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Beyond Malala

Published Jul 17, 2013 07:44am


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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.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

Feroz Jul 17, 2013 10:10am

Malala is a great symbol to be admired but it is much easier to be a Malala away from the violence in another country. What happens to the girls who cannot escape anywhere and are fearful of a bullet or blast ?

umesh bhagwat Jul 17, 2013 10:21am

A ray of true light can dispel the deepest darkness! sri aurobindo

Muhammad Bilal Khan Jul 17, 2013 12:11pm

A better written article..worth reading and you will find yourself reviewing your thoughts..

Syeda Jafri Jul 17, 2013 02:27pm

"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. "

Well analysed & well written article. I agree that education has failed to change the mindset of our people. However, education is the only way out. Once we are able to provide education to massess, can we focus on improving the quality of education.

Parvez Jul 17, 2013 04:16pm

Absolutely brilliant.........balanced and more important truthful.

Abdul Malik Jul 17, 2013 06:28pm

It was like a Post Office, she was just a medium. A medium being used to prove as in Pakistan its all black. Its not so. And she is just a kid being used. She is not an intellect. She read for what she was practicing for last few months, a Good confidant Rattaaaaa.

C. M. Naim Jul 17, 2013 07:43pm

An excellent statement of the lay of the land, so to say. And thank God it is not like the drivel spouted in Huffington Post.

Karen McFly Jul 17, 2013 10:15pm

@Feroz: of course, it's easier for her to be abroad. But what would be the point of her returning and getting killed? She is working towards making the situation better for other girls and women in Pakistan. It's not like she has gone to Bradford to live an easy life, which she could just as well have done. Has anyone of those who speak against her ever considered that? Lots of people leave the country every day for better opportunities abroad and never look back. That is not what she is doing.

Karen McFly Jul 17, 2013 10:23pm

@Syeda Jafri: I also agree that education of the masses is the only answer, because at the end of the day educating people is like sowing seeds in a field. All seeds fall on the same ground and are treated the same way, but not all will grow into nutritional grain. And just as well, not all people going through the educational system will come out as well rounded individuals. In countries all over the world, where people have enjoyed a comprehensive education you get people who voice opinions as if they have spent their lives in a mud hut in the jungle.

xpakistani Jul 17, 2013 10:28pm

@Feroz: Malala tragedy has pointed out the grave problem in Pakistani society - which everybody conveniently ignoring it. It is the job, and the problem of Pakistanis to fix - but they are wasting their energy looking into conspiracy, foreign involvement - there is no hope for Pakistan and Pakistanis they will remain in this mess and keep blaming others for their miseries.

Radhika Jul 18, 2013 01:30am

India and Pakistan should have strong leaders.Only then problems will be changed.Anybody can talk in air conditioned hall but for things to change changes should come from people.We should elect leaders who can change lives.(Like Dhoni changed India's face of cricket.From an underdog ridden with corruption he had made it to the top.and A.R.Rahman who changed Face of music in India.

Abdul Rashid Jul 18, 2013 03:31am

Rafia Zakaria - Thanks for writing balance article, Malala is debt and liabilities for Pakistan, her Medical expenses in UK for Rs5 crores and have to pay her brother 3000 Pound p/m, what happen so many people killed in Karachi daily basis, lyari Kuchi community are taking refugee in Thatha and sind area, we should not worry on this Malala she is agent her parent are against pakistani idelogy. please construct Lyari and forget this girl and help Kuchi community.

Khan Jul 18, 2013 04:44am

@Feroz: It is also so much easier to be a man, in Pakistan, and post comments on the web.

hasan Jul 18, 2013 04:55am

Half truth! The other half of truth about women's plight is that a woman is the biggest enemy of a woman. One of the sentences in the article should be read as For men and WOMEN in Pakistan, education has not led to enlightenment or freedom from misogyny. "

Nausherwan Jul 18, 2013 04:20pm

A thought-provoking and well laid out article. However, the author has not been able to layout a logical and implementable way forward, contrary to the title. Besides criticizing the government for not allocating enough budget for education, we need to also focus on the role of the media (an important force to recon with) in support of education, the role of NGOs in promoting women education beyond the urban centers, the role of political elite and so on. A country like Pakistan needs a strong focus on promoting basic education for all genders, while dove-tailing all resources to include govt and semi govt and pvt investment through a national education strategy - developed with national consences. The hyped intolerance in the society shall only be addressed through a unified and functional education system. The countries where the system is incapable of delivering the masses/ society then has to take the matters in own hands. Lets join hands for a free and fair educational system for all in Pakistan.