Anisa is not Malala, at least not yet

Graphic compares Malala to Anisa


Schoolgirl Shot to Death in Kapisa“, read the headline of a December 04 Tolo news story about Anisa, a volunteer for a polio vaccination campaign in the eastern province.

Since that report on Tuesday, the Afghan social media sphere has been in uproar over the shooting.

With an emphasis on the “schoolgirl” in the headline, some began to compare Anisa to Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

There were even references to Anisa as a “girl” who was killed, in part, for going to school.

One female MP suggested naming a school after Anisa.

But, soon after that initial report, the story of a “girl” killed by the “Taliban” began to change.

There were reports that she may have been a 25-year-old health worker who was still in the tenth grade because she worked while studying.

Both a provincial council member and Kapisa’s head of womens affairs cited the Taliban as the culprits in the shooting.

However, a Guardian report later contradicted the head of women’s affairs account reported by Tolo.

On December 05, Saifoorah Kohistani was paraphrased by the British paper as saying there were no Taliban in Anisa’s area.

For their part, the group denied any involvement in the death of Anisa.

There were also several reports claiming Anisa was targeted for her work on polio eradication, which “the Taliban has opposed … in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan”, wrote Tolo.

The Daily Mail also referenced Anisa’s involvement with the polio programme as “one reason why she was targeted”.

Though the Taliban in Pakistan, a separate entity, has been opposed to polio vaccination programmes, the Afghan Taliban have in fact stated they are in support of polio campaigns as far back as 2007.

The vast majority of the 31 new polio cases reported in the Central Asian nation in 2009 were in Helmand and Kandahar, both provinces with high Taliban presence.

Local police go on to say that Anisa was caught in crossfire, an account which Aimal Faizi, spokesman to Hamid Karzai, referenced online.

Josh Shahryar, an Afghan journalist, lamented how much the circumstances seemed to have changed in the two days since the Tolo report.

“This is just a massive failure on the part of everyone involved: government – central and provincial – news organisations, human rights organisations … It’s been days and we still don’t know how old she was [or] how she was really killed”, he said.

In light of these conflicting reports, the government of Hamid Karzai will embark on a four-day investigation into the death.

However, in blogs and news reports, the narrative of the “schoolgirl” targeted by the “Taliban” prevails. Why?

Surely, Anisa’s story, even if she was yet another Afghan caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, would still be tragic.

If it does turn out to be Taliban, Anisa’s shooting would be seen as yet another example of the group going back on their statements that they would not target Afghan civilians or health workers.

If proven to truly be a Taliban attack, Anisa’s death would join the June attack on hotel guests in Lake Qargha as another example of the group blatantly going against their statements that they would only target foreigners and their Afghan collaborators.

Even if Anisa was caught in the crossfire her death would give a name to the thousands of Afghans whose deaths in a 33-year-long conflict go unnoticed.

For Afghans the deaths of family and friends caught in the line of fire are familiar occurrences, but for the media, giving even one of them a name would highlight the direct impacts of the violence on daily life in Afghanistan.

Anisa’s death also brought together activists to demand public attention to violence against women in Afghanistan.

Yet, the spectre of the media coverage surrounding the shooting of Malala Yousafzai – a girl who had for years publicly fought for girl’s education in neighbouring Pakistan and kept a blog for the BBC – still seemed to haunt some Afghans online.

After all, the shooting of a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl made headlines the world over and even put her ahead of Barack Obama, US president, in Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers of 2012 list.

So Afghans quickly began engaging the weak tit-for-tat comparisons between Afghanistan and Pakistan, née ‘AfPak‘ that the media has been lazily relying on since the phrase was first coined in 2009.

In truth, though, we don’t need an “Afghan Malala”, rather, what we need are clear facts to convey the true situation on-the-ground to the world at-large.

Trying to frame the unclear narrative surrounding the death of a female Afghan polio worker to bear a resemblance to the shooting of Malala does little to show the outside world the complex threats still facing Afghanistan.

In fact, even tenuous comparisons of Anisa and Malala without clear evidence to prove how the polio volunteer died, further invite lazy and inaccurate analogies between Afghanistan and Pakistan favoured by the West and do little to address the complex challenges facing the Afghan people.

As Afghans wanting to honour Anisa’s memory we should wait to tell her full, proper story.

For Afghanistan, like any other nation, a complete story that provides the proper context, is much more powerful than a sensational one that engages in half-formed analogies.