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Hats Proliferate as Symbol of Pashtun Protest Movement

Red and Black Hat Becomes Symbol of Solidarity in Pakistan, Afghanistan
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WATCH: Red and Black Hat Becomes Symbol of Solidarity in Pakistan, Afghanistan

An Afghanistan-made hat known as a "Mazari hat" has been in high demand in markets across Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan since Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of a Pashtun movement, started wearing it at public rallies and protests.

The red and black Mazari hat is a traditional garment worn mostly in northern Afghanistan's Balkh province. Recently, it has become popular as a symbol of peaceful protest and has earned the nickname "Pashteen hat."

Yama, a hat seller in Kabul, who like many Afghans goes by one name, told VOA that demand for the hat has soared in recent months.

"It used to be called Mazari hat. Now it is called the Pashteen hat. In the past, the hat came in one design. Now there are several designs that customers could choose from," Yama said. "People have started to like the hat and they buy it in great numbers as well."

Pashteen, whose movement espouses the human rights of Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun community, recently explained how he came to begin wearing the hat.

"Our people are poor. A young man who was a cleaner in the village one day took his hat off and told me that he could not afford a nice hat. I told him, 'Give it to me, I will give you mine,' " Pashteen said at a public gathering in Pakistan. "The hat may not have monetary value, but its moral value is priceless."

Pashtun Grievances

Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan but a minority in Pakistan, have felt neglected and targeted in Pakistan for some time. That long-simmering anger boiled over in January with the death at police hands in Karachi of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old shopkeeper-turned-model.

Police said at the time that Mehsud had been killed in a shootout with members of the Pakistani Taliban, but an internal inquiry cast doubt on that claim, saying Mehsud had no evident link to any militant group. The killing sparked days of protests and a weekslong march in Pashtun-dominated northwestern Pakistan. It also prompted the establishment of Pashteen's group, known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or Pashtun Protection Movement.

In a recent Facebook video, Pashteen reiterated his movement's demands and urged an end to atrocities against ethnic Pashtuns.

"There is war in our homeland which must stop. You [military] have carried out military operations. We have never opposed them. If you want to carry out operations against the Taliban, do them by all means, but we are against extrajudicial killings, disappearances and persecution of people under the pretext of the war against the Taliban," Pashteen said.

The protest movement has also won support from Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the head for advocating girls' education in Pakistan.

Government's Stance

Pakistan's government claims Pashteen's movement has been influenced by outsiders, particularly by the government of Afghanistan — a charge rejected by Afghan officials.

Major-General Asif Ghafoor, director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DGISPR), told reporters in Pakistan recently that the government has accepted the movement's legitimate demands.

"You have seen that it [the movement] found new angles. The movement began to get the most support from Afghanistan. Different voices started to flow in. I personally met Manzoor Pashteen. He is a wonderful young boy. He came here and then met with the prime minister as well," Ghafoor told reporters.

"Whatever genuine demands he had have been met," Ghafoor added.

Pashteen denies that any outsiders are involved in the movement.

"They say we are NDS [Afghan intelligence agency] and RAW [Indian intelligence agency] agents. I tell them prove it," Pashteen said in a live video Wednesday on Facebook. "We do not demand one thousand evidences. Just one is sufficient."

Pashteen has increasingly relied on social media to get his message across to followers and supporters, complaining that local Pakistani media have not covered the activities of his movement.

"Pashtun Long March story has reached New York Times, but Pakistani media is still shying away from it. I wonder why," Asim Yousafzai, a D.C.-based author, wrote on his Twitter feed.

"If an animal falls into a gutter, media would be all over the news. Our march continued peacefully for weeks and the local media did not cover us," Pashteen said in February. "We gathered in Islamabad against this very discrimination that's present in the system against us."

-- Reported by the Voice of America