Missing the Malala moment? — S M Naseem

It is because of the blatant neglect of the quintessential role of education by our rulers that the country remains mired in poverty and bedevilled by religious bigotry and terrorism

Almost a month after Malala’s canonisation as Pakistan’s Joan of Arc, the news of her heroic act is already beginning to fade away from the national consciousness and the more mundane and ephemeral issues of politics are elbowing it off centre-stage. The important issue of the accountability of our past civilian and military leaders — especially the latter who got off the hook even after the most egregious mistakes — raised by the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Asghar Khan case, is of no mean significance. However, the inspiring storyline scripted by the 14-year old girl from Swat who braved the Taliban’s atrocious attempt to silence her for good from her advocacy of the right to education, especially of young girls, transcends the opportunity presented by similar potentially transformative momentous events in the past.

For slandering her name and her cause, Malala’s foes are relying on Pakistan’s penchant for credulity of outlandish conspiracy theories, especially when the protagonists find themselves in a corner. General Musharraf’s infamous statement that Pakistani women “get themselves raped” in Pakistan in order to obtain foreign visas, is perhaps the most apt instance that comes to mind. He invented his ingenious conspiracy theory in the wake of a lady doctor’s rape by an army captain in Balochistan (whom he declared “100 percent innocent” without a trial) and the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai a decade ago. Those now soft-pedalling the dastardly attack on Malala by linking it to Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror and the continuing drone attacks —condemnable as they may be in themselves — can hardly be counted on the side of the teenaged activist.

Try as they might, the Malala saga is, however, unlikely to go away, even if, God forbid, she loses her ongoing battle against death or disability. Should she survive and be able to lead a full and productive life, which everyone hopes for, she could become a living legend and icon of our times in the battle for the right to education for, not only herself and her fellow-students, but for all who have been denied that right. She could well trigger the sea change or tsunami that has been promised by some pseudo-revolutionaries.

But, of course, it would be most unfair to put the burden of such a gigantic task on her delicate shoulders and evolving mind. It may well be necessary to allow her to complete her studies in a relatively peaceful environment, notwithstanding her expressed desire to take part in politics — a desire that needs to be welcomed and nurtured among our youth, who have become victims of cynicism, obscurantism and inaction. While the Taliban terrorists may be the prime suspects for her attempted assassination, the body blow to the cause for which she risked her life, has been inflicted by those elites who have ruled the country for the past six decades and have put education on the backburner, except as a source of their enrichment and self-aggrandisement.

The poignant saga of the attack on Malala’s life and the groundswell of support it has generated all over the country has all of a sudden caused a metamorphosis in those who have shown no credible responsibility in giving education its deserved place in the national agenda and have frittered away the resources mobilised for it at home and abroad. These persons and groups are no friends of Malala or the cause she represents, notwithstanding their crocodile tears. Malala will have to be discriminating in choosing her future friends and foes. Otherwise, her agenda of change will be hijacked by those whose fervour for education is linked to their own economic and political interests, rather than making it accessible to all, especially the poorest and most excluded sections of the population, including girls.

Education, instead of being a tool for the emancipation and empowerment of the poor, has become a multi-billion dollar business, which caters principally to and is lobbied for mainly by the affluent classes. It has also become in the past three decades a major conduit of foreign aid, which is siphoned off and squandered through dubious NGO-led and government-supported programmes, with minimal impact on universalising education. The privatisation lobby has been heavily backed by the IMF and World Bank, and more recently, by the channelling of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman funds by USAID, whose educational agenda is dictated by the needs of US strategic interests, rather than of national development. However well intentioned these financial gestures may be, they will remain counterproductive by strengthening the status quo and by failing to make education a truly national imperative, which needs to be attained without the prodding and carrot baiting of foreign donors. These ‘friends’ will do Pakistan an immense favour by letting it make its own choices in the social arena, even if it be at the cost of some internal strife. The state’s abandonment of its obligations to education and other social issues has been, to a large extent, aided and abetted by foreign aid agencies.

Nonetheless, it seems improbable that the Malala saga, regardless of its immediate outcome, will not play a game-changing role in the social transformation of this country. It could, if properly harnessed, prove to be a tipping-point in placing education, especially for girls, at the centre of our development agenda, which is currently buried under the debris of our internal strife among rival political, religious and ethnic factions with the sole aim of capturing economic and political power.

Indeed, it is because of the blatant neglect of the quintessential role of education by our rulers that the country remains mired in poverty and bedevilled by religious bigotry and terrorism. If the government and other political parties can translate their rhetoric and legislative actions (such as Article 25-A on the Right to Education) in letter and spirit, we would not need to have to protect Malala and her generation from the Taliban bullets.

It would be a pity, however, if after her recovery Malala is forced to disengage herself from the cause of girls’ education in Swat and is made to live a cocooned life, under the auspices of either the security forces or her eager patrons in the west, who may wish to use her as a pawn in the unholy clash of civilisations contrived by them. It would be an even bigger misfortune if the ‘Malala moment’ is allowed to be squandered into oblivion, as others, such as that associated with Mukhtaran Mai and the dozens of episodes of brutality towards women and denial of human and economic rights.

The writer is a former professor of economics at the Quaid-e-Azam
University, Islamabad and a writer on economic and political issues.
He can be reached at smnaseem@gmail.com


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