Photo: Reuters

Malala's crime is not her opinions on marriage — it's surviving and thriving

We love our martyrs but Malala Yousafzai survived and her courage threatens us, so we try to tear her down at every opportunity.
06 Jun, 2021

Almost a decade after getting shot in the face as a teenager, you would think grown adults would stop bullying you for it. Apparently not. After all, you survived.

Malala Yousafzai is extremely unique and supremely distinguished in much of what she has done in her life. Where she is an average 23-year-old college graduate is when it comes to her ideas of companionship. After all, she is a woman in her early 20s, her ideas of romance and lifelong commitments only developing. That happens sometimes. Ideas develop. If they are given space to breathe and an environment to flourish, of course. The rest of our lives is a negotiation and renegotiation with those ideas. After all, that is the point of the brain, I imagine — to work.

In Pakistan, that rarely happens. Ideas are squashed before they even begin taking shape, and independent thought is actively discouraged. Here, log kya kahein ge [what will people say] has achieved national motto status. Teenage marriages are justified through jitne jaldi shaadi ho jaaye, larkiyaan utni asaani se mould ho jaati hain [The sooner you get a girl married, the easier it will be to mould her], and any argument against convention is met with ek, dou kitaabein kya parh lein khud ko hum se zyaada samajhdaar samajhne lagey hain [After reading a couple of books, you think you're smarter than us].

Your paths in life are set. You are to mindlessly go to school, get grades better than your cousin, get a job that drains you, get married to a either a stranger or a cousin, have at least two kids (preferably one of them a son), put the kids through school, ask them why they aren’t getting grades as good as their cousins', force them into a career that drains them, have them marry a cousin or a stranger, demand at least two grandkids (preferably, one of them a son).

And even if you theoretically understand the costs of leading such a life — a brain that rots because it is not being used, a heart that remains unfulfilled, and relationships that start deteriorating as our burdens catch up to us — very few have the strength to deny the noise outside and imagine a different possibility. That remains true for our personal and our political. The risks are always imagined to be too great. An excommunication from the community, a life of being shunned.

In the midst of this, a renowned icon of 23, with her thoughts just developing, with her only beginning to deal with ideas of romantic unions, gently questions these notions you have committed so heavily to and it starts feeling like a personal attack.

This quote, cherry-picked from a remarkable interview, to intentionally feel collectively attacked is only a small example of our national problem with Malala: she has the strength to go against convention and the audacity to be universally loved.

Ever since she was 12, Malala has challenged forces that our leadership preferred to succumb to. She refused to sit by and pay the cost of the decisions taken by those in charge. And as long as we considered her efforts those of a child, which will inevitably fail in the face of convention when push comes to shove, we even encouraged her. We thought she was a cat and we had the laser pointer in our hand. We gave her prizes and welcomed the coverage she got.

Until she got shot, and we thought, “well, that was that”. We love the idea of people recognising our suffering, but also not going far enough to challenge the convention we hold sacred out of fear. As she lay unconscious on the brink of death, and the country waited for her to tip over to the other side, the reactions remained supportive. We love our martyrs in this country, we love our “lost potentials”. Fatwas were issued denouncing the attack on her, media channels wondered how someone could shoot a child, everybody in their homes shook their heads in grief at the tragedy of it all.

And then, she survived.

As the world rejoiced in the survival of a hero, we buried the martyr. Suddenly, it became obvious that the only one playing with a laser pointer was us. Malala Yousafzai now existed, not as an unrealised utopian ideal we could present to the world as a cost we had collectively borne for the decisions taken by those in charge, but as a possibility challenging the conventions we have committed too heavily to. Suddenly, she was irreligious, media channels were asking why would anyone shoot a child, everybody in their homes decided that the attack was staged, that someone decided to take money for being shot in the head and defame a country that was already viewed with suspicion.

Not only do we feel threatened by her courage, we also resent that it is celebrated and not shunned. So we do what cowardly people do, instead of embracing the possibility Malala offers us, we are determined to tear her down. We want to prove to ourselves that she is a hack, so that we are not forced to confront the alternative; that we are trapped inside of a hell of our own making. Thus, we insist that the ideas she presents are not so much opportunities to rethink our reality, but a personal affront delivered by someone who is morally corrupt at best and invested in a global conspiracy against us at worst.

