Deriving inspiration from Malala's speech is welcome but the focus needs to shift to the issue she is championing.
Watching the audacious-yet-affable teenager Malala Yousafzai address the United Nations (U.N.) on Friday – her 16th birthday – provided the dose of inspiration poet Allama Iqbal seeks when he says, “Naheen hay na-ummeed Iqbal apni kasht-o-veeraan say, zara nam ho to ye matti Badee zarkhaiz hai Saaqi” which can be interpreted as: "Iqbal wouldn’t get despondent by this barren piece of land. A few droplets of confidence and the green-shoots shall show up."
Her fortitude represents just those droplets of hope, dedicated to the cause of girls’/women's Right to Education in her home country. Listening to her voice can only add to the admiration for her -- already present -- in the hearts and minds of those tracking developments related to her.
She has been in news ever since she suffered the gunshot some 10 months ago at the hands of a misguided Talib. However, not many of us realised that she was a mini-icon ever since she voiced her concern at not being able to go to school at the age of eleven some four year earlier.
The best part of the speech, I feel, was this:
“And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist why are the Taliban against education? He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said, 'a Talib doesn't know what is written inside this book'."
Empathy for the ‘devil’, I’m tempted to say. One reason the Taliban consider goals such as education, women empowerment, gender equality inimical to Islam is because, they don’t know what’s in a ‘book’. Because they are unlettered. Perhaps that’s what makes them consider Allah a “tiny, little conservative being” who would object to girls going to school? as Malala succinctly asks?
Hailing from Swat valley, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- a region that was hitherto known to me for Taliban-scripted terror attacks and where the predominant language is Pashto -- Malala amazed me with a tinge of Panjabi accent in her English. So, it was endearing to listen to her do guftgoo (conversation) in Urdu in some of her earlier interviews.
It was our loss that we needed that fateful evening to discover her true self, for she was an inspiration for girls and women her country much before that. This interview of hers, given about year before the shooting, brings out her spontaneous best. Aged 14 at that time -- an age where children crave for vacations -- she wanted to go to school, send her friends to school. She realised that the chuttis (holidays) Taliban imposed were more of paabandis (restrictions).
She says she certainly was not the lone crusader. She mentioned her classmates – as committed to the cause but forced to restrain themselves due to security concerns. What distinguished Malala was the encouragement and the ambience provided by her parents -- fully aware and encouraging of her precociousness – her teachers and other members of her family.
The interviewer – considering that this was about a year before the shooting – sounded prescient, in a rather morbid sense, when she asked Malala about what she would do if confronted by Taliban gunmen. She confidently replied that she would still stand up for her rights, stand up for truth.
However, another thought she expressed brought out the lack of any rancour in her heart for her bete noires, her ability to empathise with the devil. If a Talib interrupts their school-bus, in all her innocuousness, feel like “use chappal nikaalkar maaron” (“whack him with my chappals”), she quipped.
That empathy makes an appearance again in her U.N. speech later. With a gun in her hand and the Talib who shot her at her mercy, she said she would choose not to shoot. She would rather want the Talib to send his children to school. Giving examples of Gandhi and King in her speech, she believes she can bring about change by appealing to the adversary’s conscience.
How and why did she transform into a pen-wielding activist? Or was she always one? Her answer: she became one during her 2009 winter vacation. Announced on 14th January 2009 without a re-opening date. Here, it’s a little quirky to find that Taliban allows girls to study till fourth ‘jamaat’ (standard) but no more.
Her unlikely tryst with education activism began when she was asked to put her views into writing by a BBC correspondent. Her diary entries –dictated over the phone in Urdu, translated into English – which she wrote under the pseudonym Gul Makai (meaning cornflower) made sure that her thoughts preceded her identity. She did not want anonymity; the BBC, concerned as it was about her safety, did.
She also tells in this interview, recorded on 3rd February 2012, that had she not stood up for the cause, she would have regretted later.
One attribute, among many, that strikes the most is her intellectual maturity. No bachpana (kiddishness) here, as the first interviewer notes. She doesn’t aspire to be an engineer or a doctor, she aspires to be a politician, study politics and law, eventually to lead her country on the education front.
She talked in her interviews about need to convince parents to send their children to school – her own vaalida (mother) was uneducated but wanted to educate her; she talked about students’/parents’ obsession with engineering and medicine, even in Pakistan; she talked about need for politicians to frame pro-people policies. and she also talked about Swat’s tourism industry – it’s alluring to note that Swat is the Switzerland of Pakistan – hit both by terrorism and counterterrorism. This surely is that unique form of intelligence even IQ tests won’t be equipped enough to measure!
Just like the interviewer in one of the interviews, the viewers, watching and listening to her with all their attention, cannot but develop greater belief in human life. (kuch aur zinda rahne ko dil karta hai, as the interviewer says).
Malala is no doubt an inspiration for millions, in her native Swat as well as elsewhere. However, it is important that the cult of Malala not be allowed overshadow the message of Malala – standing up for girls’/women's right to education. The institution of Malala Fund is a welcome development but the campaign needs to be ongoing. She needs to be considered part of a continuum.
As this AP story notes:
“Throughout Pakistan, nearly half of all children and nearly three quarters of young girls are not enrolled in primary school, according to U.N and government statistics published late last year.
In Malala’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province only 36 per cent of women and 72 per cent of men are literate, according to the government.”
The Malala incident seems to have played some positive role in the region though opinion about her in the valley is mixed, some complaining that she has unfairly hogged all limelight.
She herself felt there were many others – fluent in English and liberal in outlook – like her and that the message should not be lost while appreciating the messenger.
It’s also encouraging to note that the new Khyber government, formed by Imran Khan’s PTI whom she considers one of her political role models, has increased the education budget by 27 per cent.
Malala doesn’t want to be identified as the girl shot by Taliban and is likely to deliver more such peace lectures. As Gordon Brown, U.N. special envoy on global education said, her speech can be treated as just the start of a momentous push for change as we deal with the ‘education emergency’ in the run up to 2015 – deadline for the achievement of Millenium Development Goals.