Malala’s legacy inspires, causes resentment in conservative Pakistan

2014-12-09 10:35

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Pakistani girls’ education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, who will receive her Nobel prize tomorrow, may be lauded abroad for her efforts. But back home her work is less appreciated.

Each day, Rozina Wali makes the long, steep climb between her home and school. The 13-year-old girl from the remote town of Shangla in northwestern Pakistan has been hiking up and down for two years, but her determination grows stronger.

“I will continue seeking education, no matter how far the school is,” Wali said on a chilly winter day in the town surrounded by snowy peaks.

She could have abandoned education after fifth grade, like her elder sister, because there is no secondary school in the village. But she has a role model who helps her to keep going despite the hardship.

Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education who was shot by Taliban extremists, was the youngest recipient of Nobel peace prize this year. She arrived in Oslo yesterday, and will receive her Nobel Peace Prize at an award ceremony tomorrow. Yousafzai won the prize with Indian campaigner against child trafficking and labour, Kailash Satyarthi.

Rozina’s father had not planned to send his younger daughter to high school, but the example set by Yousafzai in neighbouring Swat town convinced him to change his mind.

Zar Wali Khan said he now regrets shutting the doors of education to his eldest daughter, even though his only son graduated from an engineering university and ended up getting a job in the Gulf state of Oman.

The 17-year-old Yousafzai is an inspiration for many girls in Pakistan seeking education and hoping for change in a radicalised Islamic society.

“She is great,” one of her former classmates said. “We all want to be like her.

“Her courage and confidence are truly inspiring,” added the girl, who did not wish to be named because she feared that public recognition could expose her to a Taliban attack.

Yousafzai’s struggle for girls’ education seems to be bearing fruit, at least in her hometown. Official statistics show a steep rise in school enrolment in Swat valley.

A total of 140 000 girls enrolled at government schools in 2013-2014, compared with 99 477 two years ago, said Shamim Akhtar, district education officer for women.

“Malala, her campaign and nomination for the Nobel are certainly the factors behind the rise,” Khan said.

Taliban militants blew up 119 girls’ schools in Swat when they controlled the valley during 2007-2009. Akhtar said about 70% of them had been rebuilt since the militants were largely driven out of the region by the armed forces.

But beyond her mountainous hometown, the change is hardly visible.

According to the Alif Ailaan campaign for the promotion of education, nearly half of Pakistani children aged five to 16 are out of school.

“This is perhaps one of the highest ratios in the world,” campaign director Mosharraf Zaidi.

The number of children not going to school is as high as 25 million, Zaidi said, calling the situation alarming.

Yousafzai’s rise has had no effect on school enrolment across Pakistan, said Zaidi, indicating the harsh reality that society overall and the state did not embrace the message that the young girl risked her life for.

“I’m not sure if the state and society did understand or properly appreciated Malala’s message,” Zaidi said.

“Her struggle should have been owned by Pakistan. Unfortunately, that did not happen.”

Zaidi’s comments highlighted a trend in the conservative Islamic society to reject anything that is associated with the West.

The Pakistani state and society did not embrace the country’s first Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, because he belonged to the minority Ahmadiyya community that was declared non-Muslim in the 1970s.

Leading historian Mubarak Ali said that because both Salam and Malala were appreciated and given awards by the West, there was a great deal of scepticism about their motives back home.

Activists of right-wing religious groups began a ruthless campaign on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to discredit Malala and the cause she fought for the day she was shot by the Taliban.

“Their propaganda was somehow effective because most of the people in Pakistan have the same mentality as that of the Taliban,” Ali said.

He said only a few urban, liberal people had embraced Yousafzai.

That lack of acceptance was evident in the refusal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend the Nobel ceremony, despite a request from Yousafzai.

His spokesperson, Musaddiq Malik, sought to downplay Sharif’s decision, which appeared to be motivated by a desire to appease his right-wing allies in the coalition government.

Anthropologist Samar Minallah said Yousafzai’s achievements are not being properly recognised in her own country.

“Pakistan does not appreciate her like the rest of the world does,” she said.

“Some people are spreading confusion about her motives.”

Some sceptics have even suggested that Yousafzai was working toward an “anti-Islam” agenda engineered by foreigners.

Samia Raheel Qazi, a leader of Islamic Jamaat-i-Islami political party, said she had been hijacked by the West to “promote their evil designs”.

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