WHEN 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot for campaigning for girls' education in Pakistan, much of the world was shocked.
It was hard to believe that anyone, regardless of religion or ideology, could really believe this was a just and warranted act. But as she has become a global celebrity, an "icon of courage and hope", the principles for which she stands risk being buried in a quagmire of religious and ideological propaganda.
Malala is campaigning for a world in which she and others like her can freely go to school. A long howl of anger on her behalf is therefore justified. So too, perhaps, is the call for her to receive the Nobel peace prize, or even for a "Malala day" to be established on which we think of other girls like her. But we should be wary of making this into a simplistic story about the Taliban, or Islamic extremism. Rather, this is about a brutalising traditional patriarchal culture, of which the Taliban is just one part.
The alternative-thinking Pakistani publication, Viewpoint, draws attention to this: "The Taliban has no regard for targeting 14-year-old girls. But where in the rest of Pakistan is there any consideration for girls? Is it in Karachi, where children beg or sell trinkets to take money back to their families where every other member works? Is it in Lahore, where teenaged girls sell their bodies to make a living? Is it in Dera Bugti, where girls are traded to settle family feuds?"
I thought of Malala this weekend, while watching a film-festival screening of the documentary Outlawed In Pakistan, which follows the story of Kainat Soomro, a young woman, now 17, who claims she was gang-raped at 14. Kainat is now involved in a long drawn-out attempt to gain justice through the official courts, within a justice system that is stacked in favour of the men. She lives under constant police protection. The system of which Kainat has fallen foul is not a religious one, but that of local tribal justice, its own patriarchal microcosm. Yet in many ways her story is similar. Like Malala, she has become a figurehead for young women like herself.
In Outlawed In Pakistan, Kainat's lawyer points out that an increasing number of girls like Kainat are now speaking out about gang rape and other brutalities against women. He adds that those girls are not going to retreat and quieten down. The genie, one might say, is out of the bottle. And that genie, fuelled by anger at the shaming, oppression and maltreatment of women, is beyond ideology and politics. It is about basic rights that should be immutable. To say otherwise, and espouse the relativistic notions about cultural norms within Pakistan, is to permit a dehumanised view of women that should be unacceptable in all societies.
We, as a culture, are not so very far, chronologically, from some of these brutalising values. Shown alongside Outlawed In Pakistan was a film documenting the feelings of a generation of young American women who, in the 1960s, had felt forced to give up babies for adoption because their pregnancies had brought shame on their families. That shame connects them with Kainat, and with many young women across the world who are cast out and brutalised, so often for acts done to them by men.
The Viewpoint article points out: "Malala Yusufzai went to school, that is her crime. It is an act that too many girls in Pakistan cannot afford to commit, regardless of the Taliban's presence, because there is simply no system of education in the country." Malala's story is not simply a tale of Western liberalism against Islamic extremism; it's about what it means to be a young girl in a society riddled with traditional patriarchal structures and inequalities. Nor should we forget, as we fight our seemingly small battles here at home – in support of women bishops, for instance, or, with Slutwalks, for the right to wear what we want – that this is all part of the same struggle. The sour old monster of patriarchy has many faces. The Taliban, ugly as it is, is simply one of them.
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