Altruism re-contextualized

At the risk of scandalizing a considerable number of people and at the cost of a considerable amount of backlash, I set out to articulate how I feel and sometimes think about different causes that various activists from my part of the world, which is the pukhtoon belt, strive to ‘promote’ (for the lack of a better word) or work for.

Recently, I have been closely following progress/regress of various causes and hence got a chance to observe various activists. It was extremely hard not to focus on the activists and focus on the causes. It made me question myself: why can’t I focus on the cause?; is it just me who finds it difficult to see the cause or others also feel and think the same way. I discussed it with a couple of friends and realized that its not just me and that raised yet another set of questions i.e. why do activists stand at the forefront of the cause instead of letting the cause stand at the forefront? Is it a legit enough reason to question their altruism?

I, in no way, mean to undermine the efforts of all the people who are working towards making this world a better place for all of us. However, in the recent times the focus has been on the faces rather than the causes and for some reasons the activists have become giants and experts at the cost of compromising real positive change in the lives of people they claim to be working for.

Focusing a bit on the context within which some; or should I say the very few pukhtun activists operate in. It is important to mention that very few pukhtun women ever make it to the point, where they get to articulate their thoughts, experiences and understanding of the issues that run deeper than cultural practices, religion and cut at the heart of the structural causes for these issues. Unfortunately, despite being educated and having the ability to read and write, women in the part of the world that I hail from, has almost no history or precedence of women in leadership positions, at least outside the private sphere. This could be attributed to a gazillion number of factors that I could go on and on about tirelessly, but the most important being the ages old one namely: the treatment of women throughout history, which, be it in the West or the East (not attempting to oversimplify the diversity of the world nations), Muslim or Non-muslim countries; has largely been adjusted according to the social and economic conditions. Religious and cultural factors have been secondary in defining women’s treatment. Having a look at capitalism at its various stages of evolution in various countries will suffice to authenticate this. In terms of women’s treatment, pukhtoon women, until very recently in most cases, did not get access to education as a ‘right’ but more as a ‘privilege’.  Having said that, unfortunately, very few go beyond getting a degree and very few get the chance to brush up their analytical ability and critical thinking to a point where they can actually think beyond the structures and imagine a better treatment of women, not defined by culture, society, economics, patriarchy, religion and a number of other factors.

Very few pukhtoon women manage to get heard on various issues and work on causes they are passionate about. The sad truth, however, is that they are torn between: their need to promote the cause altruistically hence making it possible for other women to reach there, and self promotion at the cost of the cause. I, in no way, sit in judgment over these activists considering the challenges they had to overcome to be where they are at this point, neither do I intend to assume a higher moral ground, as I am sure they have done more than I have done. At least they have taken the initiative. My point is only to weigh out what is more important: the bigger change in the structure that guarantees that other women from our part of the world gets to be where we are or the smaller change or personal achievement that can be reaped out of it.

I feel achieving the first can automatically lead to achieving the second. We need to constantly ask ourselves “What happened to altruism? Why are causes being used as tools for self-aggrandizement instead of aiming at actually addressing problems inherent in structures?

As said earlier, I raise all these questions not for the sake of bashing the very few people who have the courage to work on these causes but just to initiate a discourse that can help us redefine our priorities.

I happen to know of a couple of individual led initiatives, which in essence are good but are systematically promoting individual career growth instead of collective good of the people they claim to be working for and working with.

There is a long array of reasons for the current status of affairs. Another dimension to the above mentioned issue is the politics of misrepresentation resulting from lack of consideration for intersectionality which if not considered adequately can result in misrepresentation of the people who are labeled as vulnerable and activists later choose to pick up the cause of working for these people. The question that activists need to ask themselves is whether they can adequately represent the issues of the people they are working for/with.

A repost of the article that originally appeared on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *