Malala: The Story Behind the Story

The name MalalaYousafzai has become a household name not only in her native Pakistan but around the world. When I first learned about her, I went through the cycle of anger and disbelief, so much so that I wanted to put a bounty on the heads of  those who had committed this atrocity.

Upon reflection, I feel the story of Malala is far greater than her courage of speaking out, the shooting, or the journey of recovery from a bullet to the head. It is far greater than the education of girls in Sawat, or Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. The story is about the respect of human life, and in this the guilty do not fit nicely into the narrative of the good versus the evil Taliban. The problem is not just of tribalism but several other “isms” including feudalism, militarism, and imperialism.

Since it’s independence in 1947, Pakistan has been ruled by alternating cycles of military dictators and democratically elected leaders. Behind the veil of democracy-what does not get much attention is that the ruling classes- including the Bhuttos and Zardaris whose political base are the peasants and labor, are actually feudal landlords. Half of Pakistan’s GNP is based on agriculture. Unlike India which after the partition had the courage to pass real land reform (under the Abolition of Jamindari /Jagirdari systems Act in 1950s), Pakistan since its inception has been ruled and or controlled by a few thousand feudal lords.

Although outwardly, there has been an increasing trend to educate the masses, feudalism manifests control, on its sharecroppers, through intimidation, by controlling their livelihoods, which includes keeping their incomes at subsistence levels, keeping generations in debt bondage, and perpetuating illiteracy. Those peasants who do not vote, resign, or conform to their master’s wishes are imprisoned in private jails and women are subject to rape.

From feudalism to tribalism, the problems extend from the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and Malala’s homeland of the Sawat valley across the border into Afghanistan. Here tribal Panchaits (ad-hoc ruling councils) whose rules sometimes based on pre-Islamic or purely random rules, sentence people to targeted killings. In other cases there have been orders for those daring to go to school, or going outside their homes unaccompanied by male relatives or accused of adultery to have their noses cut off, be raped, or acid thrown on their faces and bodies. All a crime against humanity.

Islamic law has been implemented by various governments in Pakistan including the military. Interestingly it is rare for a government to finish its elected term without a military takeover in Pakistan’s history. Although the military is supposed to be under the civilian government, in reality they are a parallel power structure. The military too take advantage of power, and are also one of the major land and property holders in Pakistan.

The fourth transgressors against the people of these lands are not those stuck in the medieval practices of tribalism, feudalism, or militarism but imperialism. The British, the Soviet Union, and now unfortunately the West under NATO have fought to take control of Afghanistan. The war on terror has spread far and wide. US Drone’s have attacked hundreds of targets inside Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has estimated that in the last eight years drones have killed up to 3,365 people of which 474 to 884 were civilians including a minimum of 176 children. That’s 176 Malala’s we know nothing about. In a detailed report compiled by NYU and Stanford University, they found “Drones hover twenty four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan striking homes, vehicles and public spaces their presence terrorizes men, women and children giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities”.

The net result of all the offending parties is that children are traumatized, injured or prevented from going to school. Our collective outrage over Malala needs to extend beyond one individual, when it is whole societies who are suffering under the false premise of religion and freedom. “Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman,” according to the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him. If we are to move from the darkness of ignorance to the light that education should provide, we must reevaluate how we are each contributing to this narrative. The Quran says, “There is no compulsion in faith.” Faith and it’s following comes from the freedom to think, reflect, and adopt, as opposed to being coerced and intimidated into silence. The abolitionist Theodore Parker said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Bullets have the power to destroy and strike fear but do nothing to advance humanity. Words and actions have the power to inspire.

May God give you life Malala and a full and speedy recovery, so you may continue to hold the torch of courage. “I Am Malala.”