A look at the letter to Malala Yousafzai
LAST week Malala Yousafzai – or as the world simply knows her, Malala – received a letter.
It’s not every day a 16-year-old girl from Mingora in the Swat Valley gets a rambling four-page missive from a notorious terrorist. Hers was from Adnan Rasheed, who attempted to assassinate Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf in 2003 and escaped from jail last year. It was not delivered to her by post, but via a Pakistani journalist and then the world’s media.
Thanks to the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), of which Rasheed is a prominent member, Malala no longer lives in Mingora and is accessible, not via Facebook like a regular teenager, but via the international news wires. Nine months ago, a TTP member shot her in the head as she travelled home from school by bus. But this action, designed to shut up a troublesome young girl once and for all, has had the opposite of the desired effect. Malala survived to become an international education campaigner and role model for young people in oppressive societies. On 9 July, she addressed the United Nations in New York. It was her 16th birthday, and it has been named Malala Day by the UN.
So much for getting rid of a voice of dissent.
It was this speech to the UN, in which Malala said the Taleban “misuse the name of Islam for their own personal benefit” and accused them of thinking “that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people’s heads just for going to school,” which prompted Rasheed to put pen to paper. His attempt to defend the indefensible – the shooting in the head of a 15-year-old schoolgirl – is florid and incoherent. Quoting Bertrand Russell, Henry Kissinger and historian Thomas Macaulay, he comes close to expressing regret that Malala was almost killed then justifies attacking schools because they are used for cover by the Pakistani army. Boiling it down, it appears that her crime was not to demand that schools reopen and educate girls. It was that she embarrassed the Taleban.
He suggests she returns to Pakistan, attends an all-female madrassa and uses her campaigning skills for “Islam and plight of Muslim ummah [nation] and reveal the conspiracy of tiny elite who want to enslave the whole humanity for their evil agendas in the name of new world order.”
This, everyone who knows Malala agrees, is never going to happen. Instead she looks set to continue showing up the TTP as a bunch of grown men who hide in caves with their automatic weapons and can’t answer the logical arguments of a teenage girl.
Malala was famous in her native Pakistan long before the UN recognition and praise from Madonna and Angelina Jolie. In 2009, at the age of 11, she began writing a blog for the BBC, Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl. The title was ironic: the Taleban had decreed that no girls could attend school after 15 January that year. They had already destroyed more than 100 girls’ schools.
Using a pseudonym she described her life under the Taleban, the ongoing military campaign for control of the Swat Valley and her views on education for girls. The noise of artillery fire is juxtaposed with debates with friends about tricky homework. As schools are being bombed, she wonders if she will be able to sit her exams. Pakistani Army helicopters drop toffees. Then the toffees stop.
A few months later, after she had returned to school and stopped doing the BBC blog, The New York Times made a documentary about her life. This covered the period in May when the Pakistani Army moved to regain the Swat Valley. Malala was sent to family in the countryside. “I’m really bored,” she said to the camera. “I have no books to read.”
After the second battle for Swat, the family was reunited in Peshawar in July. Malala’s school, only slightly damaged, reopened. The documentary aired and more interviews and coverage followed. She became chair of Swat’s District Child Assembly. Everyone in Pakistan knew Malala. When the hooded gunman boarded her bus home from school on 9 October, he asked for her by name. “Which one of you is Malala?,” he shouted. “Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.”
Malala was shot with one bullet which went through her head, neck and shoulders. The two girls sitting beside her were also injured. Unconscious in hospital, it looked as if she would die. Eventually she recovered enough to come to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where intensive treatment and rehabilitation have helped her to make an extraordinary recovery. She is now living with her family in the West Midlands and studying at Edgbaston High School for Girls where she is the only Nobel Peace Prize nominee in her geography class.
It was to the public in Pakistan, not the girl recovering from her injuries and adjusting to life in the Midlands, that Rasheed’s letter was really addressed. Conspiracy theories have flown around Malala ever since her shooting: she is a US spy, the attack was staged by the CIA to justify the continuation of drone attacks. Rasheed nods to these, and a few others currently doing the rounds, such as the idea that polio inoculations are a western plot to sterilise Muslims. By asking whether the UN would have invited her to speak if she had been injured in a drone strike he hits a hot button with the Pakistani population, who have been revisiting the same question on social media ever since.
