While we question why scores of protestors did not swarm the streets against Malala Yousufzai’s shooting the way they did against a low-budget, crude anti-Islam video just a few weeks back, we forget that we, ourselves, are victims of fear. We condemn Taliban practices in harsh terms and lament the current state of affairs, all from the comfort of a Facebook status, a tweet, a blog or a living room discussion. Malala Yousufzai is mature beyond her years and courageous beyond her knowledge, becoming in effect, an icon of courage and hope for millions of young Pakistanis. Contrary to numerous opinions, I admit with shame and regret that we are all NOT Malala. We are not as brave and courageous as a 14-year-old girl, who fearlessly chronicled her desires to attain an education in one of the most dangerous parts of the country in some of the worst times it has seen, and took two bullets for it. We are paralysed by fear in a society that gives us little protection and no assurances. Girls like Malala put us to shame.
Protestors are stronger when they are large in number. Mobs possess the strength to dismiss fear and generate confidence, whether for good or bad and in doing so, affect attitudes and perceptions. Anyone who has run a social activism campaign will attest that support readily flows through electronic channels but street power against a dangerous enemy is rare to find and fear is a valid excuse.
Another reason why extremists are able to conduct brutal attacks is because they are emboldened and directed through a clear and cohesive ideology. Their purpose, though heinous, is similar and in this aim they are united. We, on the other hand, remain divided, fragmented and victims of an existential crisis.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the lack of a support base. It is unfortunate to live in a society where young girls have to fight for their basic rights but it is more unfortunate that state forces can offer little support and security for those who do. In a country where a teenager is more able and willing to challenge radical ideology rather than the government or the army, Pakistan is in serious trouble. Education is the key to changing attitudes and fostering reason; it is even more critical in a country that spends only 2.7 per cent of its GDP on education and where barely 26 per cent of girls and 12 per cent of women are literate. UNESCO statistics on the literacy rate in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan lies between alarming rates of three to eight per cent.
Malala’s case was not about drone attacks but rather about a rigid ideology, driven by power hungry fringe groups, desperately attempting to infiltrate Pakistan’s social fabric, proving that negotiations with the Taliban are not a realistic solution. Pakistan will have to brace itself for painful times if the enemy is truly to be stamped out in the long run. State forces will have to undoubtedly combine, diplomatically and militarily, to weed out the enemy in a consistent and committed manner. For our part, we will not only have to draw inspiration from a remarkable teenager, but also hope that more like Malala are born every day.
The heinous attack on her has already triggered much outcry and the fight for girls’ education must continue. In a country that hits a new low almost every day, we mustn’t let Malala’s struggle be forgotten and replaced as quickly as newspaper headlines. Let’s not fool ourselves into believing that we are as courageous as Malala but hope that one day, we can get there. We owe it to her to do so.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2012.