By: Adnan Rafiq
Malala Yousufzai is globally considered a youth icon, an activist for women’s right to education, equality and liberty, and is yet seen with suspicion, mistrust and doubt by some in her own country. For many, her story starts when she was shot point blank on her way home from school in a mini bus in Mingora. The news spread like wildfire and the world held its breath as she struggled for her life at hospitals in Peshawar and then Birmingham. Miraculously, she survived. Since then, she has been internationally recognised and presented with a number of awards and prizes, leading up to being considered a favourite for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite her international acclaim and recognition, many in Pakistan believe that she is being given unnecessary coverage in the media and promoted by the West for its ulterior motives. They point to the double standards of the West and claim that many others who died or got injured as a result of terrorism in Pakistan and other troubled areas in the world are not given anywhere near the attention that Malala receives. Furthermore, there are those who see this whole episode as being orchestrated or used to malign Pakistan and Islam.
Malala’s story, however, did not begin when she was shot. On numerous occasions, since writing her famous diary for the BBC, she has presented her thoughts on issues such as girls’ education, women’s place in society, social justice, equality and liberty, dangerous notions in this part of the world. She exposed those, who in the garb of religion, were trying to restrict women to their homes, closing doors not just to the outside world, but also to their self-emancipation, and to their material and spiritual wellbeing. Malala’s crime was that she raised her voice against this — but importantly, she was the only one to roar like a lioness among the silence of the lambs.
It is not, therefore, because she was shot, but why she was shot that makes her worthy of the admiration, reverence and respect bestowed upon her. Those unable to understand this distinction merely demonstrate their own lack of emotional intelligence and cluelessness. There are, of course, other very emotive and pressing reasons why Malala invokes emotive sentiments. Attacking a child is considered grotesque in even the most violent of cultures and in Malala, a young, middle class girl from a small town, most Pakistanis can see one of their own. Furthermore, I shall argue that there are also deeper ideological underpinnings to the reaction that Malala evokes, both of astonishment and of banishment.
The confusion over Malala epitomises a primeval struggle between the forces of enlightenment and obscurity in this region that over the centuries, evolved a particular understanding of religion. Religion was supposed to free the mind of the believer from the lust of petty gains and the fear of repercussions for following his/her dreams. The prophets that have gone by, one after the other, challenged the status quo, against great odds and liberated humans from the chains of slavery, both mental and physical. Yet today, in the name of god, people are being subjugated and atrocities are being committed. Those like Malala, who challenge the demi-gods of the era, the fascists who accept none but their own interpretation of the scriptures, are termed apostates and traitors.
Malala is accused by some for promoting western values, but she is not the first one in this region, who raised a voice for her basic rights. Despite the stereotypical perception of Pashtun culture, there has always been a desire for peace, enlightenment and education. The greatest Pashtun leader of the 20th century, Khan Ghaffar Khan, started his nationalist Khudai Khidmatgar movement by establishing a network of schools and insisted on education and non-preferential treatment for girls. The thousands of followers of the Khan amply demonstrated yearning among Pashtun society for non-violence, equality and liberty and this is why, many today, especially females, look up to Malala to continue this struggle.
Malala is not necessarily drawing inspiration from western philosophy, heroes and history alone, for she is the torchbearer of traditions going back millennia that were nurtured and kept alive in our own land by the likes of Bulleh Shah, Rehman Baba, Shah Latif Bhittai, Khushal Khan Khattak and many others. It may come as a surprise to some, but the truth is that despite decades of social engineering and the turn to conservatism, somewhere, even if ever so slightly, the light of the more tolerant teachings of Islam propagated by the great Sufi saints and mystics in our beleaguered land, flickers and Malala is the embodiment of that.
Faced with conflict and strife along the lines of religion, ethnicity and caste, these great social reformers presented humanism as a cure for social ills. It is this great lineage of thought, still embedded in our historic, cultural and social heritage that holds the key for resolving the problems we face today. This shared inheritance is what connects us with Malala, even if we cannot find the courage to do what she did.