The government seems to have moved a resolution in Parliament to declare Malala Yousufzai as daughter of the nation. Pakistan’s top dignitaries have also visited the UK, in recent days, to meet the young girl heroine whose name has also been proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize. Given the attention she has received lately from all over the world as appreciation for standing up for her right to education and that of other girls, there is also a possibility that she may even be seriously considered for the award. However, I am tempted to ask the question if it is a good idea in the first place.
I would also like to make it clear that I have endorsed her nomination with an open heart and my objection has got nothing to do with her but how we as a state and government, or even a society, tend to react to winning an award. There is a high probability that once we, as a state, bag the Nobel through Malala, our entire focus will shift on the prize rather than the problem behind it. The award will be another trophy to add to the Oscar received earlier on a documentary Saving Face by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on acid victims that is being used for the ‘softening’ of Pakistan’s image around the world.
The country, its policymakers and its people in general, have become very sensitive to the bad image business. However, a problem arises with the instinct to correct or soften the image through cosmetic rather than real change. For instance, the Foreign Office decided to parade the Oscar before foreign diplomats while hiding the burnt faces from the presentation, stating that this would be bad for the country’s image. This approach may be right from a marketing perspective but this also indicates an extremely short-term and myopic view of things. Pakistan cannot be properly reimaged until it is truly reimagined.
It is also a fact that the government brought some immediate changes to the law after the Oscar award by amending the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). The addition to Sections 332 and 336 ensures that if proven guilty in an act of doing internal bodily harm through acid throwing, a convict would pay one million rupees as fine and also experience life sentence. However, there are huge road blocks in the form of implementation of the law. Women continue to suffer mainly because the judicial system has not developed any extra sympathy for an acid-burn victim, just like in the case of victims of terrorism. More than just the law, such victims need a sympathetic system that helps implement the law. Our natural tendency is now to remember the Oscar rather than the story behind it.
Our reaction to Malala Yousufzai’s shooting is not very different either. The world seems to recognise the young girl’s bravery and various international leaders have expressed their commitment to investing in girls’ education or education in general in Pakistan. But there is yet a bigger problem of the Taliban roaming around in the country in different shapes and forms and killing young children or older people. The government could show its commitment by at least a token gesture of not wasting funds on visits by senior dignitaries to the UK and diverting those resources for security or education or in actions badly needed to correct the problem.
Are we even inclined to look away from the possible Nobel that we may get due to the bravery of a young child and start seriously concentrating on tragedies that continue to happen even after the Malala incident? Not too long ago, another 12 year-old-girl, Mehzar Zehra, was shot and wounded in Karachi, which is the largest cosmopolitan city of the country and far away from the tribal areas. However, the Taliban run their operations freely and have systematically targeted former members of the Swat peace committee who have been hiding or living away in Karachi in hope for some peace.
Does it really matter if the president, his children, the interior minister and an entire train of ministers do not go for a photo-op with just one under-treatment girl and instead focus on correcting the system that has continued to produce more Malalas? What will it take for us to remember that we suffer from a deeper malaise and softening of image requires a surgical approach towards the problem of militancy and jihadism in this country?
The government should rather focus on four critical areas if it really wants people to think differently about Pakistan: fighting militants and their ideology as well; zero tolerance towards use of illegal force by any religious or non-religious forces; improving the judicial and policing system and bringing qualitative change in education to wean out those biases that generate radicalism, which, in turn produces killers touting as jihadis.
Can we ever get rid of these killers of young girls if segments of the state or its certain agencies continue to support jihadism in one form or the other? These non-state actors have proved extremely expensive and this is time that the state focused on trashing its earlier policy in action and not just in words. Similarly, there is no action against people, groups, parties that use violence in their discourse. Interestingly, no one has seriously revisited deweaponisation that was cosmetically pursued during the first few years of the Pervez Musharraf government.
Several papers have also been written on strengthening internal security through investing in the police and in improving the legal framework to deal with violence. We now even have a National Counterterrorism Authority and a related law which remains under water due to the competing egos of the interior minister or our several intelligence agencies. This continues to make any efforts at counter-terrorism difficult if not impossible.
Last but not the least, is changes in the educational system that experts have been demanding for a long time. Sadly, while we focus on softening images and pleasing undesirable polices in the name of electoral alliances, more lives are lost. We need solid action and not just a Nobel Prize to secure the hundreds and thousands of young girls and boys of this country.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2012.