Lena Martinsson, Atiqa Shahid
Malala Yousafzai has become a global geopolitical figure. There are many differences in opinions about her not only in Pakistan but also in the rest of the world. Within Pakistan, a number of narratives against her struggle portray her being anti-Islam, anti-state on one hand, and being pro-America and pro-West on the other. This right wing approach or conservative ideal is more common among those who have not read her book. It’s a rather interesting fact that the book ‘I am Malala’ written by Malala and Co-author Chiristina Lamb has still not been published in Urdu and its English copy is extremely hard to find in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most of the right wing media in Pakistan is in Urdu and of course not everyone can read the opposite to see the true picture. There was a negative hype in Pakistan after the book I am Malala came into the markets; many articles were published negating her book and the content in it. For instance a famous Urdu columnist Orya Maqbool Jan wrote in one of his columns that appeared in daily Dunya:
“After reading ‘I am Malala’, what came into my mind was the sentence used by the US when they caught Aimal Kansi, which is ‘Pakistanis can do anything for Money’… I am sure that Malala has written in favor of Salman Rushdie, who is an apple of the Western eye, because he wrote against the Prophet and His wives.”
Then he writes:
“Malala has depicted a funny picture of General Zia. She says that women’s live were limited under Zia’s regime, but that is not true. That was indeed the best time for the TV dramas in Pakistan and many women writers like Haseena Moeen, Fatima Suriya Bajiya, and Noor-ul-Huda Shah were writing dramas in that era.”
It is worth noting that he is not only distorting the history, but also discrediting her efforts through labelling and conspiracy mongering. All the negative coverage given to Malala especially by the Urdu media has been followed by threats from the Taliban against selling and reading of the book. Malala’s struggle for girls’ right to education is not only being slandered, it is also being silenced.
However, those who have read Malala’s book with open eyes will surely disagree with these conspiracy theories. Our region has witnessed a number of girls like Malala struggling for their right to education in their areas particularly in Khyber PakhtunKhwa. Therefore, it is very significant to ask them what do they think about Malala and her struggle. A small illustration of this was found in an exercise undertaken by the Bonded Labor Liberation Front Societies (BLLF) Pakistan. In this exercise, Malala’s UN speech was translated into Urdu and read before two separate groups of school girls in KPK and Balochistan. While discussing about Malala and her struggle with these young girls in BLLF’s schools, who are also struggling very hard for their education, some of the strong reflections noticed are being reproduced here.
One of the participants, a teacher, said: “After hearing her speech our opinion has changed because we believed in rumors and conspiracies against her. After listening to her speech, we understand that she is not at all anti-Islam or anti-state.”
A very courageous 15 year old girl gave this message to the terrorists: “Leave us alone, don’t try to control us. It’s not easy to wear burka, gloves and long shirts, I hate Burka, I want to do make up and wear short shirts… please let us live in freedom.”
When asked about negotiation with Taliban, a young girl gave a very fearless reply: “First ask them not to do blasts, and if they don’t understand, then we should kill them.” Another one disagreed: “we should negotiate with them but not kill them because then the war will never end.”
“I love Malala. She is my strength. I want her to come back to Pakistan and continue her studies here. We’ll not let Taliban kill her”, said another girl from KPK.
“My message to Malala is to stay abroad and continue your studies. Your life is in danger here, don’t come back at this moment, but do come back after Taliban accept the importance of girls’ education and stop killing innocents”, a girl from KPK mentioned.
“People think Malala is wrong, but I don’t think so… She has done the same thing we are doing… So what is wrong about it? Is it wrong to get an education?”, one girl added.
One of the points of criticism used against Malala lies in framing the dichotomy of ‘Western and Eastern feminism’. The same argument was also used by the right wing to suppress women’s movement in Pakistan in the 1980’s. As the voices of these girls demonstrate, the movement for girls’ education is not being driven by the western world; it is our own struggle and raises in response to the oppression and extremism.
How people in the West think and talk about Malala is of huge importance if the struggle going on in Pakistan should avoid being called anti-Islam or pro-western. When the Westerners celebrate and honor Malala Yousafzai, it could also be taken as a critique of Pakistan as being evil towards women and children. Some may take Malala as a native child being rescued by the white man; emanating from the colonial era narrative of ‘the white man’s burden’. There also exists a strong critique against this narrative in Pakistan. Related to it is the question that why the West seems to love Malala and not take the responsibility for all the children killed by drones. Or why do people in the West seem so occupied with Malala while at the same time they have incarcerated Aafia Siddiqui in USA?
The celebration of Malala in the West could look strange if these, still very performative narratives, are not taken into account and problematized. Malala Yousafzai can never be understood merely as the girl who struggles for girls’ rights; she is also, both in the West and the East, connected to these historical colonial narratives. It is therefore very important to learn from Malala, in the way she tries over and over again in her book and speeches, to challenge these narratives. She is continually referring to the Pakistani culture and the Islamic religion in her arguments for girls’ right to education. She does not understand herself as being rescued by the West. She is actually not talking about herself as a victim that needs to be rescued at all. Instead, she underlines her own locality. She is thereby offering an alternative story that the West needs to learn from and maybe be challenged by. People in the West need to recognize this alternative story as well as the opportunity that the struggle for girls’ right to education could develop from other contexts than the Western one. That is one reason why it is important to truly listen to Malala, both in the East and in the West, and to her political understanding.
Malala Yousafzai not only challenges the terrorists who are a threat to the girls’ education as well as Pakistan as a whole, she also questions the colonial story, according to which the struggle for rights belongs only to the Western hemisphere. She is also very critical of politicians who fair to perform. It is a critique she shares with a lot of people in Pakistan.
Malala Yousafzai is not alone in her struggle, there are thousands of Pakistanis like her working for change. People in the West need to stand in solidarity with the Pakistani struggle, without reproducing colonial narratives.
Interestingly, the discourse about terrorism is going on not only in the newspapers, TV channels, and among the people at large but also among the children in KPK. Though Malala’s book is not available in KPK but everyone knows about her and her struggle. We must admit, however, that there is a long way to go and we should not expect a sudden change merely through the movement for education.
Dr. Lena Martinsson is a Professor of gender studies at the University of Gothenburg. One of her research areas is women´s movements in different parts of the world and the transnational issues these movements raise.