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Beyond Malala

July 17, 2013

IT was a moment of hope for a country starved of it. When the teenage heroine who so valiantly stood up against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) took the podium at the United Nations, Pakistan glowed with pride.

Her voice was clear and confident and her message simple: Pakistanis are tired of war, Pakistani women are brave and resilient, and Pakistani girls want more than anything to educate themselves. Malala Yousafzai spoke for a nation, and she did it well.

There were many moist eyes among the delegates present at the youth assembly last Friday, and when she was done she was given a standing ovation.

Moments such as Malala’s speech are rare and riveting for many reasons. To a country cowed by the Taliban and baffled by an avalanche of bombs, her survival represents possibility.

To the larger world that does not share her faith or nationality, it represents the inimitable power of the human spirit to overcome the forces of nihilism and darkness.

There is so little on which Pakistanis can agree, on which the world can agree, that finding a moment, a person, about whose goodness there are no qualms, is to be treasured indeed.

The questions come after the passing of the moment and after the applause. The first of them is what the world, represented by the UN and her country, owe to the girl who represents such hope. The question, of course, is where the complications lie.

While many were touched and moved by her words on Malala Day, few UN members would be willing to allow them to transcend or even touch the dictates of strategy that determine their support. Hands can be put together for the brave girl from Pakistan, but votes cannot be cast for her.

Votes are not determined by emotions or even empathy; they are determined by politics and strategy. Strategy dictates that the very men who attacked Malala will become partners in peace, and the countries of many of those representatives present will support them.

When it comes to the UN, its fervent fawning and clapping for female icons from Burma to Pakistan, while actively undermining the role of women within its own bureaucracy, is well known.

Not only has the UN failed to elect a female secretary general throughout its history, a 2010 report issued by the world body itself showed that its own efforts in gender mainstreaming had been sweeping and costly failures.

The newly formed UN women’s body has in recent months repeatedly called attention to the increase in sexual violence in countries facing political unrest, like Egypt and Syria. No one in the Security Council or the General Assembly has bothered to pay much attention.

In the flurry of conferences and working groups and committees that the UN regularly funds, little of actual import is ever achieved on behalf of women.

In addition to Malala Yousafzai, who was honoured last week for standing up to the Taliban, the UN also handed out an award to Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman for her work on human rights.

In the world of glitzy galas and pointless conferences that is the United Nations of today, perhaps the contributions of both are similar or even equal.

Thus goes the story of how the UN, bureaucratic, decrepit, and superficial, fails the potential of girls like Malala.

The other half of the saga is the local and particularly Pakistani duplicities that will ensure that she is seen and heard but ultimately ignored. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where she once lived, an insufficient amount from the budget has been put aside for education.

In the coming days, many will sing paeans to education, stress its necessity, and ensure that Malala’s speech at the UN is a blockbuster hit on social media.

Some of the same people, all educated, will continue to beat their wives, harass their female co-workers, and generally believe that women outside the home are worthy of taunts and teasing and any misfortune that befalls them. For men in Pakistan, education has not led to enlightenment or freedom from misogyny.

The men at the Council of Islamic Ideology, which recently deemed DNA evidence impermissible in rape cases, were also all educated men. The politicians who struck a deal with the TTP a bare two months ago, that no women would be allowed to vote, were also all educated men.

Education has not eliminated hatred for women in Pakistan; it has not eliminated bigotry; it has not defeated the premise that returning women to the confines of their homes will produce a pure and truly Islamic society.

When it has been proffered, the commitment to girls’ education has always been a limited plan — attempting to create better mothers for the next generation, or at best more companionable wives.

Malala Yousafzai may not have been considered a heroine if she had been attacked by the Taliban on her way to work. A schoolgirl is respected in Pakistan only if she never becomes a working girl.

These realities cast large shadows, and are a reminder of the fact that the young girl for whom so many Pakistanis prayed and clapped is unable to return to her country. In this sense, Malala is not simply the representative of possibility but also of the banishment of possibility, away from Pakistan to places where it will be allowed to exist.

It’s a happy ending in the individual case, for if she returned, Malala Yousafzai, like other Pakistani heroines before her, would have to deal with the crude judgments of a society where lip service to education is permitted, but the freedom owed to educated women is denied.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com