By: Mina Sohail
“A city without books and a city without libraries is like a graveyard.” This is what Malala Yousafzai said in her rousing speech, before she officially opened Birmingham’s 189 million pounds library. Malala placed her personal copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and received a lifetime membership of Europe’s biggest public library, which houses a collection of one million books.
What irony that the girl who was wanted dead by the Taliban for reading books inaugurated one of the world’s biggest libraries. Where the world is full of tributes for her in the form of peace prizes, inaugurals and accolades on Malala, she remains a controversial figure in her home country.
So who is Malala Yousafzai? For the general public, she is a 16-year-old girl from Pakistan who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Swat in 2012, for her activism regarding women’s right to education. For cynics, though, she is a ‘Dramazai’, a CIA agent and a small town girl who is now globetrotting and making lucrative book deals that will earn her millions.
These, at best, are tales by warped, cynical minds and trolls on social media who side with the Taliban or are averse to the idea of progress for women. Pakistan is a magnet for conspiracy theories, usually surrounding political figures and military men. But to concoct similar notions about a young girl who has faced death in broad daylight is hard to fathom.
On September 6 she will be awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize by Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman in the Netherlands. Currently attending school in Birmingham, she has also co-authored her upcoming biography, ‘I am Malala’.
The world holds her in great reverence for her cause and sacrifice through peace prizes, celebration of a world Malala Day and similar momentous tributes. But where the west oozes with admiration for her bravery, certain circles in Pakistan have shown downright indignation. Where many in the country do regard her as an icon for women’s right to education, others have flooded social media sites with a barrage of criticism on both her father and her for ‘capitalising’ on her past adversity.
This seems to be a pattern among those who hold those Pakistani women in contempt who come into the limelight after being victimised. It also reminds me of Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang raped in 2002 and instead of embracing the common cultural expectation of silence, decided to take her perpetrators to court.
Initially, Mai received praise for her bravery but when the international media focused on her case and consequently the barbarism of men in villages towards women was exposed, what ensued was an onslaught of criticism.
Glamour magazine named her woman of the year in 2005 and she started to speak more blatantly about the nightmare she had lived. Mai was then blamed for ruining Pakistan’s international image, making money out of her misfortune and conspiring against Islam. But then, this is a country where villains such as Mumtaz Qadri are greeted with rose petals for assassinating an innocent person in the name of religion and victims like Mukhtaran Mai and Malala are condemned.
During my short stint working at a local NGO, in a conversation with two female colleagues about Malala I heard them resort to condemning her increasing international fame and for accepting book deals or anything that profited her monetarily. It pained me to hear a 16-year-old talked about with such censure, let alone one who had faced death on her way back home from school.
Malala has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and addressed the UN General Assembly in the presence of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. Her accomplishments as a teenager have been unprecedented and her life has been a rollercoaster ride.
Many argue that she wasn’t the only one who was shot that day. However, Malala used to write a diary for the BBC under the pseudonym ‘Gul Makal’ and due to that she was already popular. BBC Urdu published her diary in which she would write about life in Swat under the Taliban and their suppression of girls’ education. Eventually, she had to leave with her family since her identity had been revealed.
So why is getting a book deal or other such rewards a bad thing? The world wants to know her story – and she has an important one to tell. Many need to be reminded that she is not yet an adult (only 16 years of age). Let us be happy for all that that comes her way because she deserves every bit of it. In the 66 years of our history, we haven’t had many female heroes to claim other than Benazir Bhutto. We finally have one who has been celebrated by the world.
Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Next month it will be a year to Malala’s haunting ordeal. It is time we let go of all the cynicism and fully celebrated Malala and what she symbolises – women’s right to an education.
The writer is a Fulbright scholar from NYU and freelance journalist with a focus on women and human rights. Twitter: @MinaSohail