There was a newspaper cartoon that depicted a woman in a burkah in the driver’s seat, except that the car she was in was remote-operated. The remote control was firmly in a snarky man’s hands. Muslim majority countries run by men, fueled by a toxic mix of patriarchy and abuse of power, have now come to the realization that women should be thrown a bone. No one appreciates a woman driving off on her own in a car, engine running on something the menfolk cannot control. Women can have the semblance of liberation but real freedom is not negotiable. This is why, in Pakistan, when Malala Yousufzai, runs off in the driver’s seat demanding rights for women and girls to have an education at her own terms – it’s terribly jarring. No one can find the remote control.
Now Malala is back in Pakistan after being shot in the face by the Taliban 5 years ago. She is termed as the most famous and popular Pakistani by none other than the country’s prime minister, Khakhan Abbasi. She’s been given the highest honor, a state welcome deserved for someone who left bloodied and stretcher-bone and returned with a Nobel peace prize and a whole load of dare.
In Pashtoon culture, particularly in Swat where she’s from, girls are as good as their ability to adopt silence and cloak their bodies and agency in invisibility. The men in women’s family then see to it that they are good. Malala’s father Ziauddin has refused to adopt this social construct. Refused to “clip her wings.” So now, left with no recourse to co-opt her male family members into erasing her, they look for control in other ways: shaming her as a foreign agent on the payroll of an Islamophobic CIA; as a hypocrite because she left behind others who have faced similar fate; as a stooge of the west providing fodder to air Pakistan’s dirty laundry and also as a treacherous prostitute whose father pimps her. The latter was a statement made on prime time Pakistan national television by Zahid Hamid – best described as an overgrown adolescent fulfilling his militaristic urges by turning to violent evangelism.
Malala’s character assassination has been vile and vast. It has not been limited to age or educational exposure. Even those with an expansive world view see her as a threat to their value system. Yet, she adopts what is her culture so effortlessly: The dupatta always on her head, a polite disposition, in traditional clothes and tremendous love and affection for what she calls “her people”. So the discomfort that Pakistan’s Malala hate club have cannot have been because she demands rights for girls. They apparently want that too. The issue is that she didn’t check with them first. If it was ok to venture into the world – out Anne Frank Anne Frank, out Justin Beiber Justin Bieber and outdo the concept of the demure quintessential Pakistani girl. No one, who doesn’t live under a rock will ever see Pakistani women as anything but bold, feisty, incredibly articulate and untamable. The soil of Swat, bubbling over with conservatism, produced this incredible girl.
When shame is thrust on women, the first casualty is women’s sense of self-worth. The second is her voice. The third is her mobility. Women in conservative societies become small. Like, ‘touch me nots’ that are touched. Nature shrivels them to protect them from an onslaught of hate and malice. Which in Malala’s case was a bullet to the head? Malala didn’t compromise on any of these three. She didn’t when she was 13 – writing her diary and hurling weapons of ideas against Mullah Fazlullah Radio Mullah. She also didn’t do it now. When she was cyber harassed perhaps worse than Monica Lewinsky was.
Even when she was the subject of a false blasphemy campaign to link her with the phobic hate that Salman Rushdie faced. Even when she was targeted through a school campaign in Punjab called I am not Malala – teachers and students held posters taking her down. They wore black armbands to register protest against her and her movement to bring about more education for the girl child – that in itself very antithetical to the point of going to school in the first place. Even when the undeniable bullet she took in her head was called “staged” by a TV commentator, Orya Maqbool Jan.
Even then, her response was to keep driving. Belted for safety. Hands on the wheel. Refusing to hand over the remote control to any dirty old man of Pakistan.
Such poise is not just rare, it’s non-existent. It is Invictus. That poem William Henley wrote that inspired Nelson Mandela in his South African prison term. She is “bloody but unbowed.” In her speech, crying for the first time publically in a deeply human moment she said: “I am only 20, but I have seen a lot.” After what we have subjected this mere child to, now this young woman is metallically heavy.
Let’s spare her the self-righteous judgment.