One of Pakistan’s leading women’s rights campaigners says Malala Yousafzai is a victim of the West.
Humaira Awais Shahid, a former politician, Harvard fellow, and newspaper editor, said the schoolgirl has been badly damaged by Britain and America, who are taking advantage of her survival story. Malala is now a hate-figure in certain quarters in Pakistan while some secular Westerners have used her traumatic experience in the Swat Valley as an avenue to criticize Islam.
“The myth that the West projects as her savior is something that hurt Malala’s case; it took away from the story and damaged the victim,” Shahid told The Daily Beast.
The teenager was shot in the head by Taliban fighters who objected to her campaign to improve girls’ education in northern Pakistan. She was flown to Britain for medical treatment and subsequently became a spokeswoman for the plight of poorly educated women, addressing the United Nations and being awarded the European Parliament’s highest honor for human rights campaigners.
As she rose to prominence, many in Pakistan portrayed Malala as an American stooge who was interfering in domestic politics and criticizing conservative Islamic traditions. “Malala has been accused of being more loyal to the West,” Shahid said. “Stuck in this war of what Pakistan is, and what the West wants to project of Pakistan, Malala suffers … The way the West projects it, it damages the victim.”
The former Punjabi legislator said Malala was a devout Muslim with no interest in promoting a secular democracy in Pakistan. “The West wants to gain from Malala’s real story, an agenda that suits them or the policies they want,” she said. “It’s like a mass media frenzy—and then you see the whole question of secularization. This is not the issue of Pakistan—our constitution starts with the name of almighty, Allah, talks about in accordance with the scriptures and the principles of Islam—so what are you talking about?”
For Shahid, whose memoir, Devotion and Defiance, was published last month, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in the West about the wishes of Pakistani women. Yes, they want better access to education, more protection from violence and the freedom to lead independent lives. But that does not mean rejecting Islam’s central role in the country’s culture—instead, they want a generation of conservative, neo-feudal leaders, who are twisting the words of the Koran, to be cast out of the political mainstream.
“Our folklore, our old traditions, our music, our art, our poetry is all about celebration of the creator and creation—our love is a root to love of the creator, this is very different to your societies,” she said. “Our issue is injustice; our issue is poverty; our issue is corrupt governments; our issue is a lack of accountability. Please help us on that. Our issue is not secularization.”
Shahid argues that it’s ironic for Islam to get the blame when even the Prophet Mohammad’s wife was a trader and equal partner—“she was the one who proposed!” She said ambitious conservative political leaders had used a grotesque version of Islam to aid their careers. “They have become the emblem of Islamic Puritanism—they have reduced Islam to the sexual morality of women; 70 percent of Sharia is about money, economic matters—they have made it 70 percent about women.”
On the subject of puritanical approachs, Shahid raises the Salem witch hunts in the U.S.—“there hasn’t been a more tragic event in the history of women”—and cites modern American crime statistics to suggest that all societies struggle with violence against women. “One in every five women in America is sexually assaulted,” she said. “And let’s not forget that O.J. Simpson got away. I’m talking about the champion of human rights, I’m talking about a judicial system that’s much better than ours, and O.J. Simpson got away.”
Sitting in London in a vivid purple headscarf, Shahid recoiled as she recounted her personal experience of Pakistan’s endemic violence against women. As a reporter for a newspaper in Punjab, she covered dozens of cases of acid attacks and domestic violence. After one incident in which a woman had been catastrophically injured in a stove burning, Shahid confronted the family responsible around the hospital bed. They claimed it was an accident and the victim was too horrifically burned to speak. Shahid quietly asked her to lift a finger if foul play had been at work. Slowly a single digit was raised.
“She was in so much pain, but she was thinking about her children. The helplessness in her face,” Shahid said. “There were so many that were dying of stove burns at the time.”
These horrific domestic murders appeared to have risen sharply in recent decades as dowries, a custom borrowed from India, became more prevalent in Pakistan. Once the dowry has been cashed, there is no financial reason to keep the wife around. Indeed it may be possible to secure another.
“The unfortunate part is that Islam does not allow dowries—this is coming from Hindu culture. It should be totally banned,” she said. “The woman is a commodity to make money—the dowry becomes a business transaction.”
Reflecting mournfully, she said, “How could I not do what I do?”