Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Bridge Too Far?

Today, I am going to relate to you a story.

It is a story of courage, cowardice, intimidation, fear and an intense yearning for knowledge.  It is a story whose ending is yet unknown, but whose future hangs by a thread.

In Pakistan's Swat Valley, besieged by Taliban insurgents, the Pashtun people who live there are torn between three sides in a war they never asked for.  On one side is the US, whose drones target the Taliban insurgents fighting the Pakistani Army for control.  I am sure it isn't nearly so uncomplicated as that, but to my uninformed western mind, that is complex enough.

In the middle of all this are, as usual, the children.  One of these kids is a young woman, Malala Yousafzai, who has been blogging for the BBC since, I understand, she was 9.  She is now 14.

Malala was blogging to document the lives of the people of Swat in the midst of this horrific war they have had foisted on them by others who really probably have little interest in their well being, but simply want to either control them or prevent someone else from controlling them.  Her daily diary is an eye opening look into how ordinary people cope with their lives being pulled in multiple directions, while trying to survive a nasty situation.

I'll let her tell this part of the story.  Malala’s diary when she was 11 years old in 2009:

The night was filled with the noise of artillery fire and I woke up three times. But since there was no school I got up later at 10 am. Afterwards, my friend came over and we discussed our homework.Today is 15 January, the last day before the Taleban’s edict comes into effect, and my friend was discussing homework as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Today, I also read the diary written for the BBC (in Urdu) and published in the newspaper. My mother liked my pen name ‘Gul Makai’ and said to my father ‘why not change her name to Gul Makai?’ I also like the name because my real name means ‘grief stricken’.
My father said that some days ago someone brought the printout of this diary saying how wonderful it was. My father said that he smiled but could not even say that it was written by his daughter.
I was in a bad mood while going to school because winter vacations are starting from tomorrow. The principal announced the vacations but did not mention the date the school was to reopen. This was the first time this has happened.
In the past the reopening date was always announced clearly. The principal did not inform us about the reason behind not announcing the school reopening, but my guess was that the Taleban had announced a ban on girls’ education from 15 January.
This time round, the girls were not too excited about vacations because they knew if the Taleban implemented their edict they would not be able to come to school again. Some girls were optimistic that the schools would reopen in February but others said that their parents had decided to shift from Swat and go to other cities for the sake of their education.
Since today was the last day of our school, we decided to play in the playground a bit longer. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.
Today at school I told my friends about my trip to Bunair. They said that they were sick and tired of hearing the Bunair story. We discussed the rumours about the death of Maulana Shah Dauran, who used to give speeches on FM radio. He was the one who announced the ban on girls attending school.
Some girls said that he was dead but others disagreed. The rumours of his death are circulating because he did not deliver a speech the night before on FM radio. One girl said that he had gone on leave.
Since there was no tuition on Friday, I played the whole afternoon. I switched on the TV in the evening and heard about the blasts in Lahore. I said to myself ‘why do these blasts keep happening in Pakistan?’
I have come to Bunair to spend Muharram (a Muslim holiday) on vacation. I adore Bunair because of its mountains and lush green fields. My Swat is also very beautiful but there is no peace. But in Bunair there is peace and tranquillity. Neither is there any firing nor any fear. We all are very happy.
Today we went to Pir Baba mausoleum and there were lots of people there. People are here to pray while we are here for an excursion. There are shops selling bangles, ear rings, lockets and other artificial jewellery. I thought of buying something but nothing impressed – my mother bought ear rings and bangles.
I was getting ready for school and about to wear my uniform when I remembered that our principal had told us not to wear uniforms – and come to school wearing normal clothes instead. So I decided to wear my favourite pink dress. Other girls in school were also wearing colourful dresses and the school presented a homely look.
My friend came to me and said, ‘for God’s sake, answer me honestly, is our school going to be attacked by the Taleban?’ During the morning assembly we were told not to wear colourful clothes as the Taleban would object to it.
I came back from school and had tuition sessions after lunch. In the evening I switched on the TV and heard that curfew had been lifted from Shakardra after 15 days. I was happy to hear that because our English teacher lived in the area and she might be coming to school now.
Today is a holiday and I woke up late, around 10 am. I heard my father talking about another three bodies lying at Green Chowk (crossing). I felt bad on hearing this news. Before the launch of the military operation we all used to go to Marghazar, Fiza Ghat and Kanju for picnics on Sundays. But now the situation is such that we have not been out on picnic for over a year and a half.
We also used to go for a walk after dinner but now we are back home before sunset. Today I did some household chores, my homework and played with my brother. But my heart was beating fast – as I have to go to school tomorrow.
I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.
Only 11 students attended the class out of 27. The number decreased because of Taleban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families after this edict.
On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’. I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.
But eventually, the threats turned into reality and her fears were realized.  Malala is now in a military hospital, after being shot in the head and neck by the Taliban, who have accused her of spreading a secular message which they claim is anti-Islamic.  Her condition is guardedly optimistic, as the bullet missed her brain, but as of today, she is still suffering of brain swelling, which is life threatening.  And the Taliban has threatened to carry through again if she survives.

