Going gaga over Malala: the non-violent crusader of the 21st century

The Taliban has tried to kill her; the UN has listened to her impassioned speech on the inviolable importance of equal education; she even nearly won the Nobel Peace Prize (but let’s face it – she’s better than that!) Malala Yousafzai has now cemented her image as the Joan of Arc of the modern era. Without any inhibitions, and with a precocious ambition as rare as an ice cube in the Sahara, Malala seems to have captured the affection and admiration of social justice campaigners and equal rights advocates around the world. She’s won over her supporters with quasi-poetic slogans that pierce their way into your memory with their depth of thought: “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

Malala declared on her visit to the UN that “the terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

It’s not only the content of her message, but the content of her character that strikes an observer as almost prophetic. She left Jon Stewart speechless on American TV last week, and she continues to point out her defiance in the face of extremist opposition.

After the world’s media outlets recognised her objective and were equally driven to give her further coverage, her family were quick to assume her young age would acquit her of extremist accusations. The crucial thing was, even in Pakistan’s excruciatingly patriarchal society, her educated and equally accepting father supported his daughter’s struggle for social justice and described her campaign as “our megaphone to the outside world”. Malala wants to break the mould of gender perception and all this media coverage has highlighted her ability to win over supporters with her youthful charisma. She has already dictated a BBC blog and made numerous television appearances.

But it was what happened after she was shot that highlighted the strength of the moral fibre she exhibits in the public eye. Her relocation to the UK and the international reaction to her campaign for girls’ education opened the world’s eyes to see her near-death, alongside her acceptance and mature fortitude, as the destiny of social justice. The book relating her story, ‘I am Malala’, clearly shows she misses her homeland and describes it as “the most beautiful place in all the world”. She reflects that “I had been spared for a reason; to use my life for helping people” at the thought-provoking end of the book, and it highlights not a sense of self-aggrandising divination, but a conviction to achieve what she has wanted to achieve for her whole life.

This is the latest of many staggeringly bold statements by this young woman – Malala’s intelligence and fluency of speech inspire respect and meaningful dialogue with interviewers. Her father describes her as “the daughter of the world”, and he may well be right; she has quickly gained a name for herself as the epitome of female potential, which even the most rabid and bigoted misogynist cannot deny. Every time I see her on the TV, or surf the internet and see her public speeches, she strikes me as the perfect example of pointing out how backward, foolish politicians consider any disrespect or subordination of women, as anything less than bigotry; she is the prime point of rebuttal against the argument that gender inequality is an unfortunate cultural inevitability and renders it meaningless.

What strikes me most is the fact that, if you just watch the strength of her conviction and the lack of fear concerning her powerful, extremist enemies, you’d think she’s the safest woman on the planet. She’s currently living in Birmingham – Edgbaston to be precise – which is undeniably safer than Pakistan and the Swat Valley (well, considerably so!) It is not beyond the realms of possibility to see Malala as a 21st century Benazir Bhutto – she need not be a Pakistani matriarch, but merely an advocate of moral values that stem from liberal thinking, equality and tolerance, rather than moral martyrdom per se. Hopefully she will not meet the same fate as Bhutto, but will continue to convey a message of peaceful resilience.

Another striking thing is Malala’s relative independence from religion when she explains her views; it’s strange to see someone from the subcontinent, let alone from her country, let alone from her religion, point out the humanist reasons for her belief in equal rights, which are totally removed from religious belief systems. Naturally, she does refer to her faith at times as inspiration, but it is not a platform on which she feels the need to boast about her moral rectitude. That is why I have fallen in love with her crusade for equality. She’s arguably the most inspiring figure who can coax such a deep emotional reaction out of her supporters since Martin Luther King and his civil rights campaign in the 1960’s.

Malala is effectively the perfect advocate for equality; she is an articulate and rational young woman who is forgiving of her attempted assassins, as well as deeply focused. She represents a new generation of kids from developing countries who can aspire to great things and who can express their ambitions with clarity and passion. As a Brit, I can honestly say this is an attitude that is becoming increasingly foreign in the UK, as youth morale in the economic turmoil nosedives towards complete despondency.

Malala, by contrast, is a beacon of hope for social justice; she points out that women can achieve what men can achieve, that her singular determination can change antediluvian cultural attitudes towards gender bequeathed from generation to generation in the developing world. Most importantly, she has illustrated that social crusades are based not on the caveat of violence and martyrdom, but on affirming the timeless and classic adage that the pen can be mightier than the sword.

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Categories: International politics

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