“My world has changed, but I have not changed,” she wrote in her autobiography, I Am Malala. In an NDTV interview a year ago, she told Barkha Dutt that she is afraid of ghosts, not of the Taliban. Now, two years after the shot from the gun that targeted her was heard around the world, the Swat-cum-Birmingham schoolgirl is the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize “for her struggle against the suppression of children and young people, and for the right of all children to education”.
One would think that there is little to take issue with, as far as Malala’s rise to fame is concerned. However, for the virtual sceptics and conspiracy theorists, Malala is undeserving of recognition, or rather, is the main protagonist of an elaborate publicity stunt. Following the announcement of her win, the distinction between Western and Pakistani reactions was clear: those in the West lauded the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, while some Pakistani reactions were replete with cynicism. I ask, is the advocacy of peace not a universal belief?
In some ways, this reactionary backlash against Malala is partly understandable. It is certainly true that she was only one of many schoolgirls in Taliban-controlled areas who struggled for their right to education. However, doesn’t her vocal call for change and improvement embody the voices of her peers, struggling to be heard? If a class has been dismissed for her former classmates, can’t she speak for them?
During Pervez Musharraf’s era of enlightened moderation, the General struggled to show the rest of the world, Pakistan’s ‘soft face’. In a 2004 Washington Post op-ed, he explained this new approach: “It is a two-pronged strategy. The first part is for the Muslim world to shun militancy and extremism and adopt the path of socioeconomic uplift. The second is for the West, and the United States in particular, to seek to resolve all political disputes with justice and aid for the socioeconomic betterment of the deprived Muslim world.” The General’s domestic agenda included a cultural liberalisation — pop and rock concerts, fashion shows and the celebration of art and culture became routine. Musharraf himself jumped onto the stage at a 2001 concert held in Karachi.
Alas, Pakistan’s soft face became mutilated by stories of assassinations, suicide bombings and the elephant in the room, the military dictator himself. Those with an intense distaste for Malala’s status as a ‘roving ambassador’ believe that her claim to fame affirms all of these things about Pakistan. I disagree.
While the circumstances in which Malala rose to prominence are unfortunate, her campaign is against a very vocal and radical minority, not against Pakistan itself; her detractors need to recognise this and come to terms with the fact that the schoolgirl is here to stay. As Pakistanis and believers in peace, we should stand by her and not worry about a supposed loss of credibility in the world’s eyes.
When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Academy Award for Saving Face in 2012, there was nothing but applause for the Oscar winner. Malala’s detractors — those who fear our reputation will somehow become tainted by the idea of bringing to light the threat of the Taliban to our stability — probably didn’t realise that a documentary on acid attack victims could have the same effect. Regardless, Obaid-Chinoy’s win is something that I, as a Pakistani, will continue to be proud of, just as I am proud of Malala’s struggle for education in a part of the world that is still dealing with the gaping wound of intolerance and radicalisation. While she may only be afraid of ghosts, this gaping wound is a genuine fear for the majority of Pakistanis.
Through Malala’s courage and determination, may we find the ability to stand upright once again, to show the world that the narrative of our nation is not one of oppression and cruelty; may we then be recognised and applauded for something other than exposes on acid attack victims, or shot schoolgirls campaigning for basic human rights.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2014.