Index relies entirely on the support of donors and readers to do its work.
Help us keep amplifying censored voices today.
On the morning of 28 January, the Area Study Centre, at Peshwar University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, was set to hold the launching of the book I Am Malala but called it off after the police informed its director that it would not oversee security. The author of the book, fifteen-year old Malala Yousafzai rose to fame after the Taliban attacked her in 2012 for promoting education for girls.
“We, as educationalists, can only persuade and fight militancy through ideas but we are not even allowed to do that,” said Dr Sarfaraz Khan, centre’s director. He regretted that the role of academics was being thwarted by “misled” politicians. “The state interfered in the dispensation of my duty,” he added.
Finding the whole episode “most shameful”, rights activist and academic A.H. Nayyar, said: “The city police, the university administration give a false impression that they are not scared of the Taliban but in reality they are and therefore capitulated.”
The storm began brewing the evening of 27 January when Khan received a phone call from the religious-based political party Jammat-e-Islami (JI) spokesperson, which was followed by one from the provincial information minister Shah Farman, who belongs to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — PTI, asking him to cancel the event. The requests soon turned into intimidation.
“Educational institutions have the academic freedom and don’t need government’s permission to hold such events. More importantly, this is what we do — read, write and to celebrate books,” Khan said. “This is what I explained to the politicians and I also told them they were being misled and that they should review their undertaking.”
The pressure mounted as the night wore on with phone calls from university personnel and various government officials. But Khan refused to yield. Then he got a call from the superintendent of police telling him his force would not be able to provide security for the event. “I tried to dissuade him and even asked him if he was threatening me. He kept saying he was compelled to obey orders.”
“A simple book launch has been transformed into a major story because the government in KPK doesn’t share the progressive convictions of the ruling party’s leadership [PTI and Imran Khan],” said Islamabad-based political analyst, Mosharraf Zaidi.
By noon of January 28, after the news spread that the event — jointly staged with the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation and the Strengthening Participatory Organisation — could not take place, Imran Khan tweeted: “I am at a loss 2 understand why Malala’s book launch stopped in Peshawar. PTI believes in freedom of speech/debate, not censorship of ideas.”
Zaidi said: “Imran Khan can try to distance himself from him, but nothing Farman does elicits serious reproach.”
But Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor and a peace activist refuses to buy the “flimsy pretext” of security to stop the book launch or spare the PTI or IK.
Terming them “Taliban’s B-team”, he said: “They have mourned the killing of terrorist leaders; forcibly stopped supplies to those fighting the Taliban; blamed every terrorist atrocity on US drones, and re-introduced violent religious material into the KPK school curricula. On the other hand, they are unmoved by the actions of their allies such as the ghastly murders of health workers, pogroms against Shias and Christians, and attacks on the army and police.”
And thus the event never happened that morning. Just as Khan was getting ready for the function, he felt very ill. The pressure had taken its toll and he was taken to the hospital where the doctors refused to release him until his condition stabilised.
By then the news had spread like wildfire and civil society and rights organisations were up in arms at the way the event had been taken hostage. At around 3pm, Khan got a call from the police saying they had made a mistake and that he could hold the event if they wished. It was too late; the harm had been done; the function had been ruined.
But there is still time to salvage PTI’s sullied reputation, Nayyar said: “It was great to see Imran Khan defy Taliban attacks on polio workers by openly administering polio drops himself, and to know that he was furious at the cancellation of the Malala book launch. We expect him to hold the book launch in Peshawar on his own and invite his friends in JI to the event!”
“My friend told me Malala is not a Pakistani or a Muslim; her real name is Jennifer and she is a Christian,” said ten-year old Fatemah, conspiratorially. “But I don’t believe her one bit,” she added waving the book “I am Malala”. She is reading the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban.
The rather precocious 10-year old went on to say the book “gave me something important to reflect on… That what I had always taken for granted, like education, does not come that easily for thousands.” She found Malala to be a “real hero” for standing up for what she believed in. Fatemah may just be ten but her views are reflective of the debate raging in Pakistan today, especially in the media, after the book surfaced and was subsequently banned in some private schools.
