Imagine a country where a precocious adolescent, all bright-eyed and full of lofty dreams as most kids her age, is shot in the head by a terrorist. A mere school-going child, guilty of nothing more than advocating for young girls to achieve a basic, universal right – the right to attain education. And advocate she did. Despite being repeatedly threatened by vicious forces violently opposed to women appearing anywhere in public life, let alone venturing to school, she did not cower. Even after she was shot.
You would think that such a barbaric event, especially in a country rocked by terrorism with thousands having been slain over the years, would unite the nation in grief and introspection. And for a brief while it did.
As a team of armed forces personnel air-lifted her limp body and transported her to a hospital abroad, many of her compatriots prayed for her recovery and raged against the brutal act. Many wondered aloud how someone could be so cruel as to attempt to kill a young girl. A pointless wonderment; as if terrorists have any moral codes or principles.
The grief turned to overwhelming joy when she started to make her recovery. But this joy was short-lived. A different type of question began to be posed. One that contested the very veracity of the shooting taking place. Conspiracy theories abounded; with claims that the act was staged at the behest of foreign powers intent on defaming Pakistan. Unfounded links were drawn between the universal outpour of affection on Malala and a global plan to humiliate us and seize our nuclear weapons.
As international recognition and warmth grew for this brave child, the clamour of voices resenting her amplified on our talk shows. The usual litany of right-wing commentators was joined by ill-informed celebrities, united in their opposition to the celebrated status achieved by a young girl. Suddenly, her every motive was eyed with suspicion. Her every word was dissected for a hidden meaning – something that would confirm her malintent and evil designs to lead our impressionable youth away from the ‘right’ path.
Instead of celebrating her as the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, we begrudged the award and cited it as another example of the West acclaiming her for its own wicked intentions. It takes a highly insecure nation to disparage its only two Nobel Prize winners. It is also especially unfortunate when they are not even welcome in their homeland. So, why is there so much hatred towards Malala?
Is it because, as some erudite experts have pointed out, we only like our heroes when they are martyred? That surviving a terrorist attack shatters our image of a perfect martyrdom? And just because the victim survives, that somehow makes it kosher to launch vile and outlandish allegations about the attempted murder and its target?
Or is it because of all the accolades and love she has attained worldwide that makes us deride one of our own? Her opponents question why Malala is the only one to be raised on this pedestal of devotion. The fact is that Malala was internationally recognised even before she was so gruesomely attacked. In an environment of fear and relentless bombings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, she publicly spoke out on behalf of girls and their right to learn, and her stories were highlighted in the international media before she was even a teenager. She was a symbol of resistance against obscurantist forces and was even lauded by many of those who mock her today.
One would be tempted to ask her opponents: how have they honoured the memory of Aitzaz Hasan? How have they, and the state they so vociferously defend, treated the APS victims’ parents who are still seeking justice? What did we do when Ehsanullah Ehsan managed to ‘escape’? Yet we have the temerity to ask why Malala does not return to her home country. Why would she return when many on social media platforms openly request the Taliban to ‘finish the job’? Why would she return when her home province’s government cancelled her book launch ceremony and schools celebrated an “I am not Malala day”?
Many people label her a tool of Western powers and question what she has done for her country. A cursory Google search would reveal Malala Fund’s Education Champions, an organisation that works throughout Pakistan to increase access to education for girls, while also advocating for better resourcing, improving school infrastructure and for the advancement of digital curricula. The Fund works primarily in rural regions where the majority of girls miss out on secondary education. Furthermore, given her commitment to promote girls’ education, the US Congress has also passed a bill named after her that will expand the number of scholarships to women in Pakistan, with at least 50 percent of these scholarships to be awarded to Pakistani women.
People who label her as anti-Islam and anti-Palestine are unaware of the fact that she donated $50,000 out of her Nobel Prize money to help rebuild UN schools in Gaza. They expect statesperson-like statements from a 23-year-old while conveniently forgiving the gaffes of their head of government. Malala’s personal views on marriage elicit a national outrage and a detailed explanation is sought of her by the KP Assembly, but we are blase when the foreign minister is squeamish about calling a terrorist a terrorist and the prime minister calls him a martyr.
Malala should be a source of pride for our country. Her bravery and courage are inspirational, and she deserves to be cherished and supported in her cause. In a broken world, hers is a vital voice for the future generations. A voice that is unwavering in its single-minded pursuit of promoting girls’ education everywhere and that aspires to change the world for the better.
The writer works as a development practitioner for a local consultancy.
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