Saturday, 12 October 2013

Malala Yousafzai - from victim of Taliban to victim of narratives

By Shah Zalmay Khan

We Pakistanis are a strange people – extreme in whatever we do. When we love, we ignore all negatives; when we hate, we ignore all positives. We make up our minds first and judge facts / evidences / arguments later, based on our already made up minds. When we are conservative, we become fundamentalist or even militant; when we are liberal, we become fascist. When conservative, we call every dissenter an agent; when liberal, we call every dissenter a troll or a Taliban apologist. We make our heroes, specialize them for ‘us’, exclude the ‘them’ from the ownership somehow and then trumpet the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Nothing escapes this ‘Us vs Them’ mentality; not opinion-making, not war, not peace talks, not suicide blasts, not drone strikes, not Aafia Siddiqui, not Malala Yousafzai.

Coming to the case in point – Malala Yousafzai– the brave Pashtun girl who was shot by the Taliban, just for thinking, believing & acting differently from the attackers’ view.

Who is Malala? An ordinary girl from militancy-hit Swat region of Pakistan who loves education.
What did Malala do? She wrote a diary for BBC Urdu about her daily life / school activities when Swat was under the de-facto Taliban control.
What made the ordinary girl special? Her resolve in what she believed (education) and the courage to stand up and write / speak about it, in the face of imminent death.
Why was she shot? Perhaps the attackers were afraid of what Malala stood for i.e. education.
Did Pakistanis approve of the attack on Malala? No. 99.99% Pakistanis condemned the attack and felt sorry for the innocent kid.
Has Malala ever blamed Islam or Pakistan for anything? Not at all. The kid loves her homeland and wants to return to play her role in its development and peace.

Fine story? All set? Not to be, sadly.

Where then is the confusion? Why do some people on social media especially twitter (and media too) think they somehow care more for Malala & that others don’t? Why do some people on the same forums think Malala is somebody’s agent? Why Pakistan seems divided on Malala? Why do some people take extreme positions (supposedly) for or against Malala?

I feel it is less about Malala herself and more about our own views on certain issues which we somehow link to Malala, thus making her part of our own narrative on the issues. The narrative takes shape of questions (some that I myself may have asked at times). On one side we have such questions as:
Why the West / media / liberals support Malala ignoring (or not speaking enough for) thousands of other kids affected by operations and drones in FATA?

Why are people representing a certain colonial mindset in international politics (e.g ex British PM Gordon Brown) seen on Malala’s side at UNGA or elsewhere; people who are anything but human-rights activists and who caused deaths of thousands of kids in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine etc.

Why Nobel Prize for Malala & not one for Edhi too who has been working tirelessly for humanity since decades?
On the flip side we have such questions as:
How can we hold peace talks with militants who attack kids like Malala?

Since militants attacked Malala for seeking education, so aren't those demanding peace talks, apologists of Taliban & enemies of education or women emancipation?

Why mention drone victims or Aafia Siddiqui in same breath with Malala? (Probably not as innocent as Malala or an acceptable collateral damage).
and so the list goes on.

These and similar questions often widen the debate beyond the persona of Malala; distract the common man and thus a purely human issue (a child’s personal feat, suffering & resolve) becomes an ideological ‘Us vs Them’ battle. Then extreme positions are taken and things associated with Malala are scrutinized for or against her to build the two narratives of pro-Malala and anti-Malala. Reality of both, in most instances, is that it is not Malala herself but our own views superimposed on Malala’s situation that form the clashing narratives.

The equation becomes particularly complex when those in the conservative circles (on one side) and media /
liberals (on the other) start using Malala’s name to lend credence to their personal opinions & beliefs on pressing issues of terrorism and foreign policy. For instance, on one hand, the conservative circles come up with their barrage of ‘why why why’ questions, comparing Malala’s case to others (related or unrelated) to prove that she is nothing but a Western agent sponsored by the ‘House of Zion’ to defame Islam and Pakistan. On the other hand, liberals / media / West come up with an outlandish jargon of their own to prove the attack on Malala was the FIRST & ONLY time a kid had been targeted by armed groups (be it militants or Pak / US forces) and that declaring war in Malala’s name is the only way out. It becomes less about Malala and more about deriving justification or weight for our own views & opinions (mis)using Malala’s name.

Both approaches are harmful; both are damaging the cause for which Malala actually stood up – education – by overshadowing her persona through controversies of our making, not Malala’s. By mixing up our own opinions & wishes with Malala’s tale, we are confusing ourselves and in doing so, harming & making controversial what essentially was & is meant to be – a brave girl’s heroic stand for her ideals in the face of adversity.

Tail piece: This is not to suggest that there are no lunatics who hate Malala per se or what she stood up for. Also it shouldn't be inferred that there are none who hate Islam & Pakistan per se or who would spare any effort to bring both to discredit. There actually are many such lunatics out there and we (by dividing Malala amongst the ‘Us vs Them’ camps) are only aiding them – effectively making Malala a symbol of division rather than unity for us Pakistanis. And that, my friends, is the creepiest part.

The writer is a tribesman from Bajaur Agency (FATA) and tweets at @PTI_FATA (No official association with PTI). His blog can be found here
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