‘Probably, a hero like Afghan heroine Malalai [of Maiwand] or Malalai Joya. I want to be a social activist and an honest politician like her.’
These were the words of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl recently shot by the Taliban, when she was asked about the significance of her name by a journalist a couple of years ago. Of the two names she mentioned, the first one refers to a famous Afghan woman who is a national heroine in her home country for rallying her people to fight in a battle against the British in 1880. The identity of the other namesake, Malalai Joya, is a well-known human rights activist, who has been called ‘the bravest woman in Afghanistan’.
Joya (right, addressing Afghan schoolgirls) became prominent in 2005 when, as a young member of parliament, she famously spoke out against the warlords in the Afghan parliament. She has survived a number of assassination attempts. In March this year, her office in Farah province was attacked and two of her bodyguards injured. She is known for her biting criticism against all three major forces in Afghanistan— the Taliban, the Karzai regime and the NATO presence.
Following the attack on Malala Yousafzai, Joya wrote on her Facebook page: ‘I strongly condemn this disgraceful act of targeting an innocent 14-year-old girl. This is the real nature of Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalist Taliban. These dirty rascals pose as “manly” but this heinous crime shows how unmanly and disgusting they are to [shoot] a defenceless young girl. Malala was targeted because, in her limited capacity, she wanted to inform the world about the brutalities going on against women by extremists. She wanted to wake up the women of the rural areas of Pakistan to stand up and defend their due rights.’
Malala has been a well-known campaigner since she was 11 years old and wrote an online diary, under a pseudonym, about the Taliban preventing girls in the Swat Valley from going to school.
She was shot in the head on 9 October 2012 in her hometown of Mingora. Malala was on the school bus. Two other girls were injured. She has since been flown by special air ambulance to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham (England) which has a unit specializing in military casualties. The government in London offered the specialist care and Pakistan are paying the costs.
Here in Pakistan, ministers in the government have been lining up to condemn the targeting of Malala and promising to bring the culprits justice. These are all fine words. However, the best homage these politicians could pay to this young girl is by improving the educational system.
Pakistan suffers from an abysmal state of education, with millions of children growing up to be illiterate. A report by a government commission last year revealed some truly shocking statistics. Since 2005, funding for schools in Pakistan has been cut from 2.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent – less than what the national airlines get in subsidies. Some 25 million children do not get any education, although it is guaranteed by the constitution. The report also says the country has no chance of reaching the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for Education by 2015.
Unfortunately, a lot of analysts are only able to see as far as military operations and ‘shock and awe’ to wipe out the menace of fundamentalism – they never get to the core. Joya, on the other hand, is a three dimensional thinker: she has the ability to look beyond the binary debates of a lot of media pundits. As long as such a narrow discourse continues, innocents civilians caught in the crossfire will continue to suffer – including school children, whether they are targeted by misogynist Taliban fighters or CIA drones. A recent report, Living under Drones, jointly produced by Standford and New York Universities, claimed only one in 50 people killed in such strikes is a known militant. Among the many victims is 15-year-old Sadaullah Khan, who lost both legs in a drone strike. He is quoted as saying: ‘I used to go to school… I thought I would become a doctor. After the drone strikes, I stopped going to school.’
Some intellectuals will only express their outrage if the crime has been perpetrated by NATO; others will only offer condemnation if the culprits are the Taliban. This is a form of moral bankruptcy. It shouldn’t be a mere battle for ideological supremacy – what is wrong is wrong. The targeting of innocent children – no matter by whom – should be condemned. US drones have killed over 170 children in Pakistan. The Taliban in Swat Valley have blown up literally hundreds of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In this context, Joya understands the need to expose the violation of human rights – whether perpetrated by the Taliban or the Karzai regime or anyone else. She rightly sees US soldiers themselves as the victims of the wrongful policy of the US government. In her message over the targeting of Malala Yousafzai she urges the world to recognize ‘that still in our unfortunate Afghanistan, the US and NATO rely on brothers-in-creed of the Taliban – the Northern Alliance warlords such as Qanooni, Fahim, Ismael Khan, Atta Mohammad, Abdullah, Sayyaf, Mohaqiq, Khalili and others – who have made life a torture for Afghan women. They should know that Karzai’s puppet regime is calling the murderer Taliban “brothers” and trying to share power with this anti-humanity band of killers. I send my salutations to Malala Yousafzai and am sure that her great sacrifice will not be in vain. She marks the shining pages of history, while her enemies will soon go into the dustbin of history.’
'It's not who's voting, it's who's counting' - an interview with Malalai Joya