Two teenage girls have exposed hypocrisy embedded in Pakistan’s societal and religious framework. In September, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih tore apart the sense of equal rights for non-Muslims when an Islamabad court released her on bail in a blasphemy case while implicating the prayer leader for tampering with evidence by adding to it burnt or torn pages of the Islam’s holy book, the Quran. When it came down to the cleric, noisy protests were simply muted.
Malala Yousafzai, another 14-year-old, braved a bullet right through forehead to the windpipe for her crime of defying threats of Taliban against female education in Pakistan’s Swat region, where military carried out an intense operation against the local Taliban in 2009. Merciless extremists claimed the responsibility of the October 9 attack as the minor struggled for life in the country’s top military hospital. The nation was divided again. Though politicians condemned the assassination attempt, neither the government nor the religious political parties came out clean with any practical steps to deal with situation.
Life for Rimsha and her Christian neighbourhood is not the same again. Since her release on bail, the girl was airlifted to an unspecified location where she rejoined her parents. Meanwhile, the three witnesses including the prayer caller (muezzin) of the mosque, who had testified against the prayer leader Khalid Jadoon claiming that he tempered with the evidence, have withdrawn their previously recorded statements. Instead of facing similar charges of blasphemy for desecrating pages of the Holy Quran and facing a likely death penalty, he too roams free on bail. The blasphemy law is a tool in the hands of religious pressure groups, which the country’s independent judiciary continue to use along with the wrath of God itself.
Malala Yousafzai had just written a blog in the BBC Urdu in 2009, explaining her life as a female yearning for knowledge in picturesque but volatile Swat valley. Within weeks, the vocal and independent national media showcased her as a “symbol of resistance for the soul of real Pakistan”. While the government paid no heed to Taliban threats to Malala and her family, she became chairperson of UNESCO-supported District Child Assembly Swat. Her meteoric rise as an activist perturbed the radical militia who may not control the region entirely but had enough feet on the ground for target killings.
Ever since Malala arrived in the United Kingdom, the Pakistani nation has become more divided over the saga. While a predominant majority views her as a patriotic Pakistani youth, many suspect Malala and her family are being patronized by the liberal west. Pakistani conservatives argue that hundreds of females became victims of drone attacks but none worried the west as much as Malala. Though this school of thought does not support attacking Malala, they do share some views with Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ahsan who regards the 14-year-old as a “symbol of the infidels and obscenity”.
Although the ratio of attacks against female schools in Northwestern Pakistan have declined significantly, extremists continue to harass families sending their daughters to school to receive an education. Lately, the Swat police is investigating ‘X’ markings outside the homes of a few schoolgirls.
Malala is showing signs of recovery in the Birmingham hospital but her Christian compatriot is not fully out of danger yet. While the Swat girl gets international and national attention, the poor and uneducated Christian family lives in isolation. Regardless, both have shaken Pakistan – with over 180 million inhabitants – to revisit its way of life.
The state structure has not only failed to provide equal rights to its minority non-Muslim citizens but also been unable to protect real soldiers of its ideological frontiers.
Rimsha’s persecution, on one hand, scares the Christian and other non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan, while on the other, inspires some to challenge the inequality accepted as a norm for the last decades. Rimsha’s innocence and poverty both symbolize the challenge Pakistani leadership has to deal with to stand in the comity of nation as a responsible, civilized nation.
Malala’s bloodstained forehead reminds the Taliban that her very survival mocks their belief of being soldiers of Allah. Yet, it also poses a blunt question to the government about their misplaced priorities. Islamabad spends millions every month for the safe transportation of President Asif Ali Zardari’s two daughters, but millions of Pakistani girls can’t even enroll in school.
For the religious and political elite, the duo bring forth the ground realities of inherent disconnect and deep mistrust in their respective approach to the issues facing Pakistan.
The ringleader of Swat’s Taliban Mulla Fazalullah is reportedly hiding in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar, where CIA-operated drones never fire missiles. While Pakistan is using the Malala attack to settle scores with Afghanistan and United States, its radical liberals are pushing the case for military operation in North Waziristan autonomous region, a demand Islamabad has so far resisted to comply with.
While Rimshas and Malalas symbolize conflicting dimensions of Pakistani policy and society, they are also hostages to stark geopolitical realities dating back to the Cold War-era.
United States and NATO’s just and effective counter-terror policy in Afghanistan can help Pakistan a great deal in fighting its extremists, and repairing its multi-religious and multi-cultural social fabric. The Islamic republic’s social cohesion and sectarian harmony have been persistently under attack from external factors since Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Islamabad cannot do away with its responsibility towards its citizens – Muslims or otherwise, conservatives or liberals – by using Washington as a coat hanger for its problems.
(Naveed Ahmad is a journalist and academic. He co-founded Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges, a recipient of the U.N. X-Cultural Reporting Award 2010 for its work on inter-religious and inter-cultural success stories themed around the alliance of civilizations.)