“Dehshut-gardee na manzoor, na mazoor…dehshut ko ragra day, ragra day,” were the slogans with which Liberty Chowk echoed on Sunday as more than 200 people expressed their solidarity with Malala Yousafzai in a protest. Most protestors rejected the charge that other attacks against civilians, including terror and drone attacks, are ignored by civil society.
The protest, attended mostly by people between 18 and 35 years of age, marked the culmination of the three-day Festival of Ideas organised by Khudi Pakistan at the Ali Institute of Education.
The protestors stood at the chowk holding pictures of Yousafzai and chanted Jeay Jeay Gul Makai (Long Live Gul Makai). Gul Makai was the pen name under which Yousafzai blogged for BBC during Taliban rule in Swat. The demonstration started at around 3pm. It attracted both local media and more protestors as it progressed into the evening. The protestors also held a large banner that had a picture of Yousafzai and read Ideas are Bulletproof.
Rab Nawaz, who heads the Punjab chapter of Khudi, said the purpose of holding the demonstration was to unite the delegates for a cause. Nawaz said Yousafzai’s story had touched thousands of people and the attack on her has generated a series of protests by civil society. “People have a simple take…Malala Yousafzai was targeted because she wanted education…she was targeted because she was against them [the Taliban] and was vocal about it,” he said.
Asked if he felt the drone attacks, which also kill children in the northwest, have failed to attract public attention, Nawaz said Khudi criticises drone attacks but that “it is a more complicated political issue.” “We have to understand that there is a certain level of acceptance of drone strikes even in the areas that are targeted,” he said. He said drone attacks had managed to kill several terrorists although there was a need to “control collateral damage.” He said there was no justification for the innocent lives lost…however, the government was responsible for failing to crack down on militant groups taking refuge in the tribal areas.
“Malala is an icon – she has stood against religious extremism,” Imran Khan, a member of the Khudi executive committee, told The Express Tribune.
Khan, who runs the Khudi’s Islamabad chapter, said the festival provided youth from all areas of the country a platform to express their views. Asked how Khudi defined extremism, Khan says “extremism is the imposition of one’s own ideology, whether religious or otherwise through acts of violence and force.”
Taimur Rehman, a singer and activist, also held a concert on the last day of the festival before arriving at the protest. Chanting Mullah Teri Ghunda Gardee Naheen Chalay Gee and Mullah-ism Haey Haey, Rehman was one of the people who led the rally across the chowk. “There has to be a national consensus on religious extremism,” Rehman said. He said civil society had also protested drone attacks with a strong voice.
Mueen Batlay, who has been with Khudi for a year and a half, said drone attacks had been largely blacked out of the media. “One does not get much except for the government’s narrative,” he said. He said it was natural to be outraged by the attack on Yousafzai. He lamented, “We have become thick skinned – we respond to issues only when they directly affect us.”
Shah Fahad Ali, who lectures at the Shaheed Benzair Bhutto University in Chitral and was a delegate at the festival, says there was a general sense of anger and outrage in his locality. “While we do not witness such protests in Chitral, we have a different way to express our anger,” he said. As many as seven delegates from Swat made it to the event and shared their personal struggles.
Ahmed Farooq, a delegate present at the rally, questioned what protests such as this aimed to achieve. Farooq, a student at COMSATS Lahore, said he condemned the attack on Yousafzai but did not understand the purposeof daily protests. “Look at these banners put up by the Lahore Waste Management Corporation expressing solidarity with Malala,” he said, pointing at some banners at Liberty Chowk, “They (LWMC) don’t have funds to ensure a clean city but have enough to display hundreds of banners across Cantt.” Farooq said similar media and public activism was needed for victims of terrorism in Karachi and of drone attacks. “There should be no double standards – what about the other innocent lives being lost across the country? Who raises a voice for them?,” he says.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2012.