As you can clearly see from her diary above, her message was one in which her people had not asked for the heavily Islamic, extremist system to be imposed upon them, and clearly wanted their children, including girls, to be educated. This is the real reason the Taliban want her dead.  She has exposed the lie that ordinary Pakistanis want and accept their extreme form of Islam.  She has exposed the desire of ordinary Pakistanis that their daughters be educated alongside their sons!  She has illustrated that they are not welcome in places where the Pakistani people are educated.

Her father, which you can see at her side in interviews you can view on YouTube, had encouraged her to go to school, encouraged her to blog and had instilled in her a love for learning, for the importance of education.  In an interview posted on CNN, she emphasized the importance of education in opposing the Taliban!   His pride in her is like a shining light.

Both Malala and her father have exhibited an extraordinary amount of courage in taking this road, he in allowing, indeed, encouraging her and instilling this love of education in her. Malala herself has shown amazing courage in continuing to blog and support education in Pakistan in spite of the death threats, which in Pakistan, are very serious indeed.  I would point out that numerous politicians in that country should now hang their heads in shame at her defiance while they have bowed their heads in submission to Taliban threats.

I have to admit, I openly admit, that I was moved to tears in watching the CNN interview, seeing her courage, her passion, knowing that she was risking her very life in speaking out, especially to a reporter.  I can only hope that I would exhibit just half that courage and passion should I ever face even a small part of the threat she has endured at such a tender age!

But this is only part of this story.  The rest of it belongs to the Pakistani people.

Linking now to Maryam Namazie's blog "Nothing is Sacred" at Freethought blogs, Maryam has written a post entitled "This is how it's done", in which she has wonderful pictures and an account of how the Pakistani people have been outraged at the attack on Malala, have almost mobbed the hospital to offer blood to her, and have excoriated the Taliban as being a bunch of cowards to have threatened and attacked a 14 year old girl.

I would take this opportunity to introduce the Taliban to a concept, rather new in the world of the Internet, called the Streisand Effect.  It is really a rather simple idea, but it is so simple it is often ignored, to the detriment of the folks ignoring it.

The concept is that by openly opposing something small and little noticed (but important to you), it is brought to the open attention of the larger world, providing more media attention and publicity than it otherwise may have received.  It was first named after the law suit brought against Google by Barbra Streisand when she sought to have them blur out the  photos of her California mansion, fearing that the general public would see her private domain.  But instead of getting it hidden, the very lawsuit brought the pictures to the attention of the public and thus she lost the privacy she had sought.

Same principle here.  By attacking a defenseless young girl, the Taliban has damaged their cause, and if they try to carry through on their threats to kill her if she survives, they will hurt themselves more than an army could cause in a year of fighting.  Is this a bridge too far?  Have they finally bitten off more than they can chew?

This story brings out the tale of the intense struggle going on in, not only Pakistan, but the wider world of Islam.  On one side are the extremists, the violent men who fight for their own aggrandizement and power over their fellow muslims and on the other are the ordinary people who just want to live their lives to bring about a better life for their children and grandchildren.

These ordinary folk are NOT our enemies.  They would, if given a chance, be our allies, our trading partners.  But they are besieged by men who will use violence and intimidation to violate every tenet of Islam to take power in the name of that religion purely for their own advantage.

This time, the general media in the West has taken notice of the attack on Malala.  What they have failed to do is to outline or emphasize the reactions of the Pakistani people or the importance of the overall struggle within Islam itself which this story so poignantly illustrates.

It seems we have a ways to go.


Oldfart said...

We need to get this girl and her family out of Pakistan right now and to some place where they are safe and can bloom and bring this amazing young lady to adulthood. Because, sooner or later, some Taliban fruitcake will succeed in killing her there. He, she, it won't give a damn about the Streisand Effect.

Robert Ahrens said...

True, George, they won't, until it's too late.