What we learned when we met Malala Yousafzai

While travelling through the Swat Valley in 2010, we interviewed the young school girl standing up to the Taliban.

We don't expect to switch on the news and see that someone we know has been shot, though this was our experience when we saw the face of young Malala Yousafzai on the television. During 2010, we had been to Pakistan to create a book that uncovered the difficulties of being a woman in Pakistan. We met and interviewed over 150 women and were fortunate that one was a fiery young girl named Malala.

While staying in Peshawar we heard about a school girl from the Swat Valley who was standing up to the Taliban and promoting education for women. This is an area of the world where women rarely walk the streets, definitely not alone and never uncovered. And as Malala's example shows, there is a genuine threat to your life if you dare to step outside the strict social fabric.

We left for Swat with some trepidation and against the advice of our local friends. Although the Taliban were officially ousted by the government, it was still an area known for extremist views and occasional lawless violence. It was supposedly safe but still foreigners were not allowed in. We took our chances; “let’s go and see for ourselves” was our policy. We went through the checkpoints without any fuss, almost too easily. We were left questioning how effective the military crackdown actually was.

As the mountain roads turned from tarmac to dust we passed by Buddhist relics, a reminder of Swat’s more enlightened times. Tragically many of the Stupas had been vandalised or destroyed by those determined to erase any non-Muslim aspect of Pakistan’s history. As we crossed the final mountain we were afforded a spectacular view of the valley, justifying its reputation for being a popular holiday destination. Only now it had the air of a dilapidated English seaside town; lots of hotels but no tourists.

We arrived in Mingora and were met by Malala's father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who unlike many Pakistani men, wasn’t in a hurry to talk about himself but preferred to give the centre stage to his daughter. On first appearances an ordinary twelve-year-old girl but when she spoke there was an aura of confidence that only comes from speaking the truth.

We asked Malala about life under Taliban rule and she replied that it