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The girl who lived

Why, for many in Pakistan, it is safer to think of Malala as an American spy.

Updated: October 17, 2014 12:46:25 am
Why, for many in Pakistan, it is safer to think of Malala as an American spy. Why, for many in Pakistan, it is safer to think of Malala as an American spy.

Komail Aijazuddin

Congratulations to us both on our shared Nobel Peace Prize win! Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, peace rock stars and all around saints-in-waiting, made our nations as proud as new mothers this week by being honoured as symbols of hope and peace for all humanity to emulate. Both names have been floating around the Nobel shortlist for a while, and in truth I was a bit surprised the committee decided to split the prize. Malala’s story struck me as too unique, her narrative too specific and her story too dramatic for it to be conjoined.

It is a story that is now legend. She is (for me and pretty much anyone else into wizard books) a real-world Harriet Potter, “The Girl Who Lived”. I’d been aware of Malala since she was a blogger in Swat, when I would occasionally come across her name on the BBC website. Then the unthinkable happened and armed cowards stopped a van full of schoolgirls, asked for her by name and shot her in the head for daring to go to school. They left her and other wounded children to die.

That anyone would survive that horrific ordeal is a miracle. That they would not only survive but rise again as a phoenix-like symbol of hope for billions is something beyond miraculous. She is now the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in history and one of the bravest people in the world. That said, every laureate, is by definition an extraordinary individual.

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Stage one of my reaction to the Nobel news was to break down into tears so fast you’d think I’d just won an Oscar myself. Over here we only have one other Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, who won the prize for physics in 1979. In addition to being a genius, he was also born an Ahmadi, a sect declared non-Muslim in one of Pakistan’s dimmer moments. We chose to persecute him for his birth rather than love him for his life, and because of that we never acknowledged him as one of our own. Initial euphoria at the Nobel announcement subsided only as I approached stage two, a mini-breakdown consisting mainly of the mantra “OMG she was born in 1997. What on earth am I doing with my life?”

Enough articles on Pakistan’s response to Malala’s win told me that this was not a universal response. Let me say that by and large the general response to the announcement was overwhelmingly positive. I know of no one personally who is displeased with her win. But I have seen a vocal few ravage online forums with accusations against her for being a “CIA stooge” who is “bringing shame” upon our country and much worse.

Maybe I’m a dreamer but I suspect it should be more obvious to people that if you shoot a schoolgirl, she isn’t the one who should be ashamed.

The vitriol against her seems to stem from the cowardly policy of not “airing one’s dirty laundry”, as if Malala speaking at the UN about her story is like a maharani’s thong flying in the wind, bringing shame to the townsfolk. It’s an argument as regressive as it is unintelligent. Here’s a thought: if you don’t want girls to talk about being shot by the Taliban, then get them to stop shooting girls. It’s not rocket science.

The vocal minority that accuses her of selling her country out, of being a spy and a fame-hungry fraud are a scared group of cretins. Indeed, I think they’re terrified. They are terrified of everything she represents: women’s rights, children’s (particularly girls’) education, the value of equal citizenry, power of the individual but, above all, the need and (*gulp*) possibility for change. It’s safer to think of her as a Western spy because that way they won’t have to deal with the reason she’s famous in the first place: as a survivor of lethal intolerance. Leave aside that she is against drone attacks, forget that the reason she’s abroad is that if she returns she’d be (you guessed it) shot again. These things don’t make it to their arguments, and after all, why would they? Why let the truth get in the way of a great enemy? Maybe they want to besmirch her name to prevent her from becoming an icon. Too late, thankfully.

Her detractors may be loud (and deplorable at spelling, which makes their criticism of an education activist that much funnier), but I am still praying that they are few. Most of my country is thrilled that she has won and also that she won along with an Indian national. You and I both know the Nobel committee was sending our countries a not-too-subtle message of peace. Increasingly, I believe that peace between us won’t come from politicians or summits but rather from a cultural exchange. Things like Fawad Khan appearing in Bollywood or Shabana Azmi attending film festivals in Pakistan give us all what Malala and Satyarthi represent: hope, that if our countrymen can become symbols of peace, maybe eventually our countries will too.

Aijazuddin is a Lahore-based artist and writer.

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