Malala- Not the broker, but the breaker of silence

By: Baseer Naweed

When I was leaving Pakistan for Hong Kong, after a long trip to different countries, I received some shocking news at Karachi International Airport. Mr. Solangi, the Director General of Radio Pakistan informed me about the news that Malala Yousufzai had been attacked by the Taliban and was in critical condition. The doctors were trying their best to save her. Mr. Solangi was busy with his Blackberry cell phone, talking to me and receiving updates and sending messages through Facebook and Twitter all at the same time. Despite his position as the Director General of one of the country’s biggest broadcasting houses, he was the first to trigger a vigorous debate on the attack.  

Answering one of my questions he told me that since the attack became known he had received a continuous string of messages via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter on the issue. At the offices of Radio Pakistan he had stopped all of the routine programmes as the reaction of the masses came in. Between his frenetic attempts to remain in touch with the world and the country he told me that in every message people condemned the incident and were praying for Malala’s immediate recovery. Almost the entire country was lashing out at the Taliban and Muslim extremists.

I asked Mr. Solangi how he felt as a government employee and whether he expected any backlash. He replied that he was not concerned. When a young girl led the way in the fight against extremism it is the duty of all to come out and show solidarity with her. He went on to say that this was the right time to come out against religious extremism and said that if they kill us then so be it. He had no doubt that thousands of Malalas would continue the battle. He added, “This battle is also for my own children.”

His determination shook me personally, as I had become a person very dejected by the silence of Pakistani society. I boarded the airplane with the determination that there were changes coming in Pakistan and that a new generation was taking the lead in what we, the present generation, and those before us, failed to do.

After listening to the news my mind flashed back to 2009 when I first issued an article about Malala’s educational achievements through the AHRC website which was written by Ms. Farzana Khan. At the age of 11 she was nominated among five children from all over the world for the ‘Children’s Nobel Prize’ and came second. Malala was quick to praise the winner, a disabled child to whom Malala gave full credit. When asked what her reaction was when learning that she had come second she said, “I am happy for Michaela for winning the prize as she is a special child and is already working for the disabled children,” adding, in fact, “I couldn’t even stop my tears while seeing Michaela receiving the prize as it was hard for her to hold the prize due to her being a disabled child”.

Even at the tender age of 11 she adamantly stated, “To me education is the only tool that makes a man civilized, a good citizen and helps to develop the Pashtun society.”

The International Children’s Peace Prize is presented annually to a child who’s courageous or otherwise remarkable acts have made a difference in countering problems which affect children around the world.
Malala was one of the five nominees chosen out of 98 children that were put forward by organizations and individuals from 42 different countries. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Nobel Peace Laureate, announced the five nominees for the International Children’s Peace Prize 2011 in Cape Town on Tuesday. The prize is an initiative of the Dutch organization ‘Kids Rights’ and was launched during the 2005 Nobel Peace Laureates’ Summit chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev. That year, Michaela Mycroft (17) from South Africa was awarded with the Children’s Peace Prize.

When I heard the news of the Taliban’s attack on Malala’s life, to punish her for campaigning for the education of young girls, I felt that the reaction through emails, Facebook, and Twitter would dwindle after a few days and new issues would pop up. And, when that happened, who would care about Malala?

The so-called independent media, which is more tilted towards the right wing and military establishment, would ultimately give more coverage to the Taliban as they usually do and come out with some appeasing comments such as the attack was the result of Drone attacks or a military operation. After all Taliban are Pakistani and the attack was carried out by someone else in order to discredit the Taliban.

However, the reaction to the attack did not lose force, but continues even till today. The media and the journalists, besides the teachers and professors, the parents and other sections of society did more than could be expected of ordinary persons, despite the overshadowing threat of religious extremism.

An attempt to kill a 14 year old girl from a remote area of Pakistan radically altered the thinking of an entire society and the silence that prevailed in that society since the 1980s was broken. The silence had remained since the army with the nexus of fundamentalist forces coerced the whole country into crushing the freedom of expression under the name of national security and in the greater interest of the country.

The establishment of Pakistan, which mostly consists of the armed forces, the judiciary, bureaucrats and officials from the foreign ministry, has consciously prompted religious groups to form a “religious power center” to crush the freedom of expression in the country. The other purpose of the religious power center has been to make such a force where the democratic institutions like Parliament and elected bodies lose their bargaining power to confront the military establishment for its role in sordid politics.

