The Nobel Peace Prize was handed over last week, jointly, to Kailash Satyarthi — an Indian activist against child labour — and Malala Yousufzai — the young Pakistani activist for education — “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.
It is an incredible feat for Malala, the youngest recipient of the prize ever, who used a pen name, Gul Makai, to chronicle her life under the oppressive rule of the Pakistani Taliban, when they took over her district, Swat.
While Malala’s diary for the BBC’s Urdu service was appreciated by many, her tenacious stance earned her a place on the Taliban hit-list. She was attacked in 2012 and suffered a head injury, but lived to tell the tale — and moved on to propagate progressive ideas for education and win Pakistan its second Nobel Prize.
Yet, not all Pakistanis are happy about it — if the responses on social media are anything to go by. The dichotomy in opinions seems to split right down the middle of the Pakistani nation. While one section of the society lauds Malala for her courage and confidence, the other criticises her for being a puppet in the hands of her scheming father and the West, who will use her against “us” [Pakistanis].
Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion, no matter how slanted or chauvinistic they may be. Also, it should come as no surprise to anyone that a majority of those who choose to malign Malala and her father are men. After all, this world is full of male misogynists and social media forums are but an extension of the same. Yet, you have to cringe when you read about ‘educated’ men (and women) talking about far-fetched conspiracies to explain away the choice of Malala as the recipient of the prestigious prize. The issue is not just that these men choose to call Malala’s father an opportunist who groomed his daughter with the lofty aim of becoming the darling of the West, although yes, that does amount to saying that he let the Taliban shoot his little girl (she could have died, by the way), so the family could move to the United Kingdom.
For me, the grievance is that they fail to comprehend the audacity of a man who educates his daughter and is determined to make great things happen for her. He is courageous rather than conniving — a hero in the eyes of his daughter, and those whose fathers cannot exhibit such fortitude.
Pakistan is a country dictated by a patriarchal value system, where the social order finds support for male superiority in the household and beyond and condescending gender stereotypes cannot be challenged, however incorrect they may be.
In closed, conservative cultures, where gender inequality is entrenched by social and cultural norms, simple encouragement is difficult where not everyone understands or agrees with the importance of education for a girl-child, let alone allowing that child to lead what will certainly be a public life, perhaps away from home. Do people even realise how difficult it is for fathers to take a stance and let their daughters do all the great things that they have the potential for?
So please, let us hand it to Malala’s father for being resolute, if nothing else, and more importantly, for believing in his daughter. That is not to say other fathers do not believe in their daughters. Without turning this into a tribute to my father, I know I have him to thank for his brave stand in encouraging his daughters to acquire professional education — an unthinkable idea in our family before our generations. His valiance has ensured that ten years down the line, there is no dearth of female dentists, doctors or pharmacists in our family.
But there are many untold stories of obvious talent gone to waste — only because the father could not stand up to a community that believed in an early marriage for the little one.
Here, let me add another story that may help tell you where I am headed with this discussion. A couple of weeks back, one of my friends fell in love with and married a divorced woman. She is four years his senior, financially sound and works in a very senior position with a legal firm. Everyone applauded his brave decision, given the cultural stigma attached to Muslims, a sub-continental man marrying a woman older than him and that too divorced. Yet, they were all missing the point. He was brave, no doubt, but his courage lay in his belief and understanding that the woman was doing him a favour by accepting him, rather than the other way round. It was his perspective that needed to be applauded, for it acknowledged the bias that exists against divorcees and the pointless disapproval of society against women marrying younger men.
Now, coming to my point. Recently I was asked to write a short article about the role that men can play in ending gender inequality, as part of a job application. It was a subject that I found compelling, yet almost impossible. So daunted was I by the question that I did not apply for the position.
Yet, Malala’s father, my own, and then my friend provide the answer to this question quite easily. What men can contribute to the war against gender disparity is to change their attitudes. As active participants in the conversation on gender disparity, especially in education and in other strata too, they will have to speak up. They will have to challenge the present gender order and lend their voices to protest injustices that exist in this modern, liberal world rather than see it all as one conspiracy after the other — by the feminists or the West.
Meanwhile, back home, only when there are more fathers like Malala’s, willing to believe in and stand up for their daughters’ rights, will we have a Pakistan that progresses and prospers.
Rabia Alavi is a Dubai-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@RabiaAlavi