Malala and the Flame of Education


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Category: International 03 Aug 14


The other day I heard someone criticise Malala Yousafzai for not speaking out against the war crimes being committed in Gaza—the hundreds of dead children, the thousands of wounded children.

I wanted to say, “What happened to you? Why do you always wait for ‘someone’ to speak up?’ Why not you?” Admiring Malala doesn’t make us admirable by osmosis. Emulating her is a better way.

She’s still just a little girl. Barely 17. She’s not an ordinary girl, you might say. But what makes her extraordinary? What does she have that has all of us falling over ourselves to fete her, to get VIP tickets to see her, to take photos with her?

What does it take to be Malala? What does it take for a child born of a poor family in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, in a shabby shack of two rooms 100 miles from the capital city of Islamabad, to deliver her message to the hallowed halls of the United Nations in New York?

What does it take for a girl to leave her homeland (described in her book I Am Malala)—a “heavenly valley of mountains, gushing waterfalls, crystal-clear lakes, fields of wildflowers, orchards of fruit, emerald mines, trout-filled rivers”—to take up residence in dreary Birmingham, and to go on punishing schedules of appearances in front of thousands of strangers in strange countries, to be gawked at endlessly?

What does it take for a girl who, although very smart, is not a child prodigy or an inventor or an entrepreneur, not a reality TV star, sex symbol, or rock star, to be the youngest person ever nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize?

Not even this: On October 9, 2012, Malala boarded her school bus in her hometown. A gunman asked for Malala by name, then pointed a Colt 45 at her and fired three shots. One bullet hit the left side of Malala’s forehead, travelled under her skin the length of her face and then into her shoulder.

Hundreds of children are shot by the Taliban. Malala can tell you about the 14 children who were blown up in a bus a year after the attempt at her life.

No, what’s extraordinary about Malala is something we all have in ourselves, something we use sparingly because most of us are craven and unwilling to risk our lives for any cause other than ourselves: courage and a thundering civic sense; a sense of justice; a willingness to put necks on the line for fellow human beings.

There are people who are clamouring to see Malala here as I write. I wonder if they care (but I know Malala will) that 400,000 of our people in these tiny islands remain functionally illiterate? That our “universal education” is a failure, because we don’t have teachers’ training colleges? I wonder if the people who are briefing Malala on T&T will tell her that we spend money like water on wining soca and chutney, and that we don’t have a literacy school for music. Will the VIPs gazing at that famous face tell her truthfully we don’t value education? That we can take her to monuments to calypsonians—but there are none to statesmen, writers and scientists?

Will they tell her that while she risks her life every day so girls can go to school, that our mothers take our girl children to “Kiddies Carnival” and encourage four-year-old children to “wine,” to imitate obscene fornication type movements, as part of our “culture”?

I hope the VIPs can look past her attire, stop speculating about the bullets in her head, and remember some things about Malala. What’s extraordinary in this age of entitlement is her parents, who gave her an upbringing imbued with a sense of innate justice. Her father, as passionate about education for girls as for boys, pushed her to study in the Swat Valley where the Taliban banned girls from attending school. Her grandfather valued ideas and books, and was an orator and imam who encouraged Malala to learn. Her mother wanted Malala to have the education she herself was denied.

This flame lit by her family led Malala to writing a blog for the BBC about life under Taliban rule when she was just 11. The twinning of justice and courage turned a small flame to a white light skimming the globe.

Her assassination attempt struck a note with the right people. The honours came rolling in because the world had forgotten the issue. She reminded us: education is a tool for dignity, peace, progress.

The United Nations Special Envoy For Global Education Gordon Brown launched a UN petition demanding all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015. This led to Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill. In 2013, Malala was on the cover of Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She won Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. She was tipped for the Nobel peace prize. On July 12, 2013, at barely 16 years of age, she spoke at the UN, calling for worldwide access to education.

I hope our Carnival culture will get past her celebrity and remember her message: to put education, humanity and a civic sense first, and quietly take it back to our schools, teachers, and homes.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur