By Rhea Kumar:
“I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to the market. I have the right to speak. I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is an education, and I am afraid of no one.”
Not very far from us, lies a mountainous land in the West. A land that is very different from ours. A land where violence is an unfortunate part of daily life and personal freedom, a rarity. A land where freedom, human rights and peace hold no meaning, where living and even breathing freely is a daily challenge.
This is the province called the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, also known as the Swat region.The Swat region is known for two things. The first is the Taliban, a force that kills and maims dozens of innocent Pakistani civilians every day, dispensing justice under the garb of ‘propagating the true form of Islam’. Indeed, it is unclear as to whether the Pakistani government and military work with or against the Taliban, but nevertheless, the Taliban have overruled what is supposedly a democratic government in every possible way in the FATA region.
Ironically, this organization, whose name literally means ‘students’, has had an extremely negative impact on the institution of education in this region. Not only has the Taliban tried to destroy every semblance of modernism and free thought from the education system, it has also come out strongly against education for women. Women under Taliban rule have been stoned and flogged for stepping out of their houses without male relatives, for not wearing purdah, for singing and for doing anything that enhances their freedom. Where, then, does the question of education for women arise?
The second thing that the FATA region is known for is Malala Yousafzai.
The ferocity and brutality of the Taliban has made even the greatest of political leaders shudder with fear. But it took all of a fourteen year old Pakistani girl to defy them. On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for openly speaking out against them and endorsing education for girls. It took a series of major surgeries and a long period of recovery at a hospital in Birmingham to revive her. Yet, after her tryst with death, Malala is back on her feet, this time with the backing of many non-governmental organizations, political leaders and celebrities and with the protection of the government of the United Kingdom. And yes, she is out to fulfil her goal of providing education to every girl around the world.
A few days ago, the Malala Fund, an organization established in her name and funded by Vital Voices, an NGO started by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made its first grant to provide education to 40 girls in Pakistan. The grant of $45,000 million will be made to an NGO in Islamabad and will support the education of 40 poor girls, aged 5 to 12 years in the Swat region. The fund will pay for their school fees, daily expenses and provide them with a monthly allowance. Malala is enthusiastic about this grant and hopes to transform the education of these 40 girls into education for `40 million girls’ all around the world. “I want every girl, every child to be educated”, she says resolutely.
Malala may be young, but she is definitely not timid. Celebrity actor Angelina Jolie rightly commented, “The Taliban shot her at point-blank range in the head, and made her stronger. In a brutal attempt to silence her voice, it grew louder.” Truly, behind the dimpled face and sweet voice, there lies a resilient heart and nerves of steel. Malala has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2013, making her the youngest nominee in history. Millions of people around the world hope and believe that she will win the prize, for she has accomplished something that power-hungry politicians and self-serving leaders would never even dream of attempting.
The tale of this 15-year-old, named after a nineteenth century Pashtun heroine, starts in the small town of Mingora in the Swat region. Malala was born in a liberal household and encouraged to read and learn by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, himself an owner of a girl’s school and an education activist. Malala first came into the limelight when she began writing a blog on BBC Urdu about life in Swat under the Taliban. She openly criticized the Taliban for closing girls’ schools in the region. Later, she appeared in a documentary titled ‘Class Dismissed’ released by the New York Times, conceptualized and co-produced by Times filmmaker Adam Ellick using footage from a film shot by Pakistan Dawn Television reported Syed Irfan Ashraf.
Following the documentary, Malala was recognized and interviewed by various news channels and nominated for two peace awards in Pakistan. Overnight Malala became a world heroine, a symbol of courage and freedom. Naturally, it also put her in the direct line of fire from the Pakistani Taliban, figuratively and literally. Yet even under death threats from the Taliban, Malala continued to speak out against their repressive tactics and argued passionately for girls’ education.
Now, after a prolonged battle for her life, Malala has returned strong and vibrant. Where others might have succumbed under such pressure and violence, fearing for their own life and those of their near and dear ones, Malala is only more willing to fight for her cause. She holds no grudges against the Taliban, who nearly killed her or the media, whose actions exposed her to such grave danger. All she holds dear is a passion to learn and a great vision. A vision to transform the precarious lives of the girls in Pakistan. A vision to ensure that Pakistani girls can stand on their own feet when they grow up and have the freedom to speak their mind and take charge of their lives. And her vision, with the support of the Malala fund, has the potential to alter the landscape of the Swat valley, both in reality and in the minds of the rest of the world; to help people recognize Swat not as a land of violence, but as a mountainous and tranquil land, with beautiful streams and beautiful people.