By: Zahra Sabri
I wish we lived in a society where any attempt to critique Malala Yousufzai’s speech at the UN (and subsequent speeches) would not be so quickly construed as support for the Taliban. But this is understandable. We have lived for so long in a state of moral equivocation over the rise of certain, bullying brands of Islamic practice that we are suspicious of any argument that threatens not to give a brave and – more importantly – young activist what we feel to be her just due.
The fact, though, is that all public figures are controversial, no matter where they live or act in the world. And in too many cases, the arguments advanced against them are petty, ungenerous, and even delusional. Such disparagements can certainly cause outrage – and so they should – but surely they cannot occasion great surprise. Moreover, not all objections can be dismissed out of hand, particularly where they pertain to perceptions and interpretations rather than cold, hard facts.
The criticism that Malala Day was observed with more apparent zest at the UN than in Pakistan is just – but only to a point. We might also bear in mind that it is easier to observe such days abroad than in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where threats of retribution continue to loom large and political leaders prefer to tread carefully. Perhaps too carefully. Also, Yousufzai’s birthday fell in July, right in the middle of the summer vacations. Had schools still been open, perhaps we would have seen more activities, however muted, to mark the day, despite people’s nervousness in drawing attention to themselves.
That said, there is nothing stopping schools from observing their own Malala Day, perhaps to coincide with celebrations of Independence Day. However, it is uncertain whether even private schools in relatively secure areas would be willing to undertake such an initiative, given the lack of adequate action by security forces in the face of blatant threats from terrorists and patent failure to hang on to the terrorists they have managed to capture.
It is also interesting that support for Malala has been noted to be less prominent within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa than in other parts of the country. This may in part be due to celebrity fatigue. A remarkably large number of Pakistanis appeared not to have heard of Yousufzai prior to the attack on her in October, whereas residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have probably been watching her story develop at close quarters for several years now.
While comparing criticism of Yousufzai in Pakistan to a more unquestioned acceptance of her abroad, we may also do well to remember that local heroes are frequently more controversial than foreign ones. One’s own compatriots tend to have a deeper understanding of the contradictions of local history and politics; they also have the opportunity to observe prominent personalities at closer range, and to measure their celebrity against the merits of other, comparable heroes in society.
Gandhi, whom Yousufzai recently cited as a source of inspiration, is a case in point – his legacy is often a subject of greater debate in India’s intellectual circles than in the west. Shirin Ebadi is another example –despite her having won the Nobel Peace Prize, many feminist circles in Iran regard her with considerable scepticism.
As Malala continues her work, and rights groups build up her celebrity in line with their own judgement, and some rather strange tributes are offered to her by any range of individuals and organisations, her activities will likely remain a focus of impassioned discussion on social media. Some of the objections levelled against her will probably be wild and baseless, but we should have learned after the recent elections not to read trends too strongly into social media comments.
There is unlikely to have been a major fall in Yousafzai’s popularity between October and now. Where excitement over her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize is concerned, winning the prize is certainly likely to have a bearing on her popularity abroad; her popularity at home, however, may ironically just increase if the prize does not end up coming to her, thereby rousing nationalistic impulses in supporters.
As it is, it is slightly macabre of some people to delight in Malala Yousufzai’s ‘putting Pakistan on the map’ through her activities. When a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for a school-going girl, who is compelled to sacrifice what should have been her childhood to fight her own battles for a very basic right, follows so close upon the heels of an Oscar award for a film about victims of acid attacks, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the right adjective for the situation.
That Pakistan is providing enough cause for the world to gasp with pathos and pity, and that too at regular intervals, is surely more a matter of consternation than pride.
The writer is a researcher based in Canada. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org