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Thinking about Malala

For those who have just stepped off the ferry Malala Yousafzai is the school girl from the North West provinces of Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban. They wanted, of course, to prevent her, and other girls from being educated. Luckily, thanks to British doctors, she survived, and was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her role as a spokeswomen for and a symbol of women’s education.

This book, pictured left, is “her” ghostwritten account of what happened, and of the background to the events in question. Given the huge international publicity that surrounded the whole episode, it was to be expected that her book should become a best seller, and it has been I gather a hit among the book groups- although I was able to pick up my copy free in the Arklow recycling centre!

The story that “I am Malala, the girl who stood up for Education and was shot by the Taliban”  by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb ( Weidenfeld and Nicolson)  E 15.99 tells is important. Militant Islam is troubling phenomenon. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave rise to a resistance movement that was fanned by both American and Pakistani intelligence agencies; this ultimately morphed into the Taliban- with results we all know. What is less generally realised is that the movement then spread through those parts of Pakistan where the militants soon came into conflict with those such as Malala’s father who was an entrepreneurial educator.

There is much that is good and interesting about this book. Indeed the chapters of the book which deal Ziauddin Yousafzai’s ( b. 1961 ) career give a fascinating glimpse of the difficulties of setting up a business in the third world. It is, of course, eloquent and persuasive about the importance of women’s education.  The core of Malala’s message is that the very fact that the uneducated are uneducated means that they cannot be part of the broader cultural conversation that influences their lives: they have to be educated to be able to advance their own interests.

There is nothing especially new about this analysis, although the context in which Malala ( or is that Christina Lamb her ghost writer? ) places it is fresh, and genuinely interesting. It is not  an analysis that has won uncritical acceptance by conservatives, largely because our view of what counts as education differs from that of the left. But this is no place to revisit these discussions.

Instead I want to focus on another issue that emerges from Malala’s book, one which flows out of her educational theme. Towards the end of the book, when Malala is struggling with the terrible injuries inflicted on her she reports that her father asked her mother “Tell me truthfully. What do you think- is it my fault?” Her mother had replied “No…you didn’t send Malala out thieving or killing or to commit crimes. It was a noble cause.”

Just what are the responsibilities of parents, teachers, and others in cases such as this? The question posed by Malala’s father is more telling than the unhappy answer provide by her mother. Malala’s mother seems to be saying that we are entitled to risk the lives and welfare of children in any cause that we judge to be good. But is this a sound proposition? I think not. Malala’s father did not deliberately set up the circumstances which led to the attack on his daughter. To suggest so would be quite outrageous. Nevertheless it was his determination- which of course in the nature of things became hers- which led to the terrible injuries that were inflicted on her. In truth Malaya’s life was endangered by what some would say was her father’s bloody mindedness.

And what too of the media zoo which was created in her name.  How proper was this? Granted, she was plainly in full agreement with the cause that her supporters( such as Gordon Brown ) advocated. But she was still only a girl  plunged into a culture quiet different from her own. Was her relatively conservative form of Islam consistent with the feminism that surrounded her?

To elucidate the matter let us put another case. In this fictional scenario a boy on his way to a madrassa is injured by some anti-terrorist operation; his supporters launch a sophisticated media operation to advance the cause of radical Islam. Instead of relying on the BBC they turn to Alajeera  and instead of being treated in Birmingham he is looked after in a field hospital organised by the Taliban or some other radical group, to which the world’s press is bidden?

In this case I can already hear the chorus of execration. In Washington the neo- conservative publicity machine would go into overdrive.  Fox news would assure us that what we were witnessing was a cynical abuse of children, of kind we could have expected from those who recruit suicide bombers. Likewise neo- conservative intellectuals would pen think pieces warning us against the newly sophisticated techniques that our enemies were now employing. Indeed references to Dr. Goebbels and Horst Wessel would probably not be altogether avoided.

What are we to make of it all? One of the most interesting parts of the book  is the passage which implies that the hospital where Malala was treated was at least to some extent uneasy about the media frenzy that had been unleashed by her supporters ( even though they too had their public relations team on the case! ) But vague unease is not enough.  Our close attention is demanded by the intersection of privacy, children’s rights, freedom of speech – and in this case the real importance of ensuring that girls are not left uneducated in the Islamic world.

One way ( although there are no easy ways here ) of unpacking the problem is to ask whether or not we would want our own children to be instrumentalised as Malala was by those who wanted to use her story for good, even noble, aims.

The answer is far from clear, and depends on the extent to which Malala gave a fully informed personal consent to what was done in her name. The uncritical defenders of what happened though face the difficulty that for much of the relevant time Malala was actually unconscious. Did the statements made in support of Malala become statements attributed to her without her consent? My own tentative thought is that those who spoke in Malala’s name went somewhat too far. However and before criticizing them too sternly we need to remember the circumstances in which they acted. In any event we are Malala’s and her co authors debt not just for this book, and for the statement that it makes, but also for raising these difficult and important issues.