The mixed emotions stirred in Pakistan by Malala Yousafzai coming within kissing distance of the Nobel Prize is reminiscent of the way Sharmeen Chinoy’s Saving Face gave us a high when we saw Pakistan the maligned mentioned in the same breath as the sublime Oscar. The fact that the path to glory was paved with acid burnt faces took a while to sink in.
Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, deserve all the kudos we can heap on them. The story has all the ingredients of a powerful cathartic tale. By attacking her, the Taliban made the ultimate expression of impotent rage. She is the piece of crockery broken by someone who cannot do much to harm his actual tormentor. For the west, she is one of the props in the quest to justify a farcical military adventure gone horribly wrong. From the Oval Office to the Queen’s Buckingham Palace, she chatted with world leaders with an ease of manner that crusty South Asian politicians can only aspire to. The world listened intently to her pleas for promoting education. She received several awards amidst waves of loathing for her attackers.
However, to hope that the Malala factor would make all the Hakeemullah Mehsuds and George Bushes (or Bushies like Obama) see the error of their ways is akin to intoxication wrought by South Asian moonshine! It does not change the fact that, post-9/11, the Muslim world has been at the receiving end of disproportionate revenge. It also does not change the fact that resistance or insurgency has retaliated with no regard for any principle of Islam. It does not provide a fig leaf for the great power game in which neocolonialists want to suck out natural resources as well as the entrails of those sitting on them. It also does not hide the fact that the west supports repressive Muslim regimes as long as they are on the right side of the political divide. The dramatically different reaction to ‘domestic law enforcement’ in pro-west Middle Eastern monarchies and pariahs like Iran and Syria are examples that readily spring to mind. Also clear is the fact that even Islamists who want to play by the rules (like Egypt’s Morsi) cannot be allowed to prosper, even if that means going back to the junta that caused the political upheaval in the first place.
The dastardly act of attacking Malala did indeed increase the aversion felt for the Taliban by the average Pakistani but let us not forget that terrorists do not feed on public support — they are kept going by their own obsessive dementia. For the Taliban, the act was a shout to the sane that nothing was too egregious when it came to punishing those in league with non-Muslim soldiers.
Pakistanis wept when Malala was battling for her life and heaved a sigh of relief when she survived, and are proud that she thrived. There is a tinge of the conspiracy theorist’s suspicion of the west at what some see as disproportionate plaudits for the girl to expose the backwardness of Muslims. As for her moving to the UK, Pakistanis attribute it to an understandable desire to not jeopardise her life yet again. In any event, as mini-Pakistans like Bradford would exemplify, immigration is a popular pursuit in our part of the world! The refuge offered to her by Britain affirms our faith in the phenomenon that the west has an equal penchant for inflicting and preventing pain.
As for the ban on her book, it is the manifestation of the oriental tendency to brush the unpalatable and undefined under the rug in contrast with the confessional culture of the west where issues are seen as they are no matter how horrific. For parents all over Pakistan, it was a stark reminder that brutality masquerading as messianic spirit did not consider any flower to be too beautiful to pluck and trample upon. While metropolitan dwellers like Lahoris are relatively secure by virtue of being away from the real theatre of hostilities, the Malala atrocity made us realise that in this frenzy of drone versus suicide bombings, anything goes.
So pardon me for clinging to the belief that the high-handedness of the west and the collective imbecility of the ‘Orient’ will outlive the Malala phenomenon. What the world needs is pacific settlement of disputes, non-aggression and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and not miraculous survivors like Malala to shame murderers into non-violence.
Now it is said some schools have ‘banned’ I am Malala. Gosh, now that will simply motivate me to buy an extra copy for my son. We will both read I am Malala and we will wonder and then get into a discussion, seated on our comfortable couch in our comfortable home, like many Pakistanis ensconced in our metropolitan safety, on how an 11-year-old girl — in a small, primitive town, in pursuit of a fundamental right like education — gets shot in the head and lives to tell her story on a global forum. I will shake my head in incomprehension, while my son complains about his Biology teacher losing his assignment, trying to get my head around what the 15-year-old Malala thought when the masked hit-men asked a minibus full of girls which one of them was Malala.
As my 13-year-old boy attends a Model United Nations (MUN) at his fancy private school, sleepy on a slow Saturday, my mind will have the image of that 16-year-old girl from once peaceful Swat speaking to a global audience at the UN session attended by world leaders on July 12, 2013, persuading the world to ensure girls’ education. My boy rooted for her to get the Nobel Prize and, unlike many much older than him, he somehow seems to get why being educated is worth getting shot for. It is a world I see around me and it is a world I do not want Musa, my son, or Malala, to grow up in. But this is all the world we have, and while I wait outside his school to take him home, I think about Malala. Again. Away from her home. Here’s wishing her and many like her a safe, education-filled Pakistan.