By Usman Javaid
October 29, 2013
We can take lessons from our friends across the border in India and not deny the existence of violent impediments to girls’ education in Pakistan out of shame and denial
“I want to live!” were the last words of the brutal gang rape victim in Delhi that touched millions of hearts across the globe. As young Nirbhaya struggled for her life, people from around the world, particularly those in India, backed their feelings of sympathy, anger, and sadness with action. Thousands took to the streets in India demanding justice. They called for the trial and punishment of her abusers and strengthening of Indian laws to prevent such actions in the future.
Just a few months before that tragedy, the young Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for demanding girls’ right to education in Pakistan’s Swat valley. The Pakistan government and the international community came together for an unprecedented international rescue effort to save the young champion of education. Young Malala survived and became a symbol of education for girls worldwide. Unlike Nirbhaya in India however, Malala’s episode received mixed reactions at home.
Far from coming out in the streets in large proportions to protest against the suppression of girls’ education, the same way the Indian people came out to condemn violence against women, some Pakistanis expressed a wide array of negativity towards Malala. Some became defensive, saying that children suffer abuse in other parts of the world so no one has the right to judge Pakistan. They went on further to say that there are a thousand Malalas so why should we care about this one? Others made it about the west, citing its record on military interventions and civilian casualties. They said that the west is using young Malala to pursue its own agenda. Some went as far as accusing Malala and her father of being CIA agents, and saying that the attack never really took place. They said that the purpose of the staged attack was to humiliate Pakistan.
We Pakistanis certainly have a lot to learn from how people reacted to Nirbhaya’s case in India. In India, people did not say that there are many Nirbhayas so why care about this one. They did not say that the west has a poor record on gender equality so why should we be judged. They certainly did not say that Nirbhaya was never assaulted, and the incident was a western plot to demonise their country. Instead, they accepted that this tragedy happened due to shortcomings within their own society and vowed to improve on them.
Nirbhaya became a symbol of women and the people of India decided that the current state of their country was unacceptable to them. They envisioned a better and safer India, and took to the streets to fight for it, regardless of how other countries or societies fare on the matter compared to it. Instead of questioning it, they welcomed international support and violence against women became a key development priority in India. Within a year, the perpetrators were brought to trial and sentenced. Furthermore, the Indian parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, improving Indian laws related to sexual offences.
It would be wonderful if we in Pakistan showed Malala the support that Nirbhaya received from her country. We, at the very least though, can refrain from reacting negatively towards her. Reservations towards young Malala, who is nothing short of a hero, are baseless and unnecessary and I would like to touch on a few of them here.
First, there is no need to feel offended or judged by the international attention Malala has received. It does not paint Pakistan as a place where girls cannot get an education. It also does not portray Islam as a religion that suppresses women. International aid organisations, governments and media have been very good at not pointing fingers at Pakistan or Islam but rather at the Taliban, who are militant extremists. To feel judged by international attention would be equating Pakistan and Islam to the Taliban. This is a prime opportunity for us to distance ourselves as far from the Taliban as possible. The best way to do so is to show our support for Malala and rally behind her cause for girls’ education.
Second, pointing out western shortcomings on foreign policy misses the point. Malala Yousafzai is a child who demands no more than her right to education. We should support that right regardless of politics. I have had the pleasure of seeing Malala speak in person. Her articulate, well informed and passionate support for children’s education is beyond her age. Moreover, her wonderful smile, sense of humour, and stories of sibling rivalry are a joy to experience. Efforts to support Malala are about this child and millions like her around the globe. We should give Malala and these children unqualified support irrespective of what the west chooses to do.
Third, helping Malala takes nothing away from all other children in need in Pakistan but helps them instead. Malala is shouting out for Pakistan and the world is listening. She spoke of the need for education to combat extremism in her speech to the UN. In her meeting with the World Bank President Jim Kim, she secured $ 200,000 for the Malala Fund, which is already planning its first school for girls in Swat. In her meeting with US President Barack Obama, Malala opposed drone strikes. Is this not helping Pakistan? Is this not what we wanted all along? After all those years of foreign governments speaking to the military and politicians, here is the US president listening to an ordinary young girl who is extraordinary in so many ways.
Pakistan is lucky in that its ambassador for girls’ education survived. Not only is she not deterred, rather she is ready to fight even harder. We can take lessons from our friends across the border in India and not deny the existence of violent impediments to girls’ education in Pakistan out of shame and denial but rather rally together to remove them. Like in India, we must not be opposed to international attention and resources but rather welcome them to help fight extremism in our country. In addition to these lessons we must also understand that objections against young Malala are baseless and unnecessary, and that Malala is not only a positive force for girls’ education but a Pakistani ambassador to the world.
Usman Javaid works on gender issues at the World Bank in Washington DC