On 10 November, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF), announced the decision to ban the book from member schools for “being against the injunctions of Islam and the constitution of Pakistan”. The book will not be kept in the library of any of its schools and no co-curricular activities, including debates, will be held on it, Kashif Mirza, chairman of the APPSF told Index. Almost 25 million children, 10 million of which are girls, study at the federation’s 152,000 private school. They employ 7,250,000 teachers, 90 percent being women. The book has not officially been banned by the Pakistani government in state schools, but is not part of any school’s curriculum.
Yousafzai has been bagging one award after another internationally. In Pakistan, where the entire nation had rooted for her to win the Nobel Peace prize, the book has led to a slight dimming of that adulation. Having British award-winning journalist Christina Lamb’s name on the cover as co-author hasn’t helped. “Lamb is reputed to be both anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam,” Mirza said.
Dr AH Nayyar, a noted educationist, said the reaction of the private school owners was that of “weak-kneed people” who are more worried about their “business interests” than what “is right and what is wrong”.
Rumana Hussain, a former principal of a private school who has written and illustrated several children’s books, finds it tragic that “the 25 million students who attend private schools in the country will not read the book. The millions who attend public schools, where the book isn’t banned but won’t be taught, bought or stocked, will not read it either.”
She lamented: “All of them will be deprived of the chance to read the account of a young Pakistani girl’s struggle for education – not only for herself but also for every Pakistani girl, every child – and get inspiration from her story.”
“We are not against girls education or against Malala,” argued Mirza. “On the contrary, we are a great supporter of Malala’s mission of girl’s education and have always advocated for liberal, enlightened and empowered women. When Malala was shot, for the first time in the history of private schools, we held a strike and closed all schools.”
Today, however, Malala seems to have lost favour in the eyes of Mirza and many others who think like him.
“I have read the book and find it hard to believe that a child who of just 16 has so much knowledge of international affairs,” he said, implying that the west has used her “confused state of mind” to grind their own axe.
Dr Nayyar finds this argument hard to digest. “The book was written by a non-Muslim. How does her writing make Malala a tool in the hands of the west?”
But what exactly has Malala or Lamb written that has half of Pakistan in a tizzy?
“She has shown disrespect to Prophet Muhammad by not using Peace be Upon Him after his name. She speaks of [former Pakistani president] Zia ul Haq bringing the Islamic law of reducing the women’s evidence to half into the court. She can’t comment on that as it’s in the Quran and no more can be said about it. She also talks about her father referring to Satanic Verses and believing in freedom of expression. We can’t have young impressionable minds reading her, having her as her role model and going astray,” Mirza said adamantly.
What he failed to mention was that all this had happened during her father’s college days when he took part in a debate of whether Satanic Verses should be banned and burned. The Satanic Verses controversy, also known as the Rushdie Affair, was the heated and frequently violent reaction of some Muslims to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988. While few Pakistanis may have read the novel, most have been led to believe that it is an insult to Islam because it disparaged the honour of the Prophet Muhammad.
Malala’s father, while finding the book offensive to Islam had the courage to suggest, to a packed room of fellow students: “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book.”
Nayyar found absolutely nothing wrong with what Malala has stated. “That minorities are often attacked in Pakistan and that Ahmedis regard themselves as Muslims while the government does not; every word of these statements is true. Even the quoted statement of her father about Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses is praise-worthy; face a blasphemic book with a good book of your own,” he said.
“I think the ban is condemnable even if it applies to a few thousand schools,” said Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “We should be opening up young minds, not shutting them. Malala’s story should be a great inspiration for students,” she added.
“I did not find anything objectionable in the book itself,” said Farah Zia, the editor of English daily The News’ magazine The News on Sunday section. “The only problem I had was the voice of the book, that switched between a 16 year old and a mature one,” added the mother of two.
While the ban has not been enacted across the board yet, she finds it ridiculous. Still, she hopes the controversy may make many curious enough to pick up the book and read it. On the other hand, she says the “atmosphere of fear being artificially created” may stop publishers from translating the book into local languages.