasting the following from the old blog (click for the comments, if interested). Since it was written ages ago, excuse the writing style!  I might re-visit and polish it eventually … or maybe I should do that soon because people are likely to be looking up Malalai of Maiwand a lot since Malala Yousafzai was named after the following woman ❤

Malalai of Maiwand (1861-1880), the heroine of the Second Anglo-Afghan War

Malalai of maiwandAlso known as Malalai Anaa (Malalai “the grandmother”), she was born in the village Khig, approximately 3 miles southwest of a town called Maiwand in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. In the late 1880s, British-Indian forces were attempting to colonize Afghanistan and incorporate the country with then British India and modern-day India and Pakistan. Kandahar housed the main garrison of the British in Afghanistan, making Kandahar, specifically Maiwand, a battle field. Ghazi Mohammad Ayub Khan (1857-1914) was the commander of the Afghan army in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, fought from 1878-1880 between the British and Afghanistan. On July 27th, 1880, Malalai’s father and fiance (or husband, according to some sources) joined the Afghan army to fight off the British.  According to some, this was also her wedding day. Malalai was there with many other Afghan women to serve the soldiers by taking care of the wounded and providing them water and weapons. At one point, the Afghans were starting to lose hope, and it seemed as though the British would  be the victors. This is where Malalai plays a significant role and makes a move that changes the fate of her people.

Malalai “took off her veil,” took out the Afghan flag, and decided it was time her people gained needed motivation to keep them fighting until victory was on their side. So she shouted out:
“Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”This reawakened the warrior-spirit in the soldiers. At this instance, one of her men who was carrying the Afghan flag was killed from a British bullet, and Malalai went forward to him, held up his flag (some sources say she the made a flag out of her veil), and sang:
“With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood,
Shed in defense of the Motherland,
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden,”These words led to the Afghans’ victory.

However, unfortunately at this moment, Malalai herself was killed. She was barely around 18 during her death. Her efforts were acknowledged and appreciated, and Ayub Khan himself, the commander, honored her. She was buried in her village in Kandahar, where her grave remains today.

Today, although unheard of elsewhere, the name Malalai is very common among Afghans; it symbolizes courage, leadership, strength, for she sacrificed her own life to keep the Afghans fighting against their invaders. Many Afghan schoolchildren learn about her from a young age, and the nation prides itself with having her name carved in its history. She is honored not just as a heroine of the war but also as an icon against western imperialism.

To quote Nelofer Pazira,

For her heroism, the resistance movement has come to regard her as a symbol of the traditional, honorable Afghan woman, who joined her brethren in battle against the infidel–the foreign enemy. But as teh narrative of her existence and meaning changes from one group to another, the real Malalai turns into a ghost, a myth. These days, we are taught more about Joan of Arc than about Malalai. How strange that we in Afghanistan–in much of the Muslim world–know so little about our own heroes and heroines. In the West, they write painstakingly researched history books and analyses about their historical characters, but we indulge in myths and songs, rewriting our history, ignorant of the real lives of the hose who inspire us. (A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan, page 138. P.S. I strongly recommend this book.)

Indeed. Let’s not just make ourselves aware of her existence and her courage at a critical point in our history but let’s also be critical of our own history and ask why so little is known about one of our earliest  female leaders in our history. Surely, she cannot have been the only female who fought so bravely–but why is she not known? What can we learn from her sacrifice and for our silence? Is it really enough to simply name our daughters after her, or should we be doing more–e.g., encouraging our daughters to follow her lead as well. What Malalai did at that time was an unheard-of phenomenon from women, since the only role that woman has traditionally and historically had in all wars, if one at all, is to serve the soldiers while the soldiers serve the nation; she does serve her people but very much indirectly, and her role is not appreciated. It is the actual, physical fighting on the battlefield that is appreciated. Malalai spoke up bravely and told her people that their loss would be a disgrace to their nation. What Malalai did at that time is considered a bold, courageous move because she was a woman, women did not do this sort of thing typically. Imagine what she would do today if she were living among us! She would put us all to shame, reminding us that what she did over a century ago, most of us would be afraid to do even today.

So, let us ask ourselves: what exactly do we mean when we say that we honor her, that we are grateful to her, that she is a heroine to us? Is it really enough to only say these things, or must we do more?

Thank you for reading! If you would like to recommend a Phenomenal Pashtun for me to write about in this series of Pashtun Personalities  please don’t hesitate to make your suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Pashtun Personality of the Week: Malalai of Maiwand, the Heroine of the Second Anglo-Afghan War

  1. A beautiful, fascinating story that I already read. That name clearly has baraka – look at Malalai Joya and Malala Yousufzai. 🙂


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