Malala Yousafzai: A Bittersweet Collision of National and International Aspirations

Hiba Akmal is studying international relations and is an international student, originally from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

‘I am sad watching my uniform, school bag and geometry box. I felt hurt on opening my wardrobe and seeing my uniform, school bag and geometry box. Boys’ schools are opening tomorrow.

But the Taliban have banned girls’ education.’

‘My Swat is also very beautiful but there is no peace.’

Here is a collection of sentences from the anonymous blog written by a young girl in 2009, chronicling her existence under Taliban rule in Swat Valley, Pakistan. It is a province of sloping, elegant valleys and crystal waters that reflect a blanket of clear blue sky above. However, when I read her diary, it is a passion for education, a passion for her home and the fear of losing both that lies quivering between the lines, entry after entry after entry.

Ironically, it was a near-fatal bullet to the head which amplified her voice beyond the protective silence of secrecy and into the international amphitheatre. Today, Malala Yousafzai is a household name, lauded by the international community but curiously, received with scepticism and ire amongst her compatriots. I realised that this intriguing dichotomy runs deeper than a superficial dismissal of her global stardom. It struck me as an uncomfortable juncture between national and international narratives.

Malala embodies a historic, feminist message. However, it was realised against a political context, giving her call nuances of political overtones: Education is not only a human right that needs to be restored to the female population, but it also is a profound instrument of resistance. Resistance against the tyranny and misogyny of de facto Taliban control in north-eastern Pakistan.

In the War against Terror, the Taliban constitute a primary enemy, and Pakistan the big power, proxy playground. As torrents of US authorised drones hailed over Taliban strongholds, the once serene Swat Valley and its people become collateral damage. The young girls of Swat were suffering twofold. Thus Malala’s message was recognised out of a painful necessity, but once her plight made international headlines, the root cause faded into the background. While Malala began collecting the accolades of her bravery, the blog-less, bullet-less girls of Swat Valley stagnated outside barred classroom doors, under austere Taliban rule. It is this contrast of recognition and neglect that provokes a disturbing hypocrisy. The girls of Swat became forgotten props behind the Malala narrative.

And narrative indeed, the Malala story is the media’s apple in a global Garden of Eden. We can’t help but romanticise it. We savour the fruit and forget the branch from where it was picked. A young girl barely escapes martyrdom as she nobly resists oppression under a global enemy. Miraculously resuscitated through foreign medical finesse, she becomes a cover girl for third world feminism and education rights. Allow me to be figurative for I am conveying impressions and sentiments, not scrutinising facts and figures. Basically, while a glamorous narrative of heroism and education rights dazzled the international community, the morbid prologue was hurriedly flicked past.

This is not an attack on IGO’s and global gratitude over the movement Malala has come to be synonymous with. I am deeply grateful that a figure of such international respect has come from my home country. I am an ardent supporter of international activism, platforms of global recognition and all other pillars that come together in our international community for the service of development and awareness. This is me dipping my feet in the water, realising the pond is much deeper and complex than it seemed from afar when I first questioned why Malala received such mixed responses.

But others may question whether Malala has become alienated from her cause. Indeed she is now geographically distanced from Swat by swathes of European and Middle Eastern territory and comfortably resides in the lap of peaceful British society. From this distance she continues her activism by spreading her efforts across a broader scope, representing Pakistan and servicing the world’s young girls with a selfless maturity. The Malala Fund seeks to create ‘a world where every girl can complete 12 years of safe, quality education.’

So, is Malala a hero? Indeed, she has provided a mobilising, legitimising face to a world cause. Is Malala Pakistan’s hero? Here the affirmative is not as resounding. Malala’s scope has outgrown Swat Valley, and she now is a global ambassador for her movement. History shows that every movement, has a leader which plants it, waters it and watches it bloom. I believe her potential to mobilise Pakistani’s in the pursuit to advance the development of our nation – making education accessible to all and empowering women to reach their potential – has been lost amidst a far larger crowd. So it’s a bitter story, immensely sweet for the world’s young girls, and a bit bitter for those who saw in her an opportunity to heal our nation.