Pakistan: debate rages over Malala book ban

Malala Yousafzai opened the Library of Birmingham in September. Now her own book is banned for

Malala Yousafzai opened the Library of Birmingham in September. Her own book is now banned in Pakistani private schools. (Image Michael Scott/Demotix)

“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.

This article was originally posted on 15 Nov 2013 at