Why is Pakistani Society so Divided on Malala?

First published on Medium

CREDIT: TIME MAGAZINE, 2013

Why is Pakistani Society so Divided on Malala? 

Everyone has an opinion. 

I never thought watching The Daily Show would leave me misty-eyed… Nor did I think Jon Stewart could ever be left speechless.

But watching Malala sitting calmly next to Jon Stewart recalling her innocent thought-process of what she’d do if she ever confronted a Talib was inspiring:

“I started thinking about that, and 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 to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But 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 with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will 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.’

Last week, Malala Yousufzai was probably the most popular (or unpopular) teenager in Pakistan, depending on who you talked to. With the 16-year old nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, emotions ran high. On opposing ends of the spectrum, there were those who prayed for Malala winning the coveted prize, and there were those who questioned her nomination.

So many words kept being tossed around: Malala, the Muslim Feminist, Malala DramaBrand Malala, White SaviorsBrown Honor, et cetera. And in all the cacophony of voices, it seemed like everyone has an opinion about Malala. Fact or fiction, everything’s jaaiz, fair game.

What bothers me is that Malala was being turned into a symbol for all causes galore. From anti-terrorism to gender equity to critical race theory to non-violence to the pursuit of happiness, just Malala-brand it. This, I believe, is disrespectful to the young woman who is bravely raising her voice for the cause of education. As she eloquently calls for education for all, advocating for non-violence and dialogue as the path to progress, by focusing on the messenger more than the message, we risk politicizing Malala. In fact, it may be argued that Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize nomination, a prize that is historically awarded in light of global politics, may itself be an indicator of this politicization. Does fame and the limelight automatically put a person at the mercy of public opinion, and in due course, their politics?

The larger question, of course, is how did a 16-year-old become such apolarizing figure for Pakistan? Malala is being called everything from a a shame for the Pashtuns to a puppet of the West.In her op-ed “The Real Malala Drama”, popular blogger Hafsa Khawaja described this division of society well:

One would reckon that a shot in the head of a 15-year-old girl advocating education, against the agenda of barbaric monsters and risking their wrath, would shake the nation into unanimously becoming a steel wall of support behind her. Not in Pakistan. Not in a society so deeply divided on issues that invite no second thoughts in most societies.

WHY would anyone hate a girl who is

a) a victim of terrorism, and was shot

b) only 16 years old, for Heaven’s sake

c) speaking out for a great cause

d) a brave proponent for dialogue at a time of increasing violence

The list could go on why Pakistan should be proud of Malala. But that might result in too much of a personal bias.

There is room for dialogue (in fact, from what I know of Malala, she may even encourage healthy debate). You may disagree with her methods. You may disagree with her “white savior” support from the West. You may even question why other victims of terrorism were not given as much attention.

However, in all of this, please do not hate the girl. This destructive emotion is the last thing Pakistani society needs.

Hafsa, in her op-ed, traced the main causes of Malala-hate and society’s division, to jealousy, conspiracy-theories & paranoia, a lack of trust, and a general image insecurity about Pakistan. However, it is not that black and white. Previously, I’d have thought it was a no-brainer to support the young girl. On closer introspection, and after hearing a wide range of opinions on the subject (and more), I believe that this division of society is symptomatic of a larger problem that Pakistan needs to address. This deep segmentation of opinions is not a simple case of Reason versus. Insanity. In fact, framing it in this context is harmful for truly addressing the roots of the problem. Why is Pakistani society so divided on Malala? And the broader question, why is Pakistani society so deeply paranoid that we indulge in conspiracy theories and exhibit a general lack of trust?

Part of the problem has to do with our society being anxious as a whole, and displaying high levels of stress. Earlier this week I was researching anxiety disorders (particularly in relation to societies), and talked to a few experts regarding them. Some of the common individual symptoms of anxiety were a feeling of insecurity, mistrust, a feeling of constantly being in danger… One of the experts I talked to said that in societies like Pakistan when people are constantly under pressure because of terrorism, unemployment, poverty and other factors that create a high-stress environment (see Terrorism and its Effects on Mental Health), majority of people face some level of anxiety. However, it may only be classified as a disorder at high levels.

A lot of scientific studies still need to be done to prove or disprove this hypothesis, as data is fairly limited on levels of anxiety in Pakistani society. However, the high stress environment that Pakistanis live in may be part of the reason why emotions run high. The sense of foreign forces out to get Pakistan, the idea that no one can be trusted may on some level be tied to these larger endemic causes related to conflict (and related trauma), and may help explain why this mistrust has worsened over the years. There are environmental causes of stress, and then there’s educational exacerbation (in very simplistic terms).

But it definitely does not help when organizations like the CIA prove Pakistani conspiracy theories right through misguided plans that interfere with healthcare, and strengthen the notion that it’s the “World against Pakistan.”

Overall, Pakistanis need to rebuild their trust — in institutions, in the world, and in themselves — to progress. But unless things start looking up in the country of 180 million, unfortunately Malala and her ideas may not sway the Pakistani people.

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