Malala Yousufzai: A Story of Education, Drones, and Foreign Policy

On a recent grocery store run, my father and I overheard an interesting exchange between two male store attendants about Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old activist from Pakistan’s northern Swat region who was targeted recently for her outspoken views on education.  While one of the attendants bemoaned her fate, his friend, a young Pathan, speaking with the tell-tale lyricism of Urdu in a Pashto accent, proceeded to comment on how many girls like Malala are being killed by drone attacks in South Waziristan.  My father, generally not one to intrude, gently chastised the younger man, informing him that Malala was attacked by the Taliban and not targeted in a drone attack.  The man stared at my father for a beat, shrugged and simply walked away.  I wasn’t entirely surprised by his reaction.  This incident, however, does serve to demonstrate (to some extent) how the narrative of Malala’s attack is taking shape in the minds of some members of the Pakistani public.

On October 14, a live TV event was held where students from several age groups and schools, in addition to various members of civil society organisations, held a candle light vigil for Malala in front of the hospital where the young girl was initially operated on.  The event was hosted by controversial televanglist, Dr. Amir Liaquat, and I watched as he concluded with a prayer and interacted with audience members on the need to “raise our voices” against the attack on Malala, the drone strikes, and the victims of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) military operation that took place in Islamabad in 2007.  By comparing Malala’s activism with the victims of drone strikes and Lal Masjid, suddenly Malala no longer appears to stand solely for female education rights but for every girl/victim who has in some way been indirectly affected by US foreign policy, in particular to America’s “war on terror” in which the Pakistani military also plays a complicit role.

Overall, support in Pakistan for the injured winner of the National Youth Peace Prize has been vociferous; from candle light vigils across the country to protests against extremist factions, Pakistanis are rallying, calling this a war between the light of education and darkness.  Key government officials have also contributed to the Malala-get well rhetoric whilst the army has vowed to continue its fight against extremist factions.

Global media, too, is rightfully enthralled by this young woman whose courageous stance has provided a timely impetus for change.  In addition to the advocacy surrounding “International Day of the Girl Child” (which closely coincided with Malala’s attack), former British PM Gordon Brown, now a UN Special Envoy for Global Education, is spurring thousands of supporters into signing the new “I am Malala” petition.  The petition will be presented to the Pakistani President and the UN Secretary-General (in upcoming visits, respectively), demanding that Malala and every girl, be granted their right to education.  Additionally, a host of influential personalities have voiced their support for Malala including US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton; Madonna dedicated a strip tease and a fake(?) tattoo to Malala; Angelina Jolie’s charity donated  money to support education initiatives across Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Besides the misogyny-addled justifications proposed by the Taliban, there are still others who choose to interpret the attack through their own ideological lenses.  Some (both in Pakistan and abroad) have used her attack to justify the use of drones, emphatically suggesting Pakistan’s need to embrace the strategic advantages of drone strikes to curb terrorism.  A recent study however, attempts to demonstrate how “targeted” drone killings in South Waziristan are politically counterproductive, kill large numbers of civilians and undermine respect for international law.  Based on interviews with victims, witnesses and experts, the report indicates how living under the threat of an attack terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma.  Conversely, a recent Dawn news report actually calls into question the quality of information collected in the aforementioned report and even suggests that the number of civilian “casualties” have actually “declined” over the last three years. Unfortunately, for every supposedly “legit” target, there are far too many “casualties” to justify the continued use of drone strikes to eliminate terrorist threats within Pakistan and abroad.

Although Pakistani religious leaders have joined the chorus of condemnation against Malala’s attackers, the chief of a leading right wing political party (Maulana Fazlur Rehman) lamented that while the attack on Malala Yousufzai should be condemned, nobody was protesting the deaths caused by the drone attacks.  Rehman has since also compared Malala to Aafia Siddiqui, inquiring why the media, security establishment and international community remained silent when an American soldier shot Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui.  Siddiqui is a Pakistani-born, American-educated, former neuroscientist with ties to Al Qaeda, who is presently serving a jail term for allegedly trying to murder her U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan.