The freedom of expression, which is said to be the mother of all human rights, was the first to be eroded through the religious power center, so that society be made to remain silent and people’s actions against corruption and misuse of power would be minimized. At the same time, the importance of education was also minimised. Also, the urge of the masses for a democratic society was strangled. In the span of just a few years, thousands of Madressas (Islamic seminaries) were built with black money and funding from Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of students were produced through the Madressas, which have swelled the ranks of the militants to crush independent thinking and free choice of judgment in the masses. The blasphemy laws were the best tool in the hands of the bigots to declare who is infidel and who is pious. Even the student’s examinations papers were checked by applying blasphemy laws.

There is no doubt that Malala must be given the credit for breaking the silence imposed by fear, coercion, and terrorism through her brave and untiring courage to speak out. After the attempt to kill her shook the society out of its indifference against the religious militancy and the religious power center, the school children throughout the country came out in her support. The country’s youth came onto the streets and every person participated. All this was thanks to Malala, the first person to break the silence – the silence that the elected representatives and intellectuals failed to break, even after over 40,000 people have died in Taliban instigated violence. All these, including myself, have proved to be the ‘silent broker’ as this was the best way of opportunism to deal with wasted interests so that system based on strangulating society, on one or the other excuse, should remain intact and we should be claimed to be the champions of civil liberties, freedom and rights.

It is sad, but interesting, that this silence resounded even after the assassinations, in broad daylight, of the Governor of Punjab and the Federal Minister of Human Rights. No one came onto the streets in protest. Instead, the killer of the Governor was feted by lawyers, religions parties, and the people themselves. A retired High Court judge went so far as to offer his legal services to the assassin, as the assassin was immediately symbolized as a hero for Islam. And, most shamefully, the government remained a silent spectator and left everything in the hands of the religious bigots, and this, even after the governor’ son was abducted from his house by the Taliban. Two years hence his whereabouts still remain unknown, and the government does not want to rock the boat.

This appalling silence was in stark contrast to the reaction of the people to the attack on this brave young girl, who, at the age of 11, started writing a weekly diary to the BBC. Her campaign for the right to education started long before the military operation in the Swat Valley in 2009. When the Taliban moved into the valley, over 2000 schools were destroyed by bombings and suicide attacks. The women were flogged in open places, barber shops were stormed, and anyone found with a hair cut was beaten. All this was done in the name of Shariah. At the age of only 11, it was Malala that said enough is enough and had the courage to speak out. She did this in her limited capacity, but it was enough to frighten the Taliban into taking action. The lava building up inside minds of 180 million people finally erupted after the attack.

The world has seen so many conquerors in its thousands of years of history, but it was the pen of a humble 14-year-old girl that conquered not only the minds and hearts of the people of Pakistan, but those of freedom-minded people all over the world. It is only now that the people are demanding that the terrorists are crushed. The government, military, and all other stakeholders, however, are adding to the confusion by saying that the attack was in retaliation to the drone attacks, military operation, and the policy of the United States towards the Taliban. The state of mind prevalent in Pakistan for the last 66 years still allows for conspiracy theories in favour of the Taliban – that Malala is funded by the US.

In one of her earlier comments, she said that she respected Obama and they are now using this as ‘evidence’ of their accusations. This was emphasised by the fact that when the Chief of Army Staff visited Malala, after the pressure of public opinion became too strong in her favour, he condemned the attack but made no condemnation of the Taliban. This lapse was obviously done in the spirit of appeasement, despite the fact that the Taliban boasted about their responsibility for the attack. They have publically stated that they will continue their murderous attempts if she recovers from her injuries and will not rest until she is dead. Since the attack, they have continued their assault on the local schools in Swat Valley. And, to-date two more schools have been destroyed.

What the Taliban and the Pakistani establishment have failed to see is that the one person unaffected by the conspiracy theories is Malala herself. Her message to the people of the country and the world in general is simply: every child has the right to education, regardless of whether they are male or female. She has presented this message bravely, willing to sacrifice her life and in doing so has completed the job started by numerous NGOs and INGOs with enormous budgets and the backing of the international community. She has become a symbol for students all over the world.

A protest event that was organized prior to the attack on Malala was that of the students of Hong Kong, who forced their government to back down on a curriculum that favoured mainland China. More such protests can be expected thanks to the courage of students, exemplified by Malala. She has proved herself in the war against bigotry, sexual discrimination, extremism and illiteracy.

I salute Malala and her two friends who were injured alongside her, as do the youth of the world who will continue to fight for their right to education and freedom of expression. Malala was not the broker of silence but the breaker of silence.

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