On Dec. 10, young Pakistani activist and children’s rights advocate Malala Yousafzai will receive the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway. The youngest person ever to be awarded the prize, 17-year-old Malala was catapulted to the global spotlight in 2012 after the Taliban shot her in the head aboard a school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. She has won many prestigious awards this year, including the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal and the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, which was posthumously awarded to Anne Frank. Last month the National Assembly of Pakistan and two of the country’s largest provincial assemblies, in Sindh and Punjab, passed unanimous resolutions lauding the importance of Malala’s struggle for education.
But not everyone in Pakistan is celebrating Malala’s global stardom. Across Pakistan, her fame is increasingly viewed with resentment and suspicion, by those who sympathize with the Taliban and by those who accuse Malala of advancing a foreign agenda. The militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan warned booksellers against selling her memoir, “I Am Malala.” In January, Peshawar University canceled a scheduled book launch and discussion because of pressure from local officials, in what the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders characterized as a “politically motivated maneuver, which violated freedom of information.” Former renowned cricketer and opposition leader Imran Khan’s information secretary was among those who pressured the university, questioning the relevance of the book launch.
Pakistan desperately needs Malala’s education campaign and message of freedom. The country ranks second in the world for having the most children out of school — nearly 25 million. In Malala’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, home of Peshawar University, nearly 700,000 children — 600,000 of them girls — do not have access to school. Despite these glaring statistics, even some educational groups are resisting Malala’s campaign to eradicate child illiteracy. For example, on Nov. 10 the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, an association of 150,000 private schools, held I Am Not Malala Day to protest her views, which it said are “against the Constitution and Islamic ideology of Pakistan” and asked the government to ban the book.
As Pakistan’s military continues its operation against the Taliban, a simultaneous war of ideas needs to be waged to bring Pakistan out of a looming darkness. Pakistan’s Constitution and newly passed provincial laws stipulate that every child in the country be educated. It also states that their fundamental rights of freedom of thought, expression and belief must be protected. Efforts to ban Malala’s book not only conflicts with those constitutional guarantees but also amounts to an assault on the right to freedom of expression. “You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed,” the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, told parliament in his first presidential address nearly seven decades ago.
Pakistan has evidently failed to live up to those ideals. In fact, Malala is but the latest symbol of the fight against right-wing Pakistanis’ attempts to control Pakistan’s narrative and enforce their ideology on the masses. The battle over Pakistani identity and freedom of expression is eclipsed by the suppression of minorities while those with liberal views have repeatedly been chastised as puppets of foreign powers.
Regrettably, some well-meaning individuals, including the award-winning author Arundhati Roy, have joined conservative activists and leaders accusing Malala for naively pushing an imperialist Western agenda on Pakistan. Labeling her courageous struggle as part of a wild conspiracy undermines the country’s steady progress.
Her campaign for education and freedom is at the heart of the battle for the future of Pakistan. She advocates for a tolerant country that values critical thought and the courage to stand up for one’s fundamental rights even in the face of violent extremism. Malala’s struggle is inspired by national heroes and stems from her religion and culture. Islam teaches tolerance and the pursuit of knowledge.
The real conspiracy is that extremism and the subjugation of others have been allowed to ferment in Pakistan. “Critical thinking has the power to defuse terrorism,” Pakistani journalist Sherbano Taseer wrote shortly after Malala was attacked. Sherbano Taseer’s father, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a lone extremist for what the killer considered blasphemy. Earlier this month, a Christian married couple, five-months pregnant Shama Bibi and Shehzad Masih, were burned alive by a mob of 1,200 in a village near Lahore.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is among those most affected by terrorism. It is alarming that the conservative Jamaat Islaami party has overturned efforts to reform the public school curriculum to promote tolerance. It has demanded the elimination of ostensibly objectionable materials — such as images of young girls without headscarves and the phrase “good morning” — and the reinstatement of religious text into chemistry books.
Last month Pakistan’s Centre for Higher Education Commission issued a puzzling letter asking for vigilance on university campuses against discussion or any activity that “challenges the ideology and principles of Pakistan and/or the perspective of the government of Pakistan.” It would be an affront to freedom of expression for institutions of learning to ban critical analysis of the government’s policies.
Ultimately, as Pakistani education campaigner Mosharraf Zaidi noted in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the extremists are not alone: The state of Pakistan is failing its children. The country’s federal and provincial governments must enforce laws that demand education for all children and protect their freedom of expression. In light of the dismal affairs of education in Pakistan, voices such as Malala’s need to be encouraged, not restrained — and certainly not further polarized. Pakistan cannot afford to patronize or undermine Malala’s remarkable fight for the future of millions of Pakistani children.