The Girls Who Aren’t Malala

Rumour had it that the Pope would receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The ‘rumour mill’ was wrong. This year’s peace award went to a 17-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a murder attempt by the Taliban to become a highly vocal advocate for female education: Malala Yousafzay. Malala will share the prize with the much-lesser-known Kailash Satyarti, a children’s rights activist from India. The Nobel Committee admired the two “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” Linking the work of this year’s prize winners with the quest for world peace is something of a stretch. It always is. Recall how US President Barak Obama was given the prize, not for what he had done, but in anticipation of what he was going to achieve. And then there was the time the prize was totally debased by giving it to Yasser Arafat! The Nobel Peace Prize committee has done a much better job of selecting the recipients this time round. To be honest, I know nothing of Satyarti’s work in India, but I do know what Malala has achieved, and I applaud the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s choice of the young Pakistani girl.

What has not heard Malala’s story? I still remember the revulsion I felt when I heard how a Taliban gunman had boarded her school bus that afternoon in October 2012, asked for her by name, then pointed a pistol at her head and fired three shots. What kind of man would board a school bus and shoot a young school girl? The ‘man’ was 23-year-old Atta Ullah Khan, a graduate student in chemistry and member of Pakistan’s Taliban. (Ironically, the word talib is a Pashto word meaning ‘student’. Taliban is the plural ‘students’). In the days following the attack Malala remained unconscious. When her condition improved enough for her to travel, she was sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England for rehabilitation.

Malala’s crime in the eyes of the Taliban? She defied the Taliban’s ban on female education. When she was only twelve years old, Malala wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC, describing her life under the Taliban occupation in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. The Taliban banned not only education for girls but also television, music, shopping for women. The following summer Malala became the subject of a New York Times documentary. Then Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. As her prominence grew, so did her vulnerability. One day the Taliban decided it was time to silence her. They didn’t–quite the opposite!

Her voice became only louder and stronger after the attempt on her life. On 15 October 2012 the UN Special Envoy for Global Education and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched a petition in her name, calling it ‘I Am Malala’. On 12 July 2013, on what the UN dubbed ‘Malala Day’–Malala ‘s sixteenth-birthday–the young activist spoke at the UN, calling for worldwide access to education.

Malala has paid a high price for standing up to the Taliban. She and her family have been forced into exile in the UK. Since March 2013 Malala has been attending the all-girls’ Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. She and her family can never go back to Pakistan. Those who tried to kill her that day on the bus would still like to see her dead, and have reiterated their intent to kill both her and her father.

In October 2013, Malala published her memoir co-authored by the British journalist Christina Lamb: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. I have not yet read the book, but intend to. The reaction of the Taliban to Malala’s memoir was predictable. In the eyes of the Pakistan Taliban, Malala is an apostate who does not represent Islam. She’s been “brain-washed” by her teacher-father. She’s an “agent of the kuffar ‘disbelievers’.” Spokesman for the Taliban Ehsanullah Ehsan says that fighters will continue to strike people who take what to them are anti-Islamic positions. And thus Malala remains a target of the Taliban.

What was less predictable, however, was the response from some Pakistani educators. One would think educators would be her strongest supporters, but no, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation announced Malala’s book would be banned in its 152,000 member institutions. Why? Her book, in the Federation’s view, disrespects Islam and could have a negative influence.

Whether at the request of the UN, or because of political correctness, or perhaps for some other reason, Malala has become an advocate for education for all the world’s children, a noble goal, to be sure. But by making her activism so inclusive, Malala fails to draw attention to the real problem. Let’s not forget that Malala was a Muslim girl, living in a Muslim-majority country, shot by a Muslim graduate student who belonged to a Muslim terrorist organization. The courageous and determined schoolgirl survived. She has achieved so much in her seventeen years and her future looks bright.

But what about the girls who aren’t Malala–school girls like those kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram six months ago? Of the 276 taken forcibly from their secondary school in Nigeria that night, some have escaped, but 150 are still missing. I can’t even begin to imagine the anguish of their parents. Reports (which have yet to be verified) state that girls have been taken to Chad or Cameroon; that they’ve been married in mass ceremonies; that they’ve been sold for $12 to the terrorists or to much older men. Many of these kidnapped girls no doubt hoped one day to be doctors or lawyers or educators. Malala visited the families of these girls recently and issued an appeal to Boko Haram: “Lay down your weapons, release your sisters, release my sisters, and release the daughters of this nation.” She was ignored. In fact, the leader of Bokko Haram laughs at the ineffectiveness of the hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls.

And then there are the female victims of the Islamic State (IS). The IS fighters have taken Yazidi women under the age of 35 captive–some as young as 5–for sex slaves. What does the future hold for these girls and young women? Sex at the whim of their owners, unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, gynaecological problems, maternal death–and probably worst of all, no hope for the future.

Yes, it’s gratifying to see Malala rewarded for her bravery and determination. But let’s not forget the girls who aren’t Malala.

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