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July 18, 2021

Malala: the litmus test

Under the deepening shadow of Afghanistan, there are continuing reports about the rise and rise of the Taliban. With the departure of the American forces from the country, the spectre of civil war is hovering over Afghanistan.

By a strange coincidence, Malala Yousafzai has also figured in our media this week. After all, she is the very antithesis of what the Taliban represent, in a symbolic sense. And this contradiction also embodies a kind of civil war in Pakistani society.

So, are the Taliban also winning this war, vicariously? What is obvious, anyhow, is that a very large number of people would readily take the Taliban’s side. That is how the Pakistani mindset has been nurtured by our rulers. It is interesting that leading members of the present cabinet now have nice things to say about the Taliban who, obviously, are not divided by the Durand Line.

For years, I have been using Malala’s name as a marker in casual social encounters. It is the easiest way for me to quickly place someone in terms of their socio-political leanings. In other words, I see Malala as the needle of anyone’s ideological compass. Just utter the name and you will have an easily decipherable expression to read.

As coincidences go, it was on Monday, July 12, that the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board confiscated copies of a social studies book in which Malala’s photograph was published as a hero, along with the faces of our national leaders. The textbook, meant for grade 7, was published by the Oxford University Press. A debate ensued on whether Malala is a national hero.

It so happens that July 12 is Malala’s birthday, and it is celebrated globally. In fact, it was the United Nations that declared July 12 as World Malala Day to support education. The day is observed to appeal to the world leaders that they ensure compulsory and free education for every child. This is a tribute to a young activist from Pakistan who was shot at by Taliban insurgents in 2012.

Those who hate Malala – some brazenly and others sheepishly – would give no credence to the UN because they see her global prominence as a conspiracy. Hence, I don’t think they would be willing to acknowledge any respect for the BBC because it made a reference to Malala that is truly remarkable.

The BBC has a regular feature titled This Week in History, showing glimpses of major historical events that had happened on specific days. This week, July 12, 2013, was marked to show Malala addressing the UN as a teenager. The clip showed Malala speaking those eminently quotable words that have reverberated across the globe: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution”.

I can recount instances of how my reference to Malala would trigger a passionate debate in a gathering of young people, including on a university campus. It would be incomprehensible for someone who has had no intimate understanding of Pakistani society to see how Malala is so widely disliked.

At the popular level, there is no constituency for Malala in Pakistan. Among other things, it does not seem to matter that she is the youngest person to have been awarded a Nobel Prize. Ah, the first Pakistani who won this great honour is also not a person loved in his own homeland. Imagine the outrage if that textbook had Dr Abdus Salam’s photo instead of Malala’s.

By the way, I am reminded of a remark that Nehru had made: “You don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall”. Does this mean that history will finally catch up with us and we will have to make the right choice between, say, the Taliban and Malala?

Meanwhile, we are headed in the other direction. The Taliban are here and we are told that they are now smarter and more acceptable. But they certainly cannot change their stripes and remain violent and anti-women and obscurantist in their worldview. It is our tragedy that this worldview partly overlaps with that of our rulers, for whatever strategic reasons.

There are reasons, rooted in our jihadist history, why there is such a strong reservoir of hostility towards ideals that are personified by Malala, such as emancipation of women. The Taliban had no qualms about owning up to that attempt on Malala’s life, though some conspiracy theorists shamelessly argued that her head injuries were fake.

Indeed, the Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan justified the attack that was meant to assassinate a schoolgirl. He was candid in claiming that she was a part of the war that the Taliban are fighting hence a fair target. Malala was shot on October 9, 2012.

I was in Peshawar to attend the Children’s Literature Festival held the same year on November 14 and 15. Naturally, there was a lot of focus on Malala. But I was also witness to hateful behaviour against her by groups of boys. From the outset, the divide was obvious – and it has widened in its scope and significance.

This also means that Malala is a different kind of a symbol for Pakistan than she is for the rest of the world. A meaningful induction of her image as a hero would call for a struggle to liberate Pakistani society from its obscurantist passions. We do not know if this would be possible in the ‘naya’ Pakistan that Imran Khan has promised to build.

Sadly, Imran Khan had also earned the sobriquet of Taliban Khan, though most of his supporters ostensibly belong to the modern, progressive sector. But there is still some hope because he professedly is a student of history – so diligent that he told a select audience in Tashkent on Thursday that he probably knows more about the history of Uzbekistan than most people in Uzbekistan.

One wonders if he has the same grasp of Pakistan’s history and knows the direction in which it should move.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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