|Volume 6 | Issue 11 | November 2012 ||
Who is Malala?
TAWHEED RAHIM speculates on the victim of Taliban violence as a symbol of manifold dimensions.
Two weeks ago, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education (and former British Prime Minister), Gordon Brown, launched an online petition. His hope is to collect a million signatures by November 10th, all of which would proclaim in unison: "I am Malala". But who is Malala? The facts tell us that she is a 14 year old Pakistani girl who was shot on October 9th and that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (or TTP) have claimed responsibility for the attack. What is less clear though is why she specifically was targeted and what this attack means.
The website for the "I am Malala" campaign summarises the common view that Malala was "shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for the right of every girl to go to school", while the TTP released a statement saying: "If anyone thinks that Malala was targeted because of education, that's absolutely wrong and propaganda from the media". Clearly both views cannot be true. It might be assumed that the TTP have the better claim to knowing why she was shot, seeing as they claim to be the ones who did the shooting, even if Gordon Brown, his million signatures and much of the media insist otherwise. Though the reality of what led to this tragedy, I fear, might be far more subtle than we would be comfortable admitting.
The girl and her message
Inspired and supported by her father Ziauddin, an educational activist and founder of a chain of schools himself, Malala took to speaking up for the right of girls to go to school. Ziauddin later remarked that Malala "got influenced by what was going on and gradually she joined me in our struggle against extremism". Malala started by speaking out in public forums and being a child of the Internet Generation, she took her activism online from its very early stages. She wrote a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban, and specifically about her struggle to study and go to school despite Taliban opposition. In the blog she would write about how the principal asked them to wear plain clothes as school uniforms would attract attention or how when the school closed for the winter break, the principal didn't announce when it would reopen causing her to worry that she may never go to school again.
It is this idea of the innocent girl struggling to go to school herself and writing a blog about the right of girls to study that captured the imagination of many. It's a powerful message and one the "I am Malala" campaign is using not only to shame those with power in Mingora, but all governments that are failing to educate and protect its girls and boys, including our own: "Today in Bangladesh, girls of 10 years of age are snatched out of schools to become child brides, denied their childhoods". It's true that girls in our society might not have Malala's awareness and it's certainly true that we are not the Taliban, but have we not nevertheless created a society that denies scores of girls and boys their right to education? Perhaps it takes a girl like Malala, to shame us into seriously rethinking the problem of girls and boys being "snatched out" or forced to drop out of their schools.
Malala as myth
Malala was no longer a dissenter (there were several of these); Malala was now a symbol of dissent -- and it was this that was hard for the Taliban to stomach. Engaged as they were in a power struggle with the Taliban over control of the region, the state was quick to claim this anti-Taliban symbol for their own, by putting together the National Youth Peace Prize so that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani could award it to Malala in less than two months after her nomination for the International Children's Peace Prize. More honours followed as a government girls' school was renamed to bear her name. The intentions of the state in bestowing these honours can be debated, but to make a national icon of Tutu's symbol of dissent, was to redouble the insult to the Taliban. Thus the death threats to Malala increased in correlation with her rise in fame, until that tragic day of October 9th when the masked gunman boarded Malala's bus and left her for dead with bullet holes in her head and neck.
After the shooting, the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack and the world media connected the dots: Malala was shot by the Taliban because she insisted on her right to go to school. Meanwhile the TTP feeling themselves misunderstood stated that it was not her educational activism, but rather her "pioneering role in preaching secularism" that led to her being targeted. In a sense the Taliban had some evidence to back this claim as during their stint in power, they did decide to reconsider and lift the ban on women's education five weeks after it came into effect. Though then the question arises that if the Taliban could possibly conceive of women's education as being reconcilable with the Sharia, what then in Malala's message did they find so unacceptably secular? "We warned him [Ziauddin] several times to stop his daughter from using dirty language against us, but he didn't listen and forced us to take this extreme step," stated the Taliban. Are we then to believe that she was so toxic an orator, and the Pakistani public so weak in resolve, that in their intention to stop an impending deluge of secularism the Taliban had no choice, and were thus "forced" to attempt Malala's assassination?
While these explanations leave much unaccounted for, the Taliban did hit the nail on the head about what really bothered them about Malala when they labelled her as "the symbol of the infidels". For there was indeed nothing particularly secular in Malala's speech, as nothing she said was not also being said by other dissenters (her father included). Though unlike the others, the "infidels" (i.e. the government and the international community) had chosen her, Malala, and made her their champion. There were several dissenters in the Swat District, but it was she who had become "the symbol of the infidels". Thus in the end the Taliban shot at a symbol, though nearly killed a girl.
So what does all this mean for us? Are we to blame for building up Malala the symbol that made her a target? Was it right for us to highlight the words of a little girl in such a way so as to put her life at risk? These are tough questions, and instead of asking them, what has ensued since the tragedy has been a redoubled effort from all fronts to claim Malala as a symbol for this cause or that. Six days after Malala was shot, the government re-staked their claim to Malala by awarding her Pakistan's 3rd highest civilian bravery award. On the same day the international community insisted on Malala, the symbol for education through the launch of the "I am Malala" campaign. Meanwhile, the International Marxist Tendency relabelled her as "comrade Malala Yousafzai", while former US first lady, Laura Bush saw in her echoes of Anne Frank and those more prone to conspiracy theories thought she might have been an American spy!
So then, who really is Malala? A symbol of Pakistan? A symbol of "the West"? An infidel? A Marxist? CIA? A feminist? An educational activist? Malala as we construct her is all these things and she is Anne Frank, and she is Gordon Brown and his 1 million, she is "every girl in Swat" (as her classmate stated), she is you and she is me. I suspect when "Malala Day" comes around on November 10th, we'll all remember her as we want to see her. But do spare a thought for a brave little girl who got lost somewhere in all this. She still fights to regain her strength on a bed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.
Setting a precedent
The Taliban of Mingora are not completely unaware of all this and thus they argue: "she was young and a girl and Taliban does not believe in attacking women but whomsoever leads any campaign against Islam and Shariah is ordered to be killed by Shariah". Thus the Taliban accept that in their religious/cultural tradition the attacking of women and children is forbidden, but feel nonetheless that in the case of Malala they were justified in overriding this decree.
The danger lies in that once you start making exceptions to rules, those rules themselves lose force. If this 14-year-old girl could be attacked, why not others? Once they start infringing beyond this moral barrier built by the Islamic and Pashtun traditions, it becomes psychologically easier to commit future infringements. What then will become of the rights of innocent women and children caught up in this war? Today, Hina Khan, another girl from the Swat District who dared to speak up fears for her life after receiving death threats. She is not the symbol Malala is, but with cracks appearing in the moral barrier, perhaps she doesn't need to be.
Tawheed Rahim is a Staff Researcher at the Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.
© thedailystar.net, 2012. All Rights Reserved