Local commentators see Rasheed’s letter as a clever attempt to build on the Malala backlash by shoring up the view (also prevalent on Facebook and Twitter) that she is a media-hungry drama queen who has milked her situation for money, fame and a new life in the west.
Novelist and blogger Minah Shah comments: “The insults to Malala had a decidedly sexist tone. Rather than embracing female survivors of hideous, politically-motivated violence, Pakistanis prefer them to shut up and go away, not to use their ordeals as a platform to campaign for justice.”
She makes another stinging point: “People who deflect from Malala’s speech to the issue of drone attacks may believe they care about drone victims, but it is hard to find what if anything they have actually done for those drone victims besides register their displeasure on social media. Instead, it is a way of deflecting the guilt they feel about their own impotence, their own inability to make substantial change or impact in this country.
“These people who feel anger and frustration about themselves channel it into feeling angry about drone victims, or angry against Malala Yousafzai, or anyone who challenges their firmly-held belief that this world is controlled by forces greater than themselves. They dislike the challenge to the justification for their own inertia and inactivity, so they strike out.”
Watching from Glasgow, Gullalaii Yousafzai sees many parallels with her own life. She and Malala share a surname. They are both Pashtuns, although Yousafzai grew up in a city, Peshawar, and was educated by Irish nuns. They both have unusually liberal, progressive fathers who wanted their daughters educated and encouraged them to be politically active.
The Taleban also made it impossible for Yousafzai to stay in Pakistan. In 2009, the year Malala began her BBC blog, she returned home from Glasgow University to Peshawar. It was clear that, as a highly educated former regional representative of the Army National Party, she was a potential target.
“The general situation was too dangerous and I was too conspicuous,” Yousafzai, now 38, recalls. “I was an extraordinary girl, being so educated and so westernised. I was always speaking out about forced marriages and honour killings, fighting with men, saying what they were doing was wrong.
“My father said, if you come home you are not a girl to sit at home, you will be a working woman and it’s not safe. The end result is that you are shot dead if you don’t agree with the corruption, you are not a part of that system.”
Yousafzai escaped to Glasgow, where she lives with her sister. While she thinks Malala has done an admirable thing, it has come at great personal cost. “When I was in politics, my dad never brought me into the limelight. Malala’s dad exposed her. He made her vulnerable. As a child, she was her dad’s responsibility.” He should, Yousafzai thinks, have helped her be more strategic. “I think she crossed her limits. A girl of a very young age shouldn’t have directly targeted religious groups. She provoked them.
“She did a wonderful job with limited resources. She didn’t have the right strategy. I don’t blame her, I blame her dad.”
Yet despite his lack of nuanced guidance, Yousafzai thinks fathers like Malala’s hold the key to the future. “Malala has come to the west but there are still so many Malalas left back home. If these girls find a support they can come forward, they can carry on the fight. We need Malala’s type of dad to encourage their daughters.”
With her father’s encouragement, Malala looks set for a career on the world stage. She gave her speech to the UN wearing a pink shawl that once belonged to her heroine Benazir Bhutto, and had changed her career ambition from medicine to politics before the assassination attempt. Publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson has paid £2m for her autobiography, due out this year. Her father insists his daughter “is very composed and very humble”. He told American reporters recently that she feels uncomfortable with her new-found fame.
Malala is only 16 and there is still much that could go wrong. Rasheed’s suggestions aside, the Taleban has made it clear they still consider her a target. Her role model Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2007. Pakistani politics is a dangerous job for an outspoken woman.
Her celebrity now makes her vulnerable in different ways. Minah Shah warns: “Malala and her cause must not be hijacked by opportunists, money-makers, politicians, or those who wish to use this pure young woman for their own selfish ends. In celebrating Malala, the world should not forget the thousands of girls still in danger from extremist violence in Pakistan. Nor should she be taken up as a cause célèbre by celebrities and other do-gooders to feel smug satisfaction that they are helping her cause by posing for a photograph or attending a dinner with her.”
Madonna and Angelina, she means you. But Shah has faith in the extraordinary young woman who has been compared to Anne Frank. “I feel that a young girl who can survive being shot in the head by the Taleban is strong enough to withstand being exploited by anyone,” she says. «