By Rohana R. Wasala
December 14th, 2014
Young Pakistani child rights activist Malala Yousafzai (17) and Indian child rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi (60) received their shared Nobel PRIZE for their activism from the King of Sweden in Oslo last Wednesday (10 December). Malala was quoted as saying: I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not”. Her Pakistani critics maintain that she is being manipulated by the West, and that she is breaching Islamic tenets by what she is doing. Malala’s own approach to the problem she is setting out to address is unorthodox. At the Girl Summit in London on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 she said: Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. (It is us) who make cultures. We have the right to change it and we should change it. Those traditions that go against the health of girls, they should be stopped.” Whether the charge of Malala’s being a puppet of the West is true or false, the issues she is raising are real and her commitment to her cause is genuine.
The following article was first published under the title Who is Malala” in The Island (11-10-2014), i.e. only a day after her nomination for the prize was announced.
‘I AM MALALA – The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2013) is the autobiography of the brave Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai written in collaboration with British journalist Christina Lamb. The book is dedicated ‘To all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced. Together we will be heard.’ It was released a year ago in October 2013. Malala was shot by a cowardly Taliban gunman on 09 October 2012 when she was just 15. It is two years since then. Today Malala is 17 and is in the forefront of world attention as an intrepid campaigner for education for girls, human rights for women, and tolerance in a male-dominated society and culture. Sadly but not surprisingly, she is still being targeted by the Taliban. It would be opportune to have a brief look at the story of her life and work to date, though it is early in what looks like the evolving career of a burgeoning female politician who shows great promise of making an immense contribution towards creating a Pakistan where women are truly emancipated and where their human potential is realized to the fullest for the benefit of the whole society, thereby setting an example for the rest of the world.
Malala was born to parents Ziauddin Yousafzai and Tor Pekai in Mingora, the biggest town and the only city (as she describes it) in the Swat district of Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on June 12, 1997. Swat is a place steeped in cultural history. It had been conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BCE; Buddhism arrived there in the second century CE, and Islam in the 11th. Their house was in Gulkada (‘place of flowers’), but earlier it had been called ‘Butkara’ ‘the place of the Buddhist statues’. Now the Swat valley is strewn with the ruins of some 1,400 Buddhist monasteries, which had stood along the river Swat according to the records of ancient Chinese travellers. Malala is proud of her native place. It is paradise on earth, she says, a place of beauty, peace and tranquility that even the Buddha visited according to many stories and there is a giant stupa in the valley where some of his ashes are enshrined. (Swat was a Buddhist kingdom before its ancient culture was wiped out by invaders.)
She studied in a private school founded by her father, registered under the name Khushal School. But the society she was born into did not normally set great store by an educated womanhood. Malala understood this from her own mother Tor Pekai’s experience. Pekai had started going to school at age six with the apparent approval of her family including her father and brothers. But she was the only girl in a school for boys. Tor Pekai’s sisters had no interest in going to school. They stayed home and played while she was at school. Tor Pekai envied them. She stopped going to school even before the first term was over. Her father didn’t seem to have taken any notice of it. That was the level of his interest in his daughter’s education!
Where Malala was born it was customary to hold a woman celebration at the end of one week after the birth of a child, to which friends and neighbours were invited to SHARE the family’s joy at the arrival of the new baby. (‘Woma’ means seventh, Malala explains.) Her parents didn’t have the money to buy the goat and rice they needed for the feast. Her grandfather (‘Baba’, her father’s father) didn’t help them out because Malala was only a girl, not a boy! So they didn’t have a woma for her. But when Malala’s brother was born next to her, the old man wanted to give her father money to hold the woman, but the latter flatly refused to accept it. Ziauddin, Malala’s father, is a Pakistani activist who wants to promote democracy in his country, eliminate discrimination against women, and improve educational opportunities for all. So, naturally he is a critic of the Taliban.
Maulana Fazlullah (b. 1974), aka Mullah Radio or Radio Mullah, was the leader of the Taliban in the Swat valley. He wanted to enforce Sharia in Pakistan with the help of some 4500 militants he commanded by late 2007. Fazlullah exploited the earthquake on October 8, 2005 that left Mingora largely unaffected but devastated neighbouring Kashmir and the northern parts of Pakistan to drive fear into the poor people who listened to him saying that it was due to the wrath of God over their sins. Malala asked her father: ‘Is he right, Aba?’ ‘No, Jani’, he replied. ‘He is just fooling people’. (‘Jani’ means ‘dear one’.)
Fazlullah set up a ‘parallel government’ in some villages in the Swat valley, and tried to enforce Sharia law by establishing Islamic courts. He also launched an illegal local FM radio channel (hence his nickname) to broadcast his fundamentalist message. Initially people supported him both morally and materially. Fazlullah had his men attack music shops for the ‘eradication of sins’; he opposed the anti-polio vaccination program in his area arguing that the aid workers were engaged in proselytizing Muslims in the region under cover of social work; he also opposed franchise and education for women.
On behalf of the Swat Council of Elders Malala’s father Ziauddin, at seminars and on the media, daily challenged Maulana Fazlullah: ‘What are you doing? He would ask. ‘You are playing havoc with our lives and our culture’. He told his daughter: ‘If you have a headache and tell the doctor you have a stomach ache, how can the doctor help? You must speak the truth. The truth will abolish fear’.
