By: Naila Sahar
My relationship with Malala Yousafzai, the famous youngest Nobel prize winner from Pakistan, has been very ambivalent. As a woman from Pakistan, and entering a university in the U.S. meant for me to be judged at the yardstick of Malala, I never knew.
Strange questions were asked of me; Do you have schools in Pakistan? Were you allowed to attend a school in Pakistan? Do you have roads in Pakistan? Do you know English? How does the Taliban let you exist freely in Pakistan? How did you manage an admission in a university in the United States? Answering all this was embarrassing and frustrating for me. Having come to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar, chosen from a bulk of talented people in Pakistan for a PhD in English Literature. I had come with pride and a smug sense of self-importance, all tarnished brutally by this puerile inquisitiveness of the American people. Trying to overcome the awkwardness that dumbfounded me initially, I struggled to get an insight into this American psyche and perception of Pakistan. Having come from one of the modern metropolitan cities of Pakistan, Lahore, I had a background of being brought up first in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan.
Once, the office secretary in my department surprised me by implying that I deserved a Nobel prize too for making it this far! (She meant that being a Pakistani woman and securing a PhD in an American University, I was someone par excellence!) I no doubt was exhilarated of my achievements thus far, but did I expect this kind of condescending praise in a new country? By no means. This was absolutely uncalled for! So what does Malala have to do with me? Why was I constantly compared and seen through the impressions of Pakistan that she cultivated? Until this, Malala was just someone for me that I neither appreciated nor disliked. However, after constantly being compared to her and seen through her, she irked me.
My journey to discovering her became passionate when I decided to research Muslim women leaders for my PhD dissertation. My interest in her reached an apex when I observed that there was an essential discrepancy in the way the majority of people in Pakistan perceived her and the way the Americans appreciated her to the extent of worshipping her. Malala came to my university as a distinguished speaker in October, 2017 and the talk was sold out, with throngs of people who waited in lines to attend the event. I have only seen this large of a crowd when Bernie Sanders, or Barack Obama came as speakers here.
As a Pakistani, this spectacle was confusing, since in Pakistan Malala has become one-word trigger for vitriolic anger and malicious suspicion for many. For many in Pakistan, Malala is not a single entity, but is an unfortunate and naïve pawn for a conspiracy. In Pakistan, she is taken as someone who aided the political agenda of the West by putting Pakistan in the limelight again for something that supported the notoriety of this country for being a terrorist and unsafe territory, whereas in the US she is a symbol of a Muslim girl who, although was being put to silence, stood up again to speak for Muslim women and eventually for all girls. I don’t know which group of people is right in its perception, since I have seen the Western world reveling in Muslim women’s stereotypical image of being a victim in the need of saving, and I have also seen Muslim women struggling for their rights back home in Pakistan. I cannot decide which part of the story is truer than the other, but Malala’s story has let me get an insight into lives of those girls I did not know in Pakistan. The whole of Pakistan is not Malala’s Pakistan, but the whole of Pakistan is also not my side of progressive modern Pakistan.
What I have learned from the discourses surrounding Malala’s narrative is that no story is complete from one perspective, and not a single perspective is factual. A story has many sides and perspectives, and the best stories are those that make you uncomfortable and force you to ask questions.