The rise of Malala Yousafzai from Gul Makai (her penname for BBC blogs) to becoming the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize is nothing short of a fairytale. Her story of personal sufferings, sacrifices and bravery has attracted immense admiration and support not only within Pakistan but also from the global community. However, after publication of her book’ ‘I Am Malala’ she has lost the support of a considerable and influential segment of society in Pakistan. A heated debate has started portraying her as becoming a puppet of so called ‘Western forces’. Her antagonists in Pakistan, a mix of anti-West and pro-Taliban schools of thought, strongly believe that she has been highjacked by the West: instead of being ‘Our Malala – the Pakistani Malala’ they reckon she has become ‘Their Malala – the Western Malala’ with implicit but clear objectives of insulting and tarnishing the image of teachings of Islam and practices and values of Islamic culture. What led to this change in perceptions; how and why? Let’s explore this important question.
Malala Yousafzai lived in the Swat valley which has been a battleground between Islamic militants (Taliban) and Pakistani military forces since 2009. In 2009, at a very young age, Malala was persuaded by a local BBC correspondent to write a diary (under the penname Gul Makai – ‘corn flower’) on the importance of girls’ education in the conflict affected areas. This was her first introduction to the outside world where her efforts are greatly lauded. It also provided a window through which Pakistani and international community could get a glimpse of the terrorized state of mind that people had in the Swat valley, effectively under control of local Muslim clerics. She was perceived as a glimmer of hope in deep darkness. This gradually led to a strong reaction, both within and outside Pakistan, towards unjustified acts of the Taliban clerics against girls’ education.
The local Taliban group led by Maulvi Fazlullah was greatly annoyed by her efforts and Malala had to pay the price when an assassination attempt was made on her. The news spread like lightening across the globe and everyone strongly condemned this cowardly attack. Although suicide bomb blasts, sectarian violence and target killings were perceived almost as a daily affair in Pakistan, this incident sent the whole nation into a shock. For a while, every school kid felt like ‘I am Malala’ and prayers were offered in schools, mosques and other forums for her health and prosperity. She was being perceived as an agent of change. Malala was airlifted to a high-tech Military Hospital near the Capital, Islamabad. Soon after, the British government extended support and she was moved to the UK for further treatment.
Lady Luck smiled on her and not only she survived but, once again, she rose on her feet with a resolve greater than ever. On her 16th birthday, in her first public appearance after recovery, while addressing the UN Youth Assembly she reiterated her passion to continue her mission for girls’ education with a new zeal and courage. She was given a standing ovation. It would be unjust not to acknowledge the role played by the international community and Pakistani Government in appreciation of her efforts towards a noble cause. While addressing the UN, she was wrapped in a pink shawl specially given to her by the President of Pakistan. This shawl belonged to the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazeer Bhutto who herself was assassinated a few years ago and had always fought for the rights of the poor, especially women. The whole world was looking at a Champion of change and in the days to come she was showered with more awards, welcome meetings and praise.
On 18th October 2013, however, she published her book ‘I Am Malala’. The book was written by Christina Lamb, one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents and a renowned journalist who spent a large part of her career in covering Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban. Besides providing early childhood memories and the story of Malala, this book also focused on regional geopolitics related to the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s and the role played by the Pakistani Military dictator – General Ziaul Haq, linking those ill-advised strategies for Islamization with the growing menace of Taliban today.
Prior to publishing this book, Malala was being perceived as a torchbearer for the girls’ right to education. However, in Pakistan, her book created controversies on account of two reasons. Firstly, some of the contents were considered not respectful to the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him – PBUH). Every Muslim is expected to say or write PBUH wherever the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is mentioned. This was not the case in her book. She also used soft words for Salman Rushdie, the British writer who has been controversial since his novel ‘Satanic Verses’. Secondly, the focus of the book on geopolitics was also considered biased and ill placed especially considering the fact that Malala was not even born at that time.
These issues collectively irked a large section of the Pakistani community who felt that Malala is now being used by the West. Given that Malala is still a child, albeit a very assertive and courageous one, they reckon that the driving forces behind propagating these ideas are her father and Christina Lamb who are acting on the behest of Western forces and that Malala is being used as a puppet to malign the Islamic culture and values. Although her father has acknowledged that the mistakes related to mentioning the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) were not intentional and will be removed in the next edition, by now the controversy has gained momentum in Pakistan. It is more than unfortunate that Malala is fighting for girls’ education abroad while at home her book has been banned in private schools across Pakistan. Although the Western community is highly acknowledging her incredible efforts towards girls’ rights and education, and for good reason, she is losing friends back at home.
As for my own assessment, I do think it was a mistake to indulge in sensitive geopolitical issues, especially in Pakistan where anti-Western sentiment is very strong in the context of drone attacks and undercover CIA operations, while championing the cause of girls’ education. The same (sorry) dynamic can be noticed in the case of polio eradication. A conscious effort to mitigate the negative consequences of her book could be a possible solution to gaining some of the lost ground. An explicit acknowledgment of the mistakes in her book could perhaps defuse some of the tension.
Malala is blessed with a charismatic personality and everybody who meets her is impressed by her dynamism and drive. She is passionate about girls’ education. By no means, she is just a puppet. She has earned a respect and praise that others cannot even imagine of at her age. Moreover, the development sector is in dire need of ‘young and charismatic heroes’, especially girls from the global South. In less developed countries like Pakistan, we need someone who thinks globally but acts locally. Unfortunately, at this time, Malala is no longer being considered an education activist by many in her own country, unlike abroad, where she is respected for her determined fight for the right of all children to be educated.
Sadly, in Pakistan, her image is now linked with geopolitics. That is a fight she cannot win. I’m afraid poor girls of the Swat valley will be the biggest losers in the end.
DR. ASMAT ULLAH MALIK
Director Research and Development
Integrated Health Services
House 1-B, Street 50, F-8/4, Islamabad, Pakistan 44000
Cell: +92 321 570 0272