In 2008, the Taliban had started attacking girls’ schools in the Swat valley. The young Malala (only 11 then) went with her father and his friend Fazal Maula with his daughter to Peshawar for a BBC Urdu talk show; where Muslim Khan was due to represent the Taliban. But Muslim Khan was not there in person in the studio. Malala challenged: ‘How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?’ There was no response from the Taliban representative because his phone interview had been pre-recorded. Later Ziauddin laughed and said to his daughter that she should go into politics. ‘Even as a toddler you talked like a politician’, he teased her. Malala writes: ‘Our words were like the eucalyptus blossoms of spring tossed away on the wind. The destruction of schools continued.’ On the night of October 7, 2008 the Sangota Convent School for girls and the Excelsior School for boys were blown up using IEDs (improvised explosive devices); fortunately, the two schools had been evacuated as they had received threats earlier. Through these and other atrocities ‘The Taliban bulldozed our Pashtun values and the values of Islam’.
Malala tried to distract herself ‘by reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which answered big questions such as how the universe began and whether time could run backwards. I was only eleven years old and already I wished it could.’
It was on January 3, 2009 that the first entry of her ‘The Diary of Gul Makai’ under the title ‘I AM AFRAID’ appeared on the BBC Urdu website. (‘Gul Makai’ or ‘Grief-stricken’ was her pen name.) Once she wrote about the Burqa: ‘When you are very young, you love the Burqa because it’s great for dressing up. But when you are made to wear it, that’s a different matter. Also it makes walking difficult’. Referring to an incident involving her wearing a burqa while SHOPPING with her mother and a cousin in the Cheena Bazaar, she wrote: ‘When we entered the shop we were going to, the shopkeeper laughed and told us he got scared thinking we might be suicide bombers as many suicide bombers wore the Burqa’.
People often warned them that the Taliban might kill Ziauddin, but not his daughter saying, ‘even Taliban don’t kill children’. This is what Malala also believed, although they had issued a death threat against her. She, in fact, feared for the life of her father because of his anti-Taliban activism. Yet, they all had misjudged the character of the Taliban terrorists. They were proved wrong in crediting them with enough humanity not to kill children for their macabre cause. At the time of Malala’s shooting, ironically, her mother was crossing the doorway into her school for her first lesson since she had left school at age six on a newly started adult education programme.
Usman the driver of the school van drove it with the injured girls at top speed to the Swat Central Hospital. From there the critically injured Malala was flown by helicopter to a military hospital. A CT scan showed one bullet lodged very close to her brain. So it had been a close shave for her. She was put into an induced coma. While she was thus fighting for life the Taliban issued a statement admitting responsibility for the attack: Ehsanullah Ehsan the Taliban spokesman said: ‘Malala has been targeted because of her pioneer role in preaching secularism … She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas. She was pro-West; she was speaking against the Taliban; she was calling President Obama her idol’. This was a reference to something Malala had said in one of the many TV interviews she had done before. Fazlullah had ordered the attack on the girl two months earlier. ‘Anyone who sides with the government against us will die at our hands…’ He said they had used local Swati men to gather information on my movements between home and school, and they had chosen a place near an army checkpoint to show they could strike anywhere.
From the army hospital Malala was flown to Birmingham for further treatment. There, after being taken out of her medically induced coma, she was subjected to multiple surgeries in one of which a facial nerve had to be repaired in order to cure a paralysis of the left side of her face. There was no severe brain damage. She woke up on October 16, one week after the shooting. Arrangements were made for Malala’s family to be brought to UK where they are resident now. After recovery, she was admitted to a school in Birmingham in 2013. She gave a speech at the United Nations on June 12th the same year, her 16th birthday (which is available on the You Tube). When she addressed the UN Assembly there were only 400 people sitting around her, she writes: ‘… but when I looked out I imagined millions more.’ She told herself: ‘This is your chance Malala’. She says she didn’t write the speech only with the UN delegates in mind. ‘I wrote it for every person around the world who could make a difference. I wanted to reach all people living in poverty, those children forced to work and those who suffer from terrorism or lack of education. Deep in my heart I hoped to reach every child who could take courage from my words and stand up for his or her rights.’
Malala was wearing one of Benazir Bhutto’s white shawls over her favourite pink Shalwar Qameez and called on the world leaders to ‘provide free education to every child in the world’. ‘Let’s pick up our books and our pens’, she said, ‘They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world’. The audience gave her a standing ovation.
On October 10, 2013, in recognition of her work the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov PRIZE for Freedom of Thought. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013, but she didn’t get it. Last year the prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for their work in Syria. Malala has again been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for this year for ‘her tireless commitment to education, women’s rights and tolerance. The Norwegian Nobel Committee will soon announce this year’s winner. (This essay was completed on October 9; but the Prize results were to be announced the next day, i.e. Friday October 10.)
At present Malala is living and attending school in England. She has set up her organization ‘The Malala Fund’: ‘My mission, our mission, demands that we act decisively to educate girls and empower them to change their lives and communities’. (The Island/11.10.2014)