So we try to accuse her of wrongdoings she has not committed and attacks she has not delivered. This is particularly annoying, because Malala has already denied us the easiest way we could have discredited her. Our patriarchal value system is debilitated trying to find excuses to question her “western” character, as Malala prances about challenging all their notions with a dupatta on her head. She took a piece of cloth that the White world had long struggled to remove from a woman, and the brown man had long struggled to drape her in, showed both groups the middle finger, and reclaimed it. Well, this sucks. She challenges us, and also robbed us of our most powerful weapon to annihilate her with.

So we must dig deeper, build up impossible standards for anyone to live up to. Ask questions that have repeatedly been answered. Make demands that can never be fulfilled. Keep shifting goalposts as she continues to prove us wrong.

“The Taliban are not evil enough to shoot a child in the head, the attack was staged to discredit Muslims,” we had initially said. (Until the Taliban shot 150 of our children we couldn’t save, whose parents continue to seek justice.)

“Why only Malala, why don’t they mention the other girls who were with her?” we ask of the Western media, without mentioning the other girls who were with her (Kainat and Shazia, also in England, mentioned by Malala in her Nobel Prize acceptance award as they sat in the audience.)

“Why Malala and not Waleed Khan, survivor of the APS attack, who lives in Pakistan?” grown adults continued asking. (Waleed himself tweeted in defence of Malala, clarified that he is in England, and mentioned the support that the Yousafzais had offered him.)

“What has Malala done for Pakistan?” we desperately continued. (The answer is available with a single Google search.)

“If she is so committed to human rights, why not condemn American violence?” (She did, directly to Barack Obama’s face.)

“Okay but why not Palestine and Kashmir?” (She did. She did. In a moment when the Pakistani and Indian right wing would have gone to war with one another, they united to badmouth her when she did.)

“Why does she not return to Pakistan?” people living in a country where the Prime Minister routinely tweets remittance figures as a boast ask about a girl who faces a threat to her life and general hostility from her craven countrymen. (And yet when she did, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation banned her book, and celebrated I Am Not Malala Day because they did not agree with her “ideology”. Now the religious right wing does not want us to include “un-Islamic” terms like “markup” in our mathematics curriculum.)

Whatever Malala suggested, we went and did the opposite. And every time, she was proven right. So now when Malala graces the cover of Vogue, we grasp at straws, hoping to be attacked so we could be proven right in our dislike for her. Celebrities, who continue to perform the same problematic roles over and over again, accuse her, try to humiliate her, even though they don’t even register as a speck in Malala’s worldview. Larger audiences on social media scurry to cling to this one statement, taken out of context, from an interview they have yet to read as verifiable proof that Malala wants to destabilise our “family system”. Lately, everything has been an attack on our family system. We would rather be more concerned with why she does not live in this country, instead of the spokesperson of the group that shot her.

Had she not survived the attack we would have been able to advertise to the world what a grief-stricken country we really are. We could have spoken about her as a martyr and a warning. We would have remembered her in glory and projected our nationalist ideas onto her memory without her being around to set her own terms of her identity. But she lives, cherished, and not mourned as a reminder of our failures. In her we see our evil and our cowardice reflected.

As she slowly builds the world we want to live in, we are forced to accept that we are not just victims of our suffering but complicit in enacting it. We blame her for proving the “western” view of us right, as we continue renouncing the hope she offers us. We attack her, mock her, malign her, and falsely accuse her. We resolutely continue on our path to self-destruction, even when she shows us possibilities to thrive.

And yet, there she stands. Dignified and glorified. Reasserting at every opportunity she gets that her identity is tied to ours. That she is one of us. Holding onto the ties we believe we want cut off. Dreaming of coming back to a safer home, a better home, a more welcoming home. Continuing to offer peace and love even as we respond with hostility and hatred. Malala does not attack us. She does not mock us. She does not malign us.

Malala lived. Malala lives. Long live Malala.