Compounding the drone strikes and the varying interpretations of Malala’s attack is the actual, dismal educational attainment levels in Pakistan.  With approximately 180 million people, of which less than 2 million are registered tax payers (2009), it is not surprising that the actual GDP allocation for education hovers at 2 percent.  It also turns out that the US sends more in terms of security aid instead of aid for education to Pakistan. This is all in addition to the myriad of governance issues plaguing state bureaucracies and the unruly game of brinksmanship being played by intelligence agencies in South Waziristan and Balochistan – all to the detriment of a developing country and its uneducated populace.

Malala Yousufzai. Image via Dawn.

Why are we surprised that the photogenic image (and story) of a young, Muslim victim of terrorism is being exploited by media outlets everywhere?  In addition to news stories that, more often than not, portray Pakistani women and girls as victims, it is not impossible to suggest that highlighting the Malala incident was, in part, important in view of the previous media scrutiny resulting from a damning report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which underscored how very “un-surgical” drone strikes actually were.  The attack on Malala thereby providing the requisite justification for its usage.  In the same vein, the media blitz surrounding Malala at home (it has since waned) may be construed by some as a move to improve Pakistan’s soft image abroad – as if to suggest “hey, we apologize for our overzealous response to the irresponsible use of the Prophet’s image, and guess what, we can rally behind a young woman.”

As a Pakistani, I’m not sure if our “Malala moment” is over yet, but perhaps we as a nation may require several “Malala moments” before its impact drives the message home: education is everything.  And not just a feeble 10 percent rise in literacy rates over several years but a fully educated and empowered populace, where men and women are able to contribute to nation building, side by side and where due process is guaranteed.  But first, let’s give Malala her due.  For once she is everyone’s hero, her bravery transcending both geography and religion.  Why mar her achievements with comparisons that undermine her effort as a self-possesed and empowered individual (in her own right)?  There is no doubt Malala’s bravery and determination is (and will continue to be) a source of inspiration for girls and women the world over, and this doesn’t have to take away from the number of other issues that also deserve attention.

  • Chris

    I think it is quite interesting people (the world over, not just in Pakistan, but in other matters very similarly in the West) love confounding and lumping together very different stories. For the target of an attack, it is quite a different story if they are individually targeted for activism and political conviction they represent, or whether they are caught in crossfire, as unintended and coincidental targets. Even if both ended up dead, it is quite different when a fellow human-being approaches you, looks at you as a person, and decides to shoot you down, possibly without knowing you as an individual other than knowing they do not like what you represent – the attack becomes very personal. In that respect, the victims of drone attacks, as unjust as their deaths are, are not legitimate comparators for Malala’s fate. Aafiya Siddiqui, in that respect, most likely is a more legitimate comparator per se, when you understand her actions as engagement in violent resistance for ideological and political reasons (I will still choose to worry first for tens of thousands, maybe millions of other activists whose convictions and means I find more legitimate, before worrying about Aafiya – still, from what we know about her, she has been targeted, hurt and imprisoned while pursuing her own political agenda, which makes her comparable to Malala on a very basic plane).

    Also, when wanting to bring the justice or injustice of drone attacks into the mix: Superficially stated, all while acknowledging they violate state sovereignty of states targeted, and with that international law, as well as human rights (due process, bodily integrity etc.) of individuals, they are per se directed at the Taliban and other political/religious extremists with their particular political agenda, which clashes fundamentally with the political agenda of the likes of Malala, as well as with the political agenda of powerful decision-makers, among others, in the US (for quite different reasons). It is quite easy to see without violent measures by, primarily, the US and its military, the Taliban would thrive in power, and the likes of Malala, men and women, would suffer tremendous persecution (again). Of course, there is the other side of the coin that the injustice of drone attacks will likely increase hatred against the US and support for Taliban political agenda. I think the Lithmus test for the “effectiveness” of drone attacks in the fight against Taliban and allied extremists (all whilst acknowleding their negative international law and human rights law impact) will be: Would the Taliban rather have the drone attacks to continue (to increase their support), or would the Taliban rather have the drone attacks to stop (to be able to regroup, and not be consistently “beheaded”, executive-wise)? My humble guess is – the Taliban would much rather have the US and NATO completely out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to thrive again. And to thrive in persecuting their opponents. Which makes the wish for drone attacks to end an ambiguous one. What is the lesser evil – to have support in a fight against fascists with morally wrong means, or to stand morally impeccable, but completely chance-less against fascists? In the end, it is with those concerned individually, like Malala, this choice should rest, not with elites in a bubble neither in Islamabad, nor in Washington, nor elsewhere (which does not mean opinions on the matter should not be able to get voiced).

