Today morning, I cried because my favourite wine-hued lipstick from Clinique (Black Honey, if you must know) broke. At the same time, I was following a Twitter exchange between two of the city’s fashion journalists, who were super-upset at not having received “VIP passes” for the Starbucks that’s set to open around the corner. Forget that Starbucks doesn’t do VIP passes… these women are super-important, wielding the pen as they do to create or destroy the fate of a Gucci handbag. It was an intriguing exchange of thoughts. At the same time, my husband was waxing lyrical about Felix Baumgartner‘s adrenaline-fuelled leap from the edge of space and what it meant for our understanding of science, of the universe, of the human body.
And as a backdrop to all these minutiae of daily living, lay Malala Yousafzai. A 14-year-old schoolgirl from Pakistan, who was shot in the head and neck at point blank range because “she deserves to die”. Her crime? Wanting to go to school, wanting to get an education, wanting other girls of her country to get an education. But the Taliban doesn’t agree. And despite their being routed in Afghanistan and the death of Osama Bin Laden, what the Taliban doesn’t agree with cannot exist. So, when these fundamentalist outlaws captured Swat valley – a region that was once known as the Switzerland of Pakistan – they erased the basic human right of girls to receive an education. Of course, that wasn’t all: they also banned women from working, having their measurements taken by tailors, living in a house whose windows were not blackened (so nobody can see them from the outside) and going to general hospitals amongst many other edicts.
Speaking in an interview with The New York Times on January 14th, 2009, the day before all girls’ schools had to down shutters in Swat forever, Malala had said, “In Swat, when we go to school, we are very afraid of the Taliban. He will kill us, he will throw acid in our face… he can do anything”. And that was the most chilling thing I have ever heard. Yes, this is not the only place hit by atrocities in the world. I will never forget the horrifying images of New York’s World Trade Centre crashing to the ground and people jumping from the 107th floor in a desperate attempt to escape the horror. I have kept vigil through the long winter nights for friends fighting an insane war in Kargil. I have experienced, first hand, my city go up in smoke more times than seems humanly possible. I have seen a young bride collapse upon receiving news that her husband, her parents, her siblings and her in-laws have all perished in the terrorist attack on Mumbai’s Taj Hotel, where they were celebrating the couple’s first anniversary.
I have seen all this and more, yet the story of Malala still manages to slash its way through to my heart. Why? What makes Malala special? To me, it’s the fact that she is not special. When soldiers get wounded at the battlefront, when adults lose their lives living in cities that are mired in unrest, at least these are choices they have made. Semi-informed choices but choices nevertheless. When a 14-year-old girl is chased by militants and shot on her way to school, it’s nothing but a celebration of the most sheer brutality that mankind is capable of wreaking.
What was Malala’s sin? As an 11-year-old, she blogged under a pseudonym for the BBC, talking about her life under Taliban rule. That’s when the world first took notice of this determined voice that charmed with it’s very innocence:
“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.”
“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… 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.”
Is the Taliban so insecure that it’s now threatened by an 11-year-old’s words? Or even a 14-year-old’s? For, in the past three years, the rosy-complexioned child has grown into a twinkling-eyed adolescent who advocates education for girls and teaches kids in refugee camps. When the security forces carried out operations to oust the Taliban in Swat, Malala had to leave her valley, as did almost a million other people. She has since been nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and has won Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. She wants to be a doctor but her father – a progressive educationalist – wants her to be a politician, so that she can create a world where many other girls can get their Doctorates. Instead, Malala is lying in a London hospital (the risk to her life was still too great in Pakistan), hooked up to a ventilator, fighting for every breath.
As she has had to fight all her young life. What kind of existence is it where children can’t play on the roads because of the hidden maze of land mines? Where women are stoned if they step out of the house without the all-enveloping burka? Where a woman is publicly flogged if even a tiny bit of her ankle creeps out of the unwieldy full body veil? Where a woman is termed a whore and stoned to death if she wears lipstick? Where her fingers are cut off if she wears nail polish? Where a girl is put into prison if she gets raped (the rapist, on the other hand, goes scott free)? Where a woman is beheaded if she cannot prove her virginity on the marriage bed (blood soaked cloth, anyone?)? Where a woman cannot divorce her husband even if he beats her brutally, burns her and denies her a morsel of food for days on end? Where, if a man divorces his wife, she is shunned from society? Where girls are currency to be traded for everything from freedom to a carton of cigarettes? Where 10-year-old girls have acid thrown in their face for going to school? Where a 14-year-old school girl is shot in the head and neck for wanting to study? Where, even after such inhuman brutality, the shooters openly proclaim that they will be back to finish the job? Where every single hour, every single step, every single breath is full of imagined and unimagined dangers? What would it be like to live in a world like that?
Malala knows how it is to live in this world. I don’t. And frankly, I don’t want to find out. Neither, I assume, do most of you. But unfortunately, fundamentalist terrorism is a disease that recognises no borders. Afghanistan itself was once one of Asia’s most modern communities – where women wore short skirts to wander through the markets, were an active part of the country’s political ecosystem and happily worked in all kinds of professions. Then, defying the laws of evolution, the Taliban reversed time and took the country backwards. But this can happen to any of us, anywhere. To all of us, everywhere. Who would have ever thought terror would strike in the heart of New York City on 9/11? Or that a handful of extremists would hold two of Mumbai’s most luxurious, high security hotels hostage for four days? Or that London and Madrid’s trains would fall victim to serial bombings?
This is not about Afghanistan or Pakistan or any of the other countries visibly torn by strife. This is now about all of us. The insanity is striking closer and closer home. So, what do we do? What can we do? Am I going to throw away all my pretty lipsticks and colourful nail paints? Am I going to stop spritzing on perfume or lusting after the latest ‘It’ bag? No, I won’t. And not just because that would be a desecration of all the small and big freedoms that we enjoy but also because, very simply and very honestly, I like my pretty lipsticks and colourful nail paints. They make me feel happy. They make me feel feminine. They cheer me up on a grumpy day and they are my reward for all the hours I put in at work.
But what I will do is stop living in oblivion. Malala is fighting for education and awareness. But education and awareness don’t start and end within school walls. We need to keep learning and analysing and evolving every single day. And the day we stop doing that, our lives might also be forced backwards. So, it’s time to open our eyes and see the dangers even if they seem to lurk only across distant borders. The world, it’s been proved time and time again, is shrinking way too fast. And who knows where the extremists will next set their gaze?
So, speak up for Malala. Discuss her with your friends. Tell her story to your children. Write about her on public forums. Replace your profile photo – even if only for one hour – with hers. Light a candle. Tweet #StandWithMalala. If you have a bit of spare cash, contribute to Angelina Jolie and Tina Brown’s Women of Impact Award for Girls’ Education that has been launched in the wake of the attack on Malala and will provide funds for girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sign the petition launched by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown ”in support of what Malala fought for”, which will be handed to President Asif Ali Zardari in November.
Because the world needs to know and remember: Malala Yousafzai. A 14-year-old schoolgirl from Pakistan, who was shot in the head and neck at point blank range because “she deserves to die”. Her crime? Wanting to go to school, wanting to get an education, wanting other girls of her country to get an education. When school girls in Swat stage a rally carrying banners that proclaim, “I am Malala!” (as an answer to the terrorist who asked, “Who is Malala?” before identifying and pumping bullets into her brain), let us tell them that we are all Malala as well. It is only this solidarity that will ensure we never suffer her fate. Because, at the end of it all lies the fact that the attack on Malala was driven by pathological hatred of women – not just politics.
Malala almost died because of her words on the internet. Let her come alive with our words on the internet.