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Home > Women’s Rights > Pakistan: Malala’s journey, and mine

Pakistan: Malala’s journey, and mine

by Foqia Sadiq Khan, 23 October 2012

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The Friday Times, October 19-25, 2012 - Vol. XXIV, No. 36

Veteran activist Tahira Abdullah reads a poem for Malala during the protest in Islamabad

Echoes of "Bandookon Walay Dartay Hain Aik Nehatti Larki Say" (’Those with guns are scared of an unarmed young girl’) were reverberating in the air of Islamabad’s F-6 Super Market on the evening of 10th October, 2012. A sizeable crowd had gathered to vent their anger the day after the barbaric shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Swat. I have attended many such protests since the mid-1990s. But the kind of frustration, anger and helplessness that had charged the crowd for Malala was unprecedented. While shouting slogans, there were many grim faces around, many eyes had tears. Poems were read for Malala, several prominent speakers among the protestors strongly condemned the attack. Eminent rights activist Nasreen Azhar also spoke briefly. "We want a tolerant and peaceful Pakistan that it very much used to be in the old times," she said, her voice choking with tears.

The kind of anger that had charged the crowd for Malala was unprecedented

The last time I had tears of helplessness in my eyes was when peace activists led by the late Dr Eqbal Ahmad, Dr A. H. Nayyar and Dr Zarina Salamat were attacked by the goons of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) and some (then) Urdu-language journalists in the Islamabad Hotel on 2nd June, 1998. Peace activists had gathered to protest against Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests and the student wing of Jamaat-i-Islami threw chairs at them and physically attacked them. They braved the attack with the utmost calm and fortitude. World-famous public intellectual Eqbal Ahmad read Quranic verses to calm the crowd. (The genius of Eqbal was the he was both a brilliant writer and an outstanding speaker.) The Islamabad Hotel administration had disappeared from the face of the earth when the peace activists were being physically attacked by the IJT and right-wing journalists. One now-famous prime time TV host in the capital was also sitting with the attackers. I had tears in my eyes then, and so did others. I saw that same feeling in the crowd that gathered to protest against the attack on Malala in Islamabad.

Even in the remotest areas of Pakistan, parents wanted their daughters to go to school

Malala’s journey of tears began with the diary she wrote for BBC Urdu during the height of Taliban rule in 2009. She used the pen name of Gul Makai. The BBC Urdu coverage focused on essentially two areas: 1) how to end the confusion over the war on terror in Pakistan; 2) the power of social media to translate anger expressed in social media into a possible popular movement against the Taliban.

Unfortunately, the confusion over the war on terror is not limited to the army, politicians, media and public in large. It is also to be found in Pakistan’s "liberal" factions. Some of the other slogans during the Malala protest on 10th October in Islamabad were "Taliban Zaliman" (Taliban the Oppressors), "Yeh Jo Dehshat Gardi Hai, Iss Kay Peechay Wardy Hai" (Those in the uniform are backing terrorism) and "Dehshat Kai Teen Satoon: Amrika, Fauj aur Taliban" (Three Symbols of Terror: America, Army and Taliban). The last of these slogans was contested by some other participants in the protest. It was suggested Saudi Arabia be replaced with America as it supports the Salafists in Pakistan. Some other participants also clarified that it is not the foot soldiers and the rank-and-file of the army who covertly support Taliban; rather it is the "top brass" of the army that considers some groups of Taliban their "strategic assets".

Human rights activists protest in Islamabad against the attack on Malala Yousafzai

How has this so-called ambiguity over the war on terror seeped into the roots of the Pakistani mind-set? Tragic incidents like a girl’s flogging in Swat or the recent attack on Malala lifts the mist off our minds, but it comes back as soon as these incidents fade from view. Certainly, the Pakistani establishment, abetted by its many friends in the media, benefits from this cultivated ambiguity among the Pakistani public, and pro-establishment politicians like Imran Khan spout it on the media day in and day out.

Having non-state, seemingly out-of-control, barbaric actors like the Taliban gives a certain clout to the Pakistani establishment to negotiate its terms with the West. Christine Fair in her 2010 Asian Survey article calls Pakistan a "rentier state". According to Fair, "...the international community’s willingness to prevent Pakistan from spinning out of fiscal control has enabled the country to exist as a quintessential rentier state, deriving income from patron states based upon its geostrategic import. Pakistan has convinced the international public that it is too important and too dangerous to fail, allowing it to extract lucrative rents..."

Now Malala has been flown out to Britain for her treatment. Most people expressed a sigh of relief on her going abroad; not only because she will get better treatment but also because she will be safe outside Pakistan. Thinking of Malala and her emergency flight out of her country, I glanced at my old passport. I looked almost exactly like Malala 25 years ago, wearing a dupatta on my head. I also had a very strong bond with my father, just like Malala, and like many little girls all over the world.

Some years ago I traveled across rural Pakistan to conduct research. Even in the remotest areas, parents wanted their daughters to go to school. They wanted vans to transport their children to places of learning. They wanted their daughters to become doctors. This is the appeal of Malala Yusufzai’s story: all those shocked, angry, crying protestors, and even those who are watching it all unfold from their homes, we all know it could have been any of us.

This is a poignant and precious moment for Pakistan. It must not be allowed to wither away. It must be used effectively to end the fog of ambiguity over terrorism and obscurantism in Pakistan forever.

The writer [Foqia Sadiq Khan] has a social science background and is based in Islamabad


The above article from The Friday Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use