“Drones Kill So Malala Can Live”—How does western media use women to justify violence in Pakistan? What are the realities for women on the ground? 

Madiha Tahir  is an independent journalist reporting on conflict, culture and politics in Pakistan. She has travelled extensively through the FATA areas of Pakistan, reaching many areas that are inaccessible to many journalists to report on victims of drone violence. 

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing her on the intersections of Pakistani society, gender and American drone strikes. Listen by clicking the area, or read a slightly edited transcript below. 

How is Pakistani society—particularly in the FATA-controlled areas most affected by drone strikes—gendered? Does this make it so that women are affected differently by drone strikes than men?

Madiha Tahir: It is difficult to know what the precise gender relations are, particularly in North Waziristan, which is where most of the drone strikes have been happening. Before I start talking about this, I do want to say that the tribal areas are subject to three forms of violence: American drones, the Pakistani Army which conducts operations there, and lastly criminal gangs like the TTP who also kill people and conduct their own form of terror in these areas.

The thing that I have heard from psychiatrists is that women are harder hit by some of the psychiatric issues that result from these conditions, partly because they do not have the same kind of support networks that the men do. Each of these homes, which are called “compounds” and have dozens of family members living there—often as much as 50, 60, 70 family members and related family living in a particular home. So women have access to this group. Still, they’re not able to move around in society in the same way that the men do. They’re isolated for a variety of reasons. They don’t have people to talk to in the same way that men do about dealing with whatever issues they might be dealing with—dealing with stress, etc. So, they exhibit particularly severe forms of trauma and psychological stress from all of these forms of violence.

The particular thing about drones is that they cause a very particular form of anxiety. The thing about violence from the militancy, like gangs and the TTP, is that there is some sense—whether it is true or not—that to some extent, they control their interactions, so as long as they don’t bother them, they will not be subject to violence. Irrespective of whether that’s true or not, that is a thing in peoples’ minds.

However, with drones they have no control. The drones are not part of society in anyway, they are not interacting with society in anyway. They are hovering overhead 24/7 and they make a constant buzzing sound which is incredibly unsettling to people. You don’t know when these drones are actually going to strike. There is an uncertainty that produces a particular form of anxiety that the other forms of violence do not.

You mentioned the differences between representations of Afghan women and Pakistani women in the American press. While Afghan women needed to be saved, Pakistani women are called Terrorist Mammas and Terrorist Wives. Can you talk about this difference? 

MT: A common trope of imperial wars has been the idea of white men saving brown women from brown men. This is certainly part of the war effort we see in Afghanistan. Major mainstream American feminist organizations supported the war in Afghanistan as a war for women’s rights—never mind that Malalai Joya, a feminist and an activist in Afghanistan, has spoken about how women’s rights have taken a turn for the worse since the United States invaded Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, however, in the tribal areas where the drone attacks are happening, that has not come to the fore as a justification. You have moments of it where you see, for example, that when the school girl Malala Yousafzai attacked and shot by the Taliban, you saw that she was being used to mobilize pro-War sentiments.

In general, what you see in the triabal areas is that when women are caught and killed as part of a targeting effort by the US. So when drones kill women in the tribal areas, lots of so-called experts write that off as collateral damage, or, they say that these women, by consenting to be the wives of these militants. That is another question altogether, what makes a militant—but to the extent that women were wives to these people, they were complicit in whatever alleged crimes that these people may have committed and therefore deserved to die. So they’ve been called “Terror Mammas” and other such terms.

So, you don’t see the same kind of discourse happening in Pakistan around the saving of women. To the extent that it happens, the saving of women in other parts of Pakistan is that women in tribal areas are deemed as complicit if they end up being killed in a drone strike.

Can you talk about Malala Yousafzai and how this was treated as the question of education in Pakistan and ignored as a foreign policy issue? 

MT: It’s horrific what happened with Malala, and certainly a cause for concern. So the fact that people were able to be horrified by what happened to Malala is—in the case of Pakistanis who are written off as terrorists or open to terrorist tendencies—the fact that Pakistanis exhibited horror at Malala Yousafzai’s shooting is a testament to the fact that Pakistanis are, by and large, opposed to this form of terrorism. It’s sad to actually have to make that comment, and to have that be a political comment, but given the rhetoric in the United States around Pakistan, even saying something as basic as “most Pakistanis are not terrorists” has become a political statement.

The other thing is that we saw around Malala was a certain mobilization of sentiment around Malala to justify the war. Within Pakistan, we saw protests happening. In one case there was a photo circulated of a woman at a protest in Pakistan holding a sign that said, “Drones Kill So Malala Can Live.”

But the larger political question is: why are we so horrified by the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, but not the killings of children who are being killed by drone strikes?

Certainly we should be horrified by the Taliban shooting Malala Yousafzai, but we should equally be horrified by children being killed by drone strikes.  Those things barely make the wire service reports, never mind an entire news article on any child. We barely know their names. That’s what I find really troubling—and that’s where the politics comes out: this emotion that comes out around Malala Yousafzai is a certain kind of politics that only feels horror for a particular kind of violence and doesn’t feel horror for another kind of violence that is also killing children, and used to justify the killing of those children on the basis of shooting of another child. 

Listen to this.