Malala Yousafzai, the 17 year old schoolgirl who stood up to the Taliban domination and demanded her right in education, is today an international phenomenon. She represents to the world, an image of resilience, spirit and determination. She came to limelight in 2009 from a blog she wrote, under a pseudonym for the BBC, detailing the life under Taliban rule and how she, a schoolgirl, vowed to continue her education despite the oppression. She gained international recognition after a New York Times documentary, based on her life, was made the following year. After being shot in the head by the Taliban, she was moved to the UK for treatment and rehabilitation. By then, she had been internationally recognized as an icon of resistance towards the Taliban tyranny. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and addressed the UN session in July 2013.
Malala’s story has been an awe-inspiring account of resolve, fame and hope. How a single person, moreover a child and a girl can stand tall against repression and become a global inspiration. However, she has also been ostracized by a faction (although a minority) for the way she has promoted her struggle in the international arena. To call these critics ‘against Malala would be gross injustice. Her effort, steadfastness and the issues she stands for are questioned only by those who view women as mere chattels to be used for pleasure. Their views on Malala are certainly not worth rationalization simply because there is no justification for their views. Rather, this piece focuses on a ‘concerned’ minority who question whether Malala has become a tool for negative branding of their country and frankly, if she deserves the spotlight she’s basking in?
It is pretty difficult to ascertain the particulars behind the claim, “Malala is being used to brand Pakistan as a country where no young girl who seeks education is safe”. It propels the whole discussion towards a ‘global conspiracy’ debate where each step Malala takes and every word she speaks becomes doubtful. This claim would have carried more weight had we not given the world enough reasons already to do so. An average westerner’s image of Pakistan is one of bearded men in turbans, slinging guns and speaking Arabic, each having four wives kept behind protected walls to satisfy carnal needs. Makes sense when you consider the “One Thousand and One Nights” depictions they had for the Arabs until recently. The murky details of Mukhtara Mai episode cloud the imagination of many critics, for she too, gained enormous international acclaim for standing up to her rapists, before they were eventually declared innocent by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The linear assessment at work here is that anyone in Pakistan who gains appreciation for his/her doings at international level must be doing something ‘fishy’. On the other hand, the dismissive premise presented is one that portrays Malala as a soft image for Pakistan, an icon of peace and an example to the world.
Another stronger allegation, and one used to push the first one, questions if Malala has really earned the praise being showered upon her or is she merely an exaggerated part of a wider plan? Putting aside the part about ‘wider plan’, let us focus on whether she is ‘over-rated’, ‘over-hyped’ and ‘glorified beyond stature’ to quote a few phrases used on social media. While it is true that she is no Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa, she, in her own right, is a unique example of how ‘small’ things can make a huge difference. Whether she deserved the Nobel Peace Prize or even to be nominated for it, is a valid question, but then, the fact that Barack Obama got the ‘honor’ in 2009 poses an entirely new argument on the criterion of the prize itself. There is no specified standard for honoring people, and selfless people like Greg Mortenson (Founder Central Asia Institute and ‘pennies for peace’, autobiography, Three Cups of Tea) often remain unrecognized for years before their efforts are even glanced upon.
Is Malala any more important that countless other Pakistani girls who have and continue to suffer for their right to get educated? Or the children who die in drone attacks? Or, for that case, any citizen of Pakistan who suffers and raises his voice against the myriad of injustices that surrounds him? No, certainly not, but it is she, who got the opportunity to suffer, survive and eventually, spread the message of ‘education for all’ on a much larger scale than any of us, including her, could have ever anticipated. She certainly deserved it. Did she deserve it any more than countless other souls striving in the same stride? No.
Let us focus more on Malala ‘the cause’ rather than Malala ‘the personality’. True, her narrative has a ‘fairy-tale’ air to it but that doesn’t make it any less believable or inspiring. Let the doubts aside, a broader frame of reference is the only thing that can take us beyond the meager obscurities that hamper our development as a society and a nation.
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