Tue, Oct 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Remember the young girl behind the public Malala

By Catherine Bennett  /  The Observer

Interviewed for Vanity Fair by Marie Brenner, he described his actions as “criminal” and told her: “I lured in a child of 11.”

Writing in Pakistan’s English language paper, Dawn, after the attempted murder, Ashraf had deplored the “commodification” of Malala, by both politicians and journalists, and “the media’s role in dragging bright young people into dirty wars with horrible consequences for the innocent.”

Following Malala’s survival (with life changing injuries), her emigration and the international response to her campaign for girls’ education, it became possible, after all, to see her almost tragedy as inspirational and even, with her apparent compliance, as her destiny.

Although I am sure her book I am Malala is drenched in homesickness for Swat, “the most beautiful place in all the world,” many passages recall nothing so much as those lives of the divines, in which everything, however painful, was meant to be. Malala learns, for instance, a hard lesson about stealing; other parables have her moved to pity by children on a rubbish dump or determined, from her earliest years, to become a politician (not a doctor, any more).

“I had been spared for a reason,” she finishes her book, “to use my life for helping people.”

If that is a fairly extreme thing for a teenager to put on the record, Malala’s staggering intelligence and fluency tend to prohibit feeble questions, from comparative cowards, about this commitment to sacrifice. Assuming Malala is happy for her father to describe her as not just his own child, but “the daughter of the world,” maybe the world is right to accept her, gratefully, as a valuable emblem of female potential. Her every appearance is a reproach to politicians who have tolerated women’s subordination as, at best, a cultural inevitability, at worst, as irrelevant.

In any case, given the Pashtun horror of losing face, it is difficult to see how Malala could ever change course, as standard adolescents often do and pursue fulfillment elsewhere. A book whose lessons could, and perhaps should have formed a triumphant conclusion to this prize-winning period on the public stage, has committed her, in a final rebuke to her enemies, to never leaving it, not even to complete her education in peace.

“My father always says that heroism is in the Pashtun DNA,” she writes.

So strong is belief in Malala’s power to change the world, and the fear of sustaining her enemies, that you would think, from the uninflected enthusiasm for her mission, that it was entirely without risk. True, Birmingham is safer than Pakistan, the Swat Valley in particular, but the effervescent editorial mood, as the murder threats keep coming in, is in marked contrast, to anyone old enough to remember, to the concern for author Salman Rushdie’s well-being, when he too was condemned to death by foreign Islamists. And Rushdie was an adult.

To endorse Malala’s lifelong stand against the Taliban, especially now she has added prime ministerial ambition, like murdered former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to her vocation, may not be, quite, to promote martyrdom, but it suggests that protecting her is still not the overriding priority, any more than it was when the BBC enlisted her poorly anonymized services in Swat.

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