Malala is a strong person. Very few will appreciate her strength in speaking out for her rights. I know because as a woman, albeit from the privileged class, i lacked the freedom to speak my mind. Don’t get me wrong. My parents encouraged all sorts of opinions – I was always told I could be what I wanted to be. But we belonged to the socially oppressed middle class where any emancipation at home is trumped by “what will people say”. My parents were God fearing, middle class people, always attempting to maintain harmony with their surroundings.
To them, going against the culture of the surrounds was as bad as walking naked on the streets. This was a strange philosophy coming from an educated Syed woman who married a pathan villager. The strangeness of their union seemed to have exaggerated their desire to blend in.
We grew up in an unusual household where my mother would encourage me to spend my afternoons playing cricket. A tomboy herself, she did not realize till very late that she had transmitted her unisex ideology into her offspring. My brothers played with action figures with the same gusto with which they rode bikes. I had a closet full of dolls and I was the best at shooting with airguns. We did not know there was anything called a stereotype.
But this was the urban persona. My family had a village persona. In which we would cover ourselves from head-to-toe when visiting there. And where women were trapped inside a walled enclosure giving graphic representation to the local phrase “chaddar aur chardiwari”. I resented the visits because my brothers were allowed to have fun and I couldn’t. But my mom told me to respect the local culture. As a concession, once during the trip, I would be allowed to walk to the nearby stream to get some air.
We were not allowed to protest anything at the village. So my mom did not bat an eyelid when my cousin was stopped from getting higher education after finishing primary school. She kept quiet when the other sister was stopped after her high school – at least the second one got access to 5 more classes. I would lay awake at night wondering whether I was a hypocrite for not saying anything, for not speaking, for not demanding all us cousins have access to the same facilities because we all deserve it. The cycle continued, and with each subsequent girl cousin, the education threshold was always raised – slightly. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief the day my youngest cousin failed her bachelors – didn’t they all think education was a waste of time for women?
I did not speak out then, or when I was told to stop wearing jeans in public – log kya kahein ge, or when I was encouraged to give up contact with friends of the opposite sex, or when I was told I had no permission to visit female friends even when my brothers could, or stay overnight even when the parents were known to each other. Slowly I was told I was second grade to my brothers and this is how my life would be going forward. I complained but never took a stand when in my first job I was given lower compensation than my male counterparts. I never spoke out when I faced sexual harassment in the workplace, because God knows, I probably invited it by being a good-looking woman. I never spoke up when in my last job, another female colleague set rumours afloat that I was pregnant while being unmarried. I just resigned and left.
I never spoke up. I grew up in the oppressed Zia era. We, of that gebneration, just do not know what freedom of speech is all about. We respect the sword because it brings order and stability. We dislike the openness in society that allows a cross dresser to come on the airwaves. We still think, deep in our hearts, that a girl who wears a sleeveless top with tight jeans is fast.
But Malala spoke up. Not for mundane things like hijab or no hijab, but for her right to be a woman participant of the society on her terms. Even when she was aware she lived on the edge of mortal danger.
I am ashamed to be me because I have never once spoken out for our rights. I accepted what was given and told myself the privileges we educated, upper class women get are compensation enough.
Today I salute Malala. She has done what no one from my generation could. And I am proud to know she came from Pakistan, and is a pathan girl.