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The importance of being Malala

The attempts in Pakistan to malign Malala and her supporters justify her selection for the signal honour. More than a celebration of her courage and commitment to the ideal of a peaceful, knowledgeable society, it is a clarion call to Pakistan to start building a new future

The importance of being Malala

While the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014 to Malala Yusufzai unleashed a wave of joy throughout the country and gave the people a rare feeling of elation, it is doubtful if the significance of the honour Malala has brought to Pakistan has been realised by all sections of society.

The award has several features that need to be thought over and appreciated not only emotionally but also with reason.

Recognition has not come to Malala as a bolt from the blue. Before the Nobel Committee announced its decision Malala had been acknowledged worldwide as a genuine contender for the universally coveted distinction. Ever since she was able to get out of her bed in Birmingham hospital nearly two years ago she had been receiving accolades across the globe, garnering an astonishingly large array of awards from a variety of organisations and institutions.

In other words, what she is and what she stands for was debated by juries of repute year after year. It is not easy to survive in the limelight of the intensity faced by Malala. And she lost the race for the Nobel Prize last year by a whisker. Her rise to the pinnacle of fame has been progressive and not sudden. Which means that the world has showered honours on her after due deliberation, after recognising her mettle step by step.

One wonders what came in Malala’s way last year. Was it Pakistan’s poor standing in the comity of nations? Was the award committee unhappy with Pakistan’s lack of respect for the award, as reflected in the shameful treatment meted out to Professor Abdus Salam, the first Pakistani to become a Nobel Laureate and one of the country’s greatest sons? Or were the selectors still debating the possibility of recognising an Asian teen-aged heroine in the line of Anne Frank and Joan of Arc? Whatever the reason for passing over Malala last year the merit in her nomination had gathered great weight.

The Malala award poses a challenge to Pakistan, for it will be a disaster if her plea for education that is attracting more and more adherents all over the world went unheeded in her own homeland.

Besides, Malala enjoys a special place among the Nobel Laureates. Most of them have won recognition for outstanding contribution to improvement in the human condition or for raising the level of human intellect. In Malala’s case what has been recognised is not the body of work she has done, it is the spirit of human endeavour to make life meaningful that has been honoured — a spirit that reminds one of Professor and Juliet Curie. It is the spirit that inspired Malala’s observations in her rightly acclaimed diaries and which some petty-minded misanthropes are trying to make controversial. She has been hailed for her faith in an alternative to conflict, violence and ignorance.

That many people in Pakistan have poured scorn on Malala and the Nobel Committee should cause no surprise. In the make-up of these men spleen replaced reason long ago. Those who tried to kill Malala and the calumny brigade that is howling wildly against her belong to the same stock of philistines. As Harris Khalique has noted, besides making Malala a target of hate and vitriolic assaults, the anti-reason squad of her detractors has abused all those who are celebrating her.

Girls attend school assembly in Mingora, the hometown of Nobel Peace Prize winner. — Photo by A Majeed / AFP

Girls attend school assembly in Mingora, the hometown of Nobel Peace Prize winner. — Photo by A Majeed / AFP

Those attacking Malala and her award do not entirely belong to the intolerant, unlettered fringe. Barely a few days before the award was announced an organisation of educational establishments had disclosed plans to observe an ‘I am no Malala Day’. In addition to the many who know no more than calling names the anti-Malala rabble includes commentators who have abused their knowledge by arguing that Nobel Awards are always politically motivated and hence suspicious. Badri Raina of New Delhi has repelled all this crap in a few words that merit reproduction: “All Nobel Prizes have been in part politically motivated, and I am glad Malala has got one instead of some racist, or religious bigot. It is to be noted that her pursuit of education as an ideal draws irrefutable sanction from no less (an authority) than the Quran.”

Also read: A hero or not?

How long will Pakistani people reject advice to educate their children, to stop cutting each other’s throats and to abandon slavery-like practices as west’s conspiracies against them?

The attempts in Pakistan to malign Malala and her supporters, in fact, justify her selection for the signal honour. In a country where the call for girls’ education and defiance of demons of violence is denounced as something unpatriotic and evil, nothing is more urgent than upholding the ideals of education and peace. Thus the Malala award acquires special significance; more than a celebration of Malala’s courage and commitment to the ideal of a peaceful, knowledgeable society it is a clarion call to Pakistan to start building a new future.

A vendor carrying morning newspapers in Mingora.  — Photo by A Majeed / AFP

A vendor carrying morning newspapers in Mingora. — Photo by A Majeed / AFP

Obviously then the Malala award poses a challenge to Pakistan, for it will be a scandal and a disaster of the first order if her plea for education, especially of girls, that is attracting more and more adherents all over the world, went unheeded in her own homeland. All authorities in Pakistan must not remain content with issuing congratulatory messages on the occasion and basking under Malala’s glory. They must realise their duty to guarantee the people their right to education, proper education, that is.

The task is gigantic indeed. The failure to achieve Millennium Development Goals in respect of education and the laughable exercise to make up for the deficiency in 2016 betray an utter lack of seriousness about the people’s educational needs. The issues that need urgent attention include the bogus teaching in public schools, the gender gap, the rural-urban disparity in quality of educational facilities, the teaching of myths in place of history, the lack of attention to teachers’ training, the baneful effect of religiosity, and the creation of a new elite by the expensive private institutions. The structure of educational institutions, policies and practices relating to public education, and the content of educational courses all need to be revamped and designed to meet the needs of a modern, pluralist and forward-looking society. And in all these areas the interest of girls, especially the under-privileged, comes first.

Success in this endeavour alone will entitle us to celebrate the honour the small Swat girl with a big heart has brought us.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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