  • Altaf Shakoor

    For God’s sake don’t bracket Dr. Aafia Siddiqui with Alqaeda or Taliban. Even the former US Attorney General Hon. Mr. Ramsey Clark and for US presidential candidate (2008) Senator Mike Gravel have visited Aafia’s mother and have been quoted in the press as under : -

    Former Attorney General USA Hon. Mr. Ramsey Clark’s visit to Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s family and his comments highlighted in the Pakistani Print Media.

    “Dr Aafia Siddiqui was victimized by the international politics being played for power. I haven’t witnessed such bare injustice in my entire career.”
    (Daily Times – Aug 27’ 2012)

    Former Attorney General of the United States, Mr. Ramsey Clark says Dr Aafia Siddiqui is an innocent citizen of Pakistan who has been wronged and denied justice. (Pakistan Observer – Aug 27’ 2012)

    Clark said he would exchange views with the US administration on the issue of Dr Aafia Siddiqui. He hoped that Aafia’s release would be helpful in strengthening of Pakistan-US relations. (Pakistan Observer – Aug 27’ 2012)

    KARACHI: Relations between Pakistan and the US could be strengthened through repatriation of Dr Aafia Siddiqui. Sentence to Dr Aafia Siddiqui was quite injustice, so she should be freed. (Pak Tribune – Aug 27’ 2012)

    He said that indeed sentence to Dr Aafia was not an issue of crime, but was a matter of international power politics. He said that she was subjected to injustice and vowed that he would raise his voice for Dr Aafia’s repatriation.
    (Pak Tribune – Aug 27’ 2012)

    He said that Dr Aafia was an innocent, energetic Pakistani scientist. He said that he would pursue the issue in the US and would demand her release.
    (Pak Tribune – Aug 27’ 2012)

    Clark affirmed that it was an open violation of the international laws and regretted that the US violated the rules. (Pak Tribune – Aug 27’ 2012)

    The ex-attorney general said, “Neither did Dr Aafia kill anyone, nor did she attempt at. In fact she was shot thrice and should be released immediately.
    (Daily Times – Aug 27’ 2012)

    Clark said that he first visited Pakistan when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was under trial and he wanted to assist him. “This time around, I have come to express my sympathies for Dr Aafia”. (Daily Times – Aug 27 2012)

    Clark expressed his intention to gather people in America, for a one-point agenda of Dr Aafia’s repatriation. “Significant peace and justice activists will join me in promoting this agenda.” Daily Times – Aug 27’ 2012)

    Clark hailed the role of Pakistani people and particularly lawyers, saying that the nation’s voice on state level could play a significant role in Dr Aafia’s repatriation. He vowed that he would raise his voice for her repatriation at all levels in the US. (Daily Times – Aug 27’ 2012)

    Aug 28’ 2012

    Clark said she was an innocent citizen of Pakistan, and had become a victim of international politics. (The Nation – Aug 28’ 2012)

    William Ramsey Clark also termed the trial of Dr Aafia in the US illegal and unjustified as she is a mother and a daughter for which justice demands that she should immediately be released. “Pakistan should intensify its efforts in this issue”. (The News – Aug 28’ 2012)

    Talking to media on arrival at Islamabad airport on Tuesday, Gen. Clarke said that Aafia Siddiqui’s trial was not correct. Aafia is a mother and a daughter, and justice demands that Aafia Siddiqui should immediately be released, he said, adding that Pakistan should raise this issue. He suggested that the US should tell where the son of Aafia is. (The News – Aug 28’ 2012)

    Aug 29’ 2012

    Talking to media on arrival at the Benazir International Airport, Clark said Aafia’s trial was not justified.“Aafia is a mother and a daughter. Justice demands that Aafia Siddiqui should immediately be released. Pakistan should raise this issue,” he suggested. (The Nation – Aug 29’ 2012)

    William Ramsey Clark also termed the trial of Dr Aafia in the US illegal and unjustified as she is a mother and a daughter for which justice demands that she should immediately be released. “Pakistan should intensify its efforts in this issue”. (Pak Tribune – Aug – 29’ 2012)


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