In New York, the United Nations declared July 12 Malala Day in commemoration of Malala Yousafzai, the young teenage activist from Pakistan who turns 16 today. She survived a bullet to the head last October from Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban for inciting girls in Pakistan to pursue higher education.
Prominent diplomats and UN bureaucrats present included former British PM and now UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Yousafzai presented a riveting 17 minute speech of her triumphant, indomitable spirit and unshaken defiance against her country’s Islamic fundamentalist clerics and Taliban militants.
Although it was Malala’s day, she instead became the voice for the “voiceless boys and girls” and for a right many Canadians have taken for granted: education for women.
Although Pakistan’s president stood beside Yousafzai, in northern and rural Pakistan, girls are prohibited from having an education apart from teachings of the Koran. Pakistan’s official estimates peg the overall literacy rate at 46% but only 26% for girls. Independent organizations, however, contend the overall female literacy rate is closer to 12% when excluding those only knowing how to write their names.
“The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them… One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”
Perhaps the most riveting moment of her speech (see video below) was a cri de coeur in defiance against “the terrorists [who] thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.”
Yousafzai even offered forgiveness for her would-be assassin citing her road was in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. She invoked the philosophy of non-violence of Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa.
“And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”
Although Yousafzai’s lofty mission is indeed worthy of a girl whose bravery and fortitude is equal to that of her cause, Yousafzai herself would be best to lay the foundation for grassroots organizers and institutions to take up her cause. Not only because of immense pressure on one individual but because of the dangers of placing an entire world’s aspiration on one young girl as the symbol of all good changes in Pakistan.
This way, she may have to become Pakistan’s littlest martyr before a paradigm shift occurs in that country. Millennia of persecution of women, including the assassination of Pakistan’s most powerful woman Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, would have to be overcome. It would take more than vacuous UN sentiments to make Malala’s dream a reality.
Yousafazi is flesh and bones, she has already bled for Pakistan and will continue to be a priority target on the Taliban’s kill list. Even an international body like the UN, with its record to protect and defend, cannot guarantee to do so for her and her family.
Malala could soon join ranks with the heroes she has invoked without clear and concrete changes left behind her. Like them, Yousafazi may have to continue making great sacrifices.
Education as Yousafazi insisted is indeed the seed to building a better Pakistan but only vis-à-vis efforts to end violence and corruption in and outside of Pakistan. Pakistan is a pawn in a game between China, Russia and the US. These actors would need to curb their interests which undermine Pakistan’s efforts of development. This means drawing back these nations’ Gulf interests in the region that sponsors perpetual state terror.
The enormity of Yousafazi’s task requires a multilateral solution. One that it is built on peace and compromise, but not without solid bricks and mortar to cement it. A symbol is only effective and indestructible when backed by the pillars of civil society, a defined roadmap strategy with real-time action and the full weight of the international community behind it. This approach proved effective in ending apartheid in South Africa.
Only then will a just and fair society emerge in Pakistan. Should that day come, then Malala Day will serve a dual purpose. But only after the world comes together to end Pakistan’s brutal apartheid against women.
Sign Malala’s petition ending prohibition against girls’ access to education in Pakistan at Change.org.