I felt appalled this morning to read the letter by Taliban commander Adnan Rashid justifying why Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai had been shot in the head. While the letter expresses some remorse over the shooting, it also goes on to justify the shooting based on Yousafzai's advocacy of freedom of non-religious education for Pakistani women.
I felt angry when I read about this. I wanted to do something about the injustice and other dilemmas that arise for me when I read a man's explanation for the shooting of a woman simply for expressing an opinion he disagreed with, and the religious system that was used to justify it.
However, I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem: millions of men on all sides going to war over their inability to control the thoughts and actions of other men and women. In this specific case, of one young woman in particular; but it's hardly an isolated incident. The problem is enormous. And in feeling overwhelmed, I felt powerless. Powerless to do anything to help these men in the Taliban.
Hang on a sec... powerless to help these men? Why would I want to help the Taliban, when they go around shooting young women in the head?
- To solve a problem, you have to go to the source of it. In other words, to work with the aggressors not the victims. Sure, protecting victims is important and somebody needs to do that too, but it doesn't prevent the aggressors finding other victims.
- Because the Taliban are human beings. Just like me.
Like all human beings, the Taliban are driven by their emotions and the desire to get their needs met. They might hide this beneath the veil of religious rhetoric, but deep down they're vulnerable human beings like you and I, doing what they think is best to get their needs met.
Unfortunately, they've been taught some rather ineffective strategies for getting their needs met, and in particular for the way to relate to women. They're not alone in this mind you: many men worldwide have inherited ineffective strategies for relating to women from their family, religion and cultural upbringing.
It's relatively easy for me to feel angry towards Adnan Rashid and his colleagues in the Taliban; it's more difficult for me to empathise with him. It's easier for me to empathise with “the victim”. Why bother empathising with the seemingly powerful Taliban commander controlling the guns? Because in order to help him see that there is a better way for a man to relate to women than to go around shooting them in the head when they disagree with him, I first need to empathise with him.
And I can empathise, because I feel powerless in this situation. Deep down, I'm pretty sure he feels powerless too. Powerless is the way we feel towards ourselves when we're feeling anger externally. And although my personal problem with anger historically was that I internalised it rather than expressed it with a gun to someone else's head, I can relate to having problems expressing anger in a healthy manner too. I also grew up under a repressive religious system that didn't teach me to relate powerfully to women either, albeit a slightly different one to that advocated by the Taliban.
So we both know what it feels to be powerless around women. In fact Rashid's letter has a strong a sense of powerless victim-hood to it, and I think this is why he's able to do the mental gymnastics required to see himself and his fellow Taliban as the victim in this scenario instead of the young girl who was shot simply for expressing views different to theirs.
I can hardly think of a greater expression of powerlessness in a man's relationship with women than to shoot a woman in the head because you don't like what she says.
Confident men who experience genuine power in their relationships with women don't want to shoot them in the head: we'd rather connect with them instead: intellectually, emotionally and sexually. That's what we're all biologically wired for. Women feel safe around men who experience true inner power. Such men don't have to resort to guns, violence, control, religion, oppression or manipulation in order to get women to meet our needs.
If we want to stop the Taliban shooting women in the head, we need to show them how to deal with the emotions that lead so many men the world over to feel powerless in their relationships with women. Part of the problem in dealing with these emotions is the oppressive self-limiting belief systems that many men are carrying. Including, ironically, the belief system the Taliban are attempting to impose on women like Malala.
All of this need for control over other people is driven by feelings of fear and powerlessness. It's certainly not driven by love. One way to temporarily avoid the feeling of powerlessness is to attempt to control other people, and one way to do that is to impose your oppressive belief system onto them. This becomes self-perpetuating down the generations, but it leaves everyone feeling restless because avoiding our deepest feelings only works temporarily. It's just the way our brains are wired. If we want to break the cycle, we have to learn to address our personal feelings of insecurity and powerlessness without trying to control other people.
The good news is that this is possible. It requires introspection, vulnerability and a cessation of hostilities towards people we used to consider our enemy; including people with other belief systems. I was raised under a totally different oppressive belief system to commander Rashid, but the effect on my self-esteem was much the same: it left me feeling powerless in my relationships with other people, particularly women. So yes, I can empathise with the Taliban.
Fortunately it doesn't matter what belief system you were raised under, the cure to powerlessness is the same: learn to express the painful feeling toward ourselves underneath the emotional wounds that led to us feeling powerless in the first place. Repeat this often enough, and we heal the emotional wounds that stop us feeling powerful as men. This is what gets us through emotional adolescence and into true emotional adulthood.
One result of this process is that we begin to see other men, including religious leaders past and present, for what they truly are: just ordinary men driven by powerful emotions and universal human needs that we all share. The need to follow prophets and worship gods abates as we heal our wounds and learn to trust our own inner guidance. We become less easily controlled, and less likely to want to control others.
At this point, we also stop needing to enforce our own particular religious ideology on other people in order to feel powerful and safe in the world. We find other ways to manage our internal anxiety. We also recognise that forcing our belief system on others never really addresses our own underlying feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. Ultimately our feelings of safety and power can only come from exposing and dealing with our inner insecurities, rather than hiding them from the world because we are ashamed of them.
Continuing to try to kill people whose belief systems differ from our own will never work in the long run. That just spreads fear and creates heroic martyrs for other people feeling powerless and insecure to follow. If we want to stop the Taliban shooting women in the head, we need to show them that there is a better way for a man to exercise power in his relationships with (that's with, not over) women. It begins with being open about, and taking responsibility for, how you really feel and what you truly need, instead of indulging in victim behaviours like justification, blaming, projection and hiding behind religious ideals.
When the Taliban catch on that there's a better way to relate to women, they'll stop shooting them in the head. And in order to show them this better way we need to start living it ourselves.
Personally, I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge. I'm still going to keep working on it though, and I know can't do it on my own. So if you're up to the challenge, I invite you to take the next step on your own personal journey of dealing with feelings of powerlessness around women in your past; and to share this article as widely as possible so other men, perhaps even including the Taliban commanders, can learn do the same.