Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Malala Backlash

My op-ed which appeared in this morning's Dawn:


The Malala Backlash


Why has Malala Yousufzai’s speech at the UN on July 12, her sixteenth birthday, created such admiration all over the world, only to be met with a nasty backlash against the young education activist in Pakistan? Perhaps the negative reaction of many Pakistanis to the young girl is the carping of jealous nobodies, but it bears examining because it says something profound about Pakistan.

The reaction to Malala’s speech was swift in Pakistan; barely hours after she made her inspirational speech, people began complaining about its contents, the fact that the UN had dedicated an entire day to her, and the adulation she was receiving from world leaders by her side. Ignoring the text of her speech, which spoke out for the rights of girls and women and implored world leaders to choose peace instead of war, the naysayers tore down the young woman, her father, and Western nations for supporting her in her quest for education. 

The insults flowed freely: Malala Dramazai was a popular epithet that popped up on Facebook pages and Twitter. The whole shooting was staged by “the West” and America, who control the Taliban. She was being used to make Pakistan feel guilty for actions that were the fault of the Western powers in the first place. Posters circulated that showed Mukhtaran Mai and Malala with Xs through their faces, and berated the two women for speaking out about their experiences in order to receive money, popularity and asylum abroad.

Another popular refrain was “drone attacks”. Why had Malala not spoken out about drones at the UN? Why did everyone care so much about Malala and not the other girls murdered by drones? Why did America kill innocent children with drones and then lionize the young Malala to make themselves feel good that they actually cared about the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan? 

It was a shameful display of how Pakistanis have a tendency to turn on the very people they should be proud of. Professor Abdus Salam fell victim to this peculiar Pakistani phenomenon, as well as the murdered child labor activist Iqbal Masih, Rimsha Masih, who recently received asylum for the threats to her life after the blasphemy case, and Kainat Soomro, the brave child who had been gang-raped and actually dared to take on her attackers. Pakistanis have very deliberately abandoned these brave champions of justice, and each time one more joins their ranks, the accusations of fame mongering, Western agendas, and money ring out louder and louder.

The insults to Malala had a decidedly sexist tone, the comparison to Mukhtaran Mai - another Pakistani hero - making it obvious that rather than embracing female survivors of hideous, politically motivated violence, Pakistanis prefer them to shut up and go away, not to use their ordeals as a platform to campaign for justice. 

What does this say about Pakistani mentality? Firstly, it illustrates the fact that most Pakistanis are very confused. As British journalist Alex Hamilton said, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything”. Because we don’t know what to stand for, we fall victim to conspiracy theories, wild imaginings, and muddled thinking about what is so clearly right and wrong. 

Secondly, people who deflect from Malala’s speech to the issue of drone attacks may believe they care about drone victims, but it is hard to find what if anything they have actually done for those drone victims besides register their displeasure on social media. Instead, it is a way of deflecting the guilt they feel about their own impotence, their own inability to make any substantial change or impact in this country. 

In psychology this is called displacement: these people who feel anger and frustration about themselves channel it into feeling angry about drone victims, or angry against Malala Yousfuzai, or anyone who challenges their firmly-held belief that this world is controlled by forces greater than themselves. They dislike the challenge to the justification for their own inertia and inactivity, and so they strike out.

Critics are ignoring how Malala pointed out the terrorists are misusing Islam for their own selfish means: power and control. She rightly stated that Pakhtun culture is not synonymous with Talibanism; a popular narrative used to justify the marginalization of tribal peoples (and the use of drones and other human rights excesses by the military in carrying out military operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan). These statements contradict the political arguments offered by Pakistan’s incompetent leadership in lieu of real solutions to the militancy, and the justification for acts of aggression perpetrated by Western and NATO forces on the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A note of warning: Malala and her cause must not be hijacked by opportunists, money-makers, politicians, or those who wish to use this pure young woman for their own selfish ends. In celebrating Malala, the world should not forget about the thousands of girls who are still in danger from extremist violence in Pakistan. Nor should she be taken up as a cause célèbre by celebrities and other do-gooders to feel smug satisfaction that they are helping her cause by posing for a photograph or attending a dinner with her (Personally, I feel that a young girl who can survive being shot in the head by the Taliban is strong enough to withstand being exploited by anyone).

Malala’s beautiful words must be a source of inspiration for solid action on the ground in the areas most affected by the conflicts she describes. Whether you support her or not, nobody can deny the urgent need to bring education and peace to Pakistan. Don’t ignore this message, even if you feel like shooting the messenger all over again.

- Bina Shah is a novelist. She tweets at @binashah