As Malala Yousafzai took stage at the Oslo City Hall last week to accept the Nobel Peace Price many here, I am sure, remained ambivalent and sceptical of ‘what,’ and possibly ‘who’ she represents.
Voices expressing reservation abound: the gunshot, which struck her neck on that fateful day in October 2012, condemnable and horrific as it may be, cannot plausibly justify the accolade being bestowed upon her now. Surely, Malala is “just a kid” co-opted as a pawn in this “great game” of global politics, says someone like Arundhati Roy. In the backdrop of the ensuing ‘war against terror,’ her selection, and subsequent celebration, by the West as an indigenous voice against extremism is not mere coincidence but an act of skilful political manoeuvring.
However, a preoccupation with arguments of merit, the politics surrounding the award of international laurels or the hidden agendas ostensibly exploiting Malala’s tragedy, only demeans and obscures the real significance of her struggle. When the “first Pashtun, first Pakistani and first young person” walked up to deliver her acceptance speech at Oslo, she spoke with honesty, courage, conviction and compassion, throughout cognisant of what the Nobel honour really meant: “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change… I am those 66 million girls who are out of school.”
The Nobel Prize, for her, was not solely an acknowledgement of her personal struggle. Instead it represented something more universal and powerful: the right of a child to security and education; the fight against violence and subjugation of women; the freedom of thought; and tolerance of diversity.
Malala’s critics ought to take instruction from such approach. It is important to conceive of her not only in terms of her person, but (more importantly) also with regard to the values, ideals and beliefs she represents.
Malala advocates a brighter vision for a world that otherwise continues to be ridden with conflict, intolerance, inequality and patriarchy. Her vision is of great relevance to Pakistan today.
In the midst of continued suicide bombings, barbaric killings of ethnic and religious minorities and alarming statistics of violence against women, we are battling to gain some sort of consensus on ideological aspirations and, in the most basic terms, a sense of who we are. Malala’s message, in such circumstances, presents an alternate consciousness and priorities for a more progressive, tolerant Pakistan that we must all deliberate upon.
But Malala’s symbolism extends beyond, what some may deem, to be sentimental and idealistic invocations. Malala fought for the right to learn in an environment of hostility and insecurity, as already meagre avenues of learning continued to shrink, and the state watched on, for a large part, unmoved. Yet her story represents just one aspect of state failure in the provision of the constitutionally guaranteed right to free and compulsory education.
According to a Unesco report on global primary education published earlier this year, Pakistan has the second highest number of children out of school in the world, with an obvious bias against the enrolment of girls. Statistics compiled by local NGOs further testify to the state’s half-hearted commitment to education. Of those enrolled in school, 46 per cent children drop out before finishing primary education (AlifAilaan). Learning outcomes are weak across the system, with students significantly underperforming at the most basic level of Urdu, English and Arithmetic (ASER Report 2013). The state of school infrastructure is also abysmal: 35 per cent schools do not have a boundary wall, over 50 per cent have no working toilets and function without electricity, 36 per cent have no provision for drinking water and more than 90 per cent have no library (ASER Report 2013). The government of Pakistan, however, continues to spend less than two per cent of its GDP on education. The crisis of education in Pakistan is real and critical.
One must then read Malala’s voice as a powerful reminder of the two tragic failings of our society: first, the failure to provide an open, healthy intellectual and ideological space for the upbringing of our children; second the failure and lack of commitment of the Pakistani state with regard to its constitutional responsibility to provide education. Even those who disagree with the international acclaim Malala has attained cannot ignore or belittle what she represents and stands for.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2014.