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Beyond the Nobel

Updated December 11, 2014


The writer is a researcher and consultant.
The writer is a researcher and consultant.

Malala’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize has led to general jubilation. It also caused some low-intensity myopic national outrage about imperialist manipulation or her being anti-Islam; some diasporic drivel about drone victims being comparably morally superior; and some global silliness such as Time magazine equating her with pop singer Taylor Swift for setting standards of success.

More relevant here are the reservations within her hometown Swat as they show how patriarchal ambivalences and resentments find resonance in the national consciousness. To illustrate, this article juxtapositions three cases of gender-based violence perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban in Swat.

Take a look: Malala: Wars never end wars

Shabana was a performer from the musicians’ locality of Banr in Swat. In 2009, the Taliban stormed her house and dragged her by the hair to a roundabout where she was repeatedly shot. They threw money over her body as a symbolic message and many musicians fled the area. Her killing was seen as typical of Taliban atrocities and not particularly exceptional.

The bigger issue is that of violence against women.

Chand Bibi was found alone in her home with a man, accused of fornication and publicly flogged by the Taliban.

Documentary-maker Samar Minalla circulated a video she received of the flogging, which was repeatedly telecast and media sites were flooded with commentary.

A few journalists and analysts defended the assault as proper Islamic punishment, questioned the authenticity of the video and some even doubted whether she existed at all. The provincial government castigated Minalla and declared the video a doctored deliberate attempt to derail the peace process initiated with the Taliban. The army operation in Swat started less than two weeks later.

Also read: CJ Chaudhry demands report on Swat woman`s flogging

Malala was shot, singled out by the Taliban for being a secular activist and their vocal critic. She was a well-known child rights advocate and recipient of Pakistan’s presidential award.

We know what followed. Retired Gen Musharraf’s logic of women having themselves raped to obtain foreign passports morphed into getting themselves shot in the head for the same.

Also read: 14-year-old activist shot and critically wounded

Even if this manic claim was true, it would say more about the status and condition of women in the country than about women themselves.

In Swat, the resentment against Malala stemmed from her father’s public profile as politically left-wing and her global, and for many unnecessary, exposure. Many felt that her recognition was at the cost of neglect of everyone else in Swat.

The perception that her family was ‘cashing in’ was based on her defying stereotypical victimhood. Malala was not passive enough, traumatised enough, terrified enough.

But Chand Bibi was and is passive, traumatised and terrified. When Saba Khattak and I met her and her mother in their remote mountain village, they were ostracised and living in abject poverty, dependent on the largesse of Sher Muhammad, a village defence committee member who gave them monthly rations. They wept at their shame and ruin, saying all they wanted was to live in anonymity with the means to survive.

When Fazlullah was named head of TTP, they feared being killed. I personally asked a senior, influential member of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf central leadership to help her find any means of livelihood in KP, to which after months of silence, I was told ‘I tried but no one wants to help her, sorry’.

Shabana on the other hand, was the perfect victim. She died. Not only has she been written out of the narrative, there is no support for her family, or other performers in Swat. The same year Malala was shot, another singer from Swat, Ghazala Javed was killed. The police attributed it to ‘internal disputes’ and across Swat many people said she had a ‘character problem’, so that was that.

Also read: Pashto singer Ghazala Javed shot dead

Shabana was a singer and dancer, commonly associated with prostitution in mainstream moral codes, so not deserving of sympathy.

Chand Bibi was not heard about either before or after the incident, and currently survives because a senior bureaucrat sympathetically offered her a cleaner’s job in a school when apprised of her condition and helped her relocate. She conformed to all ‘victim expectations’ and yet was abandoned by both, the Awami National Party and PTI governments in KP.

Also read: Musharraf’s remarks condemned: Rape victims

Malala though, was a 14-year-old girl, so the emotional connections were undiluted by judgments on women’s sexual agency, but she fought back, for which she faced both accolades and condemnation.

So we have a tortured, dead and forgotten victim; a passive, alive and forgotten victim; and a brave person who went through hell but refuses to be a victim. And none of these prescriptions for women have gotten them unwavering support.

Instead of asking why Malala deserves this, we should ask what we have done to help women who survive violence. It is not just random that Malala invited a gang-rape survivor, Kainat Soomro, who seven years on is still unable to get justice through the courts, to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony.

The writer is a researcher and consultant.

Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2014