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‘Here I stand, one girl’

By: Ghazi Salahuddin

Without hesitation, I confess that I cried listening to Malala Yousufzai when she addressed a special session of the United Nations on Friday evening. I could see that many in the audience were also overwhelmed by emotion. This was a moment in history that could not have been imagined. And considering what we have made of Pakistan, do we deserve a Malala?

Here was a young girl talking to the world on her sixteenth birthday with such authority and confidence. Verily, the stuff of which fairy tales are made. Knowing the journey that she has made since that murderous attack by the Taliban in October last year, one could only be amazed by her performance. There is no doubt that the world encountered this occasion with a sense of awe and delight.

But what do we, in Pakistan, make of it? Malala’s speech was an exceptional media event. At least the major English language news channels covered it live. Her birthday was celebrated by the United Nations to promote the cause of education, particularly of girls. In attendance were about 1,000 young people, between 12 to 25 years of age, from around the world. In that sense, the world was lit, if only for a brief period, by the light that has risen from a remote area in Pakistan – the light that the Taliban have cruelly sought to extinguish.

Ah, but that light does not seem to have reached the dark corners of our ruling establishment’s consciousness. An environment that has allowed the Taliban to gain strength, in spite of their primitive passions, is sure to impede the advance of progress and enlightenment. For some distorted reasons, the rulers have lacked the will to decisively confront the forces of fanaticism and religious extremism. Hence, the obscurantist elements – misogynists by birth – are set to cast doubts on Malala’s integrity and her vision.

That the Taliban’s attack on Malala in October last year did not serve as a catalyst in the raging conflict between religious militancy and democratic values, prompting the rulers to make their choice, is a great national tragedy. It was an act of betrayal on the part of the government of that day that reminded you of the aftermath of the assassination of Salmaan Taseer.

Initially, the high officials paid their tribute to the teenage girl from Swat and made extraordinary efforts to save her life. Soon, however, the Taliban propaganda machine went into motion. After insisting that Malala must die because she was an American agent, they raised irrelevant issues such as Lal Masjid and the drone attacks.

I had a taste of how young minds in mainly the Pakhtun areas, bereft of any proper education, were influenced by this propaganda when I attended the Children’s Literature Festival held in Peshawar in November, 2012. There, some boy students expressed their views against Malala in not just an angry but a violent manner. In my column titled ‘Malala under attack’ (November 18, 2012), I noted that “the seeds of militancy and intolerance are scattered widely and have already sprouted into seemingly invincible biases in the thinking of many young students”.

Call it a lunatic fringe, if you like, but it has subverted the sanity of the establishment. While Malala became a model for the rest of the world as an inspiration for women’s education, Pakistan – itself struggling to promote primary education – persistently tried not to look at a face that had even graced the cover of Time magazine. In May this year, I wrote a column: ‘Where is Malala?’ after I was able to speak to her via telephone during a visit to South Korea. I was thrilled to hear the voice of this great Pakistani hero and was reassured that she had miraculously recovered from her injuries.

On her sixteenth birthday on Friday, she made her first public address after she was shot by the Taliban when returning from her school. With this address, the world has been introduced to a remarkable young person. After Benazir Bhutto – and Malala invoked her memory so touchingly – there is a female face that radiates an image of Pakistan that we must all try to defend and protect. As a person, Malala has some unique distinctions. Her speech was astounding in its content as well as in delivery. This was God’s gift to Pakistan.

Just look at the timing of when this gift has arrived. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is engaged, tirelessly, in high level consultations to draft his national policy on security and against terrorism. I do hope that he found time to listen to Malala addressing the UN Youth Assembly. It carried a message for him that is more urgent and more cogent than any presentation made to him by our security wizards or policy mandarins. What Malala has said is eminently actionable and it is also a valid plan to tackle terrorism.

It is really sad that Malala was not properly honoured by the very country that she has redeemed in the eyes of the world. Does this mean that the Taliban mindset, with all its mendacity, has also infiltrated the periphery of this government’s thinking? Be that as it may, Malala has raised a flag that should summon all patriots to join the battle for education and for peace.

One formidable barrier in this mission is this thoughtless reverence for primitive values. One example: there was this report datelined Gilgit about the murder of two teenage girls – one as old as Malala – and their mother simply because they were seen enjoying the rain in their own house in a family video. The deed was done by five masked men who barged into the house of a retired police officer to kill his wife and daughters.

Did the heavens fall after three innocent women were murdered, ostensibly in the name of honour? Almost nothing happened. Besides, we hear these stories on a regular basis. But many of our leaders still have a romantic vision of a culture that, for instance, also justifies ‘honour killings’ and suppression of women. We are unwilling to look at ourselves in the mirror of our society.

I am tempted to quote from the speech made by Malala. It deeply touched your heart and awakened thoughts in your mind. Even more compelling than the text was the aura that her presence had created. It was transmitted live across the globe. Little girls in distant places were able to meet, vicariously, a beautiful person they will never forget. There was Malala, telling us that one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Dear God, let this voice not be lost in wilderness.

The writer is a staff member. Email:

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