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April 2, 2018
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Malala: an ordinary girl

Opinion

April 2, 2018

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Malala is an ordinary girl. She is what so many Pakistani girls can be. And that’s what makes her a larger-than-life symbol and, therefore, so scary to so many people. Like any hero, she symbolises a lot more than what she is.

Take away this symbolic power, this projection of our own inner angels foisted upon the people we admire, and any great man or woman will appear somewhat ordinary.

Heroes symbolise our inner battles and provide us a rallying ground to fight our external struggles. Malala is more than an ordinary hero. She represents the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. When she entered this world, she may not have realised that destiny would hand her this flag of resistance. Yet, she was chosen by destiny in the same way that a young Dalai Lama is selected: so ahead of her age. The spirit of our time is all about the girl child and it is appropriate that she becomes the emblem for the battle that has just begun.

Malala is not the first to carry this cross. Pakistan is three generations old by now and the flag of resistance in each generation was carried by a woman. It started with Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, the ordinary-extraordinary woman. She had lived her entire life under the shadow of her illustrious brother, the father of Pakistan, and showed no extraordinary personal talent. And yet, destiny wanted her to earn the title of Mader-e-Millat (Mother of the Nation).

In the 1960s, Pakistan was a young nation – in its teens in fact – groaning under the yoke of a military dictatorship. We were a herd of elephants that had lost its way and needed the wisdom of a matriarch who had the map of all paths etched in her memory. The figure of a mother suited the young nation. Fatima Jinnah was reluctant and yet she agreed. Those who can hear the call of destiny don’t resist it. This is a point that the dream journal of Tipu Sultan illustrates so well.

Mohtarma was portrayed as a traitor, an Indian agent. Pakistan’s ruling classes think its people have no entitlement to rights. They don’t have any inherent capacity to demand their rights. Anyone speaking of rights has to be an external agent, even if she is the mother of the nation. This is a ploy that has always failed to fool the poor. And yet, it is always there. This is a narrative that is shouted from the pulpit, repeated ad nauseam from mini-screens and peddled by those who had infected themselves by swallowing it.

Mohtarma helped Pakistan break the chains of fear and paved the way for its democratic future. Habib Jalib’s two poems, ‘Maan’ (Mother) and ‘Mother-e-Millat’, capture the public sentiment at the time. “The age of fear is gone/ the chains of fear lie broken/ the scared people have revived the courage to speak,” he wrote in one of his poems.

When Ziaul Haq staged his military coup and hanged an elected prime minister, Pakistan had entered into its thirties. Zia was far more vicious and scary than Ayub. He knew the art of fear better than his predecessor and he was also far better at offering bribes. Zia brought religion into the equation of tyranny and misogyny became the state policy. The silence was deafening. Bhutto had been hanged, the leadership of the PPP was in disarray, and the party was disintegrating. Bhutto’s opposition had already discredited itself by supporting the coup and many had joined Zia’s government.

This time, Pakistan needed the courage, grit and resilience of a young woman. It was the time for a symbolic sister to carry the flag. Benazir was also a traitor and foreign agent. Jalib was still around as a poetic chronicler. “The men carrying guns are afraid of an unarmed girl,” is one of his immortal lines that every Pakistani remembers, which shows how BB had challenged Zia’s reign of fear.

The new millennium is a time to harvest the whirlwind. Musharraf was as ignorant as Ayub and Zia, and he was far more arrogant than both military rulers. And an arrogant superpower had arrived with its own utter ignorance of societies it wanted to capture and change to its own designs. Pakistan entered the most troubled period of its history.

Swat under the Taliban manifested what Pakistan can, at worst, become and the Taliban showed us what Pakistani men at their worst can be. Taliban threatened everything. They threatened 5,000 years of the gains of the Indus Valley Civilisation. They threatened our religion and our relationship with the Creator. What they threatened the most was the future of our daughters.

It was the turn of a fragile young girl, a daughter, to symbolise our struggle for the soul of Pakistan. It is the most complex battle of all because the Taliban are not only an external entity. They are also our inner demons. They are our own dark shadow. Look at any statistics regarding women’s development and wellbeing in this country and you will realise that Pakistan remains a soft version of Swat under the Taliban. A Talib lurks inside millions of bearded and clean-shaven men who want this state of affairs to continue.

Malala must be hard to digest for those great patriots who were cowering under their beds and pleading for a dialogue when the Taliban were showing no mercy to the people of Pakistan. The most macho of a hundred million Pakistani men, Imran Khan, refused to say anything against the Taliban because, according to his own statement, it would have endangered his party workers. He even invoked their support against state functionaries during his dharna for a ‘new Pakistan’. Shahbaz Sharif pleaded to the Taliban to spare Punjab.

Malala was the tiny wagtail bird of Iqbal that had the courage to take on the eagle – though ‘vulture’ would be a more appropriate term in this case. She became a national hero, long before turning into an international icon. Her name achieved new meanings when she came back from the land of the dead to symbolise not only Pakistan’s but also the world’s battle for the right to education and the rights of the girl child. It is unfair to confine Malala to symbolism alone. Like the two other great women, she is making a huge contribution to her cause and to this country, and her struggle has just begun.

There is a group of educationists (though attaching the word ‘educationist’ with such characters is a contradiction in itself) who are peddling conspiracy theories against Malala. The least we can do is boycott their centres of ignorance. Our children deserve better than this. Our enemies – internal or external – will only conspire to keep us illiterate, hand a gun in the hands of our children and trap our daughters in slavery. Malala belongs to Pakistan and Pakistan belongs to her. Let’s ask her parents how we can raise our daughters to become Malalas. By God, we need many more.

PS: I am also thinking of other great women who led our numerous battles – Nusrat Bhutto, Begum Wali Khan, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, Asma Jahangir and many more. I have paid tribute to them on other occasions and will continue to do so.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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