It is a rare thing in history to come across someone as peaceful as Malala Yousafzai—someone that believes that peaceful words and education can battle the guns and bombs of oppression. It seems contrary to the very fabric of human nature to confront the barrel of a gun with a pep talk about peace, dialogue and education. As such, many people might describe Malala as incredibly naive, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong. Nevertheless, in a state that systematically oppresses and abuses women, she is not alone in her peaceful fight for rights.
“I used to think that the Talib would come and he would just kill me, but then I said: if he comes what would you do Malala?
Then I would reply myself: that Malala take a shoe and hit him, but then I said – then I said:
If you hit a Talib with your shoe then there would be no difference between you and the Talib, you must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue and through education.
Then I said: I’ll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well and I will tell him that’s what I want to tell you. Now do what you want.”
With this answer, Malala Yousafzai managed to render speechless one of the most unflappable names in television. Jon Stewart, memorable for squaring up to heavyweights such as Jim Cramer and Barack Obama, sat with his head in his hands as his audience raucously applauded Malala’s statement.
Although she’s been lauded in the West as a new Mother Teresa, Malala’s global fame has not been without backlash in her home state. The USA’s involvement with her campaigning, in particular, has come under fire as hypocritical in lieu of the controversial drone strikes being carried out in Pakistan. Journalist Assed Baig in a scathing Huffington Post piece wrote, “Malala is the good native, she does not criticise the West, she does not talk about the drone strikes, she is the perfect candidate for the white man to relieve his burden and save the native.” Aside from a brief and sardonic pause in her interview with Jon Stewart, Malala (perhaps rather shrewdly) avoids much mention of the destructive impact of the US in Pakistan. As Baig notes, there are many other women fighting for women’s rights in the Middle East, and in Pakistan in particular, which go unheard of. This is most likely a result of a combination of the white man’s saviour complex and the admission that many other Muslim women wouldn’t be so kind about the West as Malala. However, it’s about time that the West realised the women of the Middle East are fighting, and winning their own battles through peaceful and culturally relevant means.
Home of the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan has been one of the more progressive Islamic states when it comes to women’s rights. However, as Malala and many others have noted, the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan post-2007 has brought an increase in crime against women, some of the worst including acid throwing, forced marriages, rape, bride burning, and prolific domestic abuse.
Considering these objectively awful actions against women, it seems to many that distinguishing between differing strands of feminism is a redundant exercise that works against all forms of female solidarity. However, considering the distinct lack of empathy the Western feminist movement has had for other cultural perspectives on the female, the Islamic feminist movement rightly deals with the issue of women’s rights through a different cultural lens. Rachelle Fawcett writing for Al Jazeera claims that the perception of the female woman as inherently oppressed “is based on stereotypes that may be true in a very specific historical and social context, but does not hold water when compared to a larger reality, and therefore does not justify the hostility that follows.” She notes that rather than relying on a “proliferated feminism,” Islamic feminism turns to the Quran to form a contextual analysis. It has not been uncommon to see learned women in the Islamic world in the past. The extremist, militant Islam that Malala and others in the Swat Valley face involves a totalitarianism over society that twists more common, rational readings of the Quran and turns it into a tool to control women in particular.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that militancy is the only thing working against women’s rights in Pakistan. There remains the reality of a widespread, deeply institutionalised sexism in Pakistan even disregarding the arrival of the Taliban. Benazir Bhutto was famously unable to repeal controversial laws such as the Hudud and Zina ordinances that promoted the extreme punishment of women in the cases of misdemeanours like adultery. Unless, as was the case of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, Western soldiers are the perpetrators of the rape and murder of women, injustices against women often go unpunished. Rapes, including those done in the name of honour are a prominent feature of Pakistani society. In 2012 in the Southern Punjab region alone, the Awaz Foundation Centre for Development estimated 2713 cases of violence against women.
It seems quite surprising then that the feminist movement in Islamic societies like Pakistan is not more militant. Faced with the horror of such crimes, women in Pakistan have continued to fight against a patriarchal system using peaceful solutions. Organisations such as the All Pakistan Women’s Association feature programs that assist with mother and child health services, education programs, skill training and legal aid. In a region of the world where things are seldom peaceful these days, the movement for women’s rights remains a pillar of peaceful activism. One must wonder though if Malala’s message of pacifism and non-retaliation against the abuser is a particularly wise one for the women in Pakistan. Whilst she and a plethora of other women and organisations fight to defend themselves in the long-term with institutional rights, prolific violence will not cease to exist overnight. Self-defense is, and should be, part of a human survival instinct. This is especially true for women who will get none of the media coverage or Western medical help of Malala—the women that will be forgotten by the world, only to become another statistic of crimes against women in Pakistan.