For South Asians on the “We are all Malala” bandwagon

Given such levels of violence against girls and women, it is a wonder that so many Indians can feel superior while talking about the Taliban assault in neighbouring Pakistan. It will take more to defeat the Taliban, be they of the Islamic, Hindu or any other variety.

N. Jayaram
17 October 2012

Whether the shooting of a young person who wanted to educate herself and young girls like her in Pakistan in defiance of the Taliban’s misogyny will be a turning point in the country’s history as many South Asians and others around the world are predicting is hard to tell as of now.

Freedoms and rights have to be fought for and zealously guarded. Accidental historical events rarely lead to the gaining of democracy and human rights. The right of girls and young women in Pakistan to education will have to be earned and asserted by the people of Pakistan irrespective of the fate of Malala Yousafzai and that of two other young girls who were shot with her.

That atrocity on those three children – mere teenagers – who displayed exemplary bravery in the face of a mindless fanatical attack, can prove to be a turning point only if Pakistan can stand up as one in the long run, once the emotion of the moment wanes.

The death of a particularly brutal Nigerian military dictator, Sani Abacha, in 1998 seemed to have ushered in a new dawn. But Nigeria today presents a bleak picture of monumental corruption and venality. And a Jihadist organisation named Boko Haram based in the country’s north has already killed hundreds of people.

Pakistan’s own experience is another case in point. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s death in an air crash in 1988 led to the election of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister but the powerful army continued to hold the trump card and allegations of corruption and venality saw her ousted from power. Pakistan eventually had another spell of military rule and now has Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardar as President but the army continues be a law unto itself.

The people of Pakistan have their work cut out in trying to cut the army down to size and fostering democracy on the one hand and resisting the Taliban and their fellow-travellers on the other.

Other parts of South Asia would be badly mistaken in assuming that Pakistan’s fate is somehow unique in the subcontinent. Sri Lanka’s decades of civil war have taken a heavy toll of women and girls. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had trained cadres of suicide attackers – including teenage boys and girls – long before the Taliban and al-Qaida came on the scene. And the Sri Lankan army too, needless to say, has been merciless towards the Tamils. After the December 2004 Tsunami devastation, Tamils – men, women and children – were largely deprived of relief thanks to the Sri Lankan government’s spitefulness. After the brutal end – if it may be called that – to the civil war the government continues to discriminate against Tamils.

Nepal has been wracked by years of Maoist violence as well as misrule on the part of other parties and the erstwhile monarchy. Women and girls have suffered on all sides and moreover, given the country’s continuing poverty and underdevelopment, thousands of Nepali young women have been victims of trafficking to service the sex industry in Indian cities.

In Bangladesh, as in Pakistan, secular forces face an uphill task in seeing off the Islamist challenge. The Jamaat-e-Islami , which incidentally had opposed independence and had taken part in brutal human rights violations during the liberation struggle, may have a mere two seats in the 300-member national legislature, but its nuisance value is far greater than its lack of success in the ballot box suggests. Moreover, Bangladesh has a peculiar record of acid attacks on women and girls. Thousands of such attacks on women have occurred in the country. What qualitative difference is there between a Malala Yousafzai being shot in the head by a Taliban fanatic and a young Bangladeshi woman or girl having her face and other parts of her body disfigured for life either by a spurned man or anyone with a grievance against someone related to her?

Bhutan, with its “Gross National Happiness” fame, remains a largely patriarchal society with some privileged elites practising polygamy. More pertinently, the expulsion of some 100,000 ethnic Nepalis – including, needless to say, young boys and girls, suddenly uprooted and deprived of normal education – remains a blot on its name. Maldives too, where a virtual coup unseated an elected president, also has its share of human rights abuses, including against women.

But citizens of the country that preens itself as the “world’s largest democracy” are the ones who need to introspect the most. It may be that a large number of Indians affirming “We are all Malala” are genuinely moved by that teenager’s plight. Indians in general need to look within and at the female – including teenage – victims of human rights violations on the part of both state and non-state actors.

Many Indian newspapers carry daily reports of rapes and violent attacks against women and teenagers. Often reports go into lurid details and make little effort to afford anonymity to the victim. Police, politicians and other men as well as women commenting on such incidents often blame the victim, pointing to the clothes, the time of attack – when the woman or teenager ought not to have been out, or such is the implication – or other bizarre circumstances. An Indian weekly earlier in 2012 questioned 30 police officers in the national capital region regarding rape cases and found they had a “she asked for it” mentality. Faced with a spate of rapes in Haryana state, a former chief minister suggested child marriages as the remedy.

In July 2012, more than a dozen men sexually assaulted a teenage girl in Guwahati, capital of Assam state. Onlookers did nothing and there was nationwide breast-beating over the issue only because someone had recorded it and the media picked it up. Sri Rama Sene, a Hindu fanatic outfit in Karnataka state, which has been labelled Hindu Taliban, routinely attacks young men and women from different religious denominations going out together or even sitting together in a bus or standing and talking to each other. Obscure outfits impose dress codes for women. And Hindu fanatics rail against the observance of Saint Valentine’s Day, deeming it not in keeping with Indian culture. India has been voted the worst among G20 countries for women, in view of rampant infanticide, child marriage and slavery.

Incidentally, alongside news of the attack on Malala Yousafzai came the release by the Government of India of a major report entitled “Children of India 2012 – A Statistical Appraisal”. Just the first few pages of highlights make for staggering reading showing the extent of neglect of and violence against female infants:

The child sex ratio is declining in India: During the period 1991-2011,child sex ratio declined from 945 to 914, meaning there are just 914 girls for every 1,000 males. Sex ratio at birth is lowest in Punjab (832) followed by Haryana (848). Female infants experienced a higher mortality rate than male infants in all major states. Higher is the percentage of underweight female children (< 5 years) than male children.

The share of girls in the total enrolment at primary and upper primary school level was 19% and 46.5% respectively in the years 2005-06.

In 2011, an increase of 43% was registered in kidnapping and abduction, while rape cases increased by 30%, procuring of minor girls recorded an increase of 27% and foeticide increased by 19% over 2010.

Given such levels of violence against girls and women, it is a wonder that so many Indians can feel superior while talking about the Taliban assault in neighbouring Pakistan.

In an article on The Daily Beast website, Mahawish Rezvi asks: “Will Malala Yousafzai’s Shooting Be Pakistan’s Rosa Parks Moment?” But Parks’ defiance of segregation on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955 came on the back of a Civil Rights Movement that had been painstakingly built over decades in the United States. The people of Pakistan and other parts of South Asia need to mount a sustained campaign if they are to prevent more Malala Yousafzais from being shot or in other ways ill-treated. Misogynists are hyperactive and not least in Pakistan itself, mounting counter-campaigns following the groundswell of sympathy.

South Asians who have been busy exchanging photographs of Malala Yousafzai and feel-good messages as well as articles on social networking sites, will need to do more to counter such tendencies and defeat the Taliban, be they of the Islamic, Hindu or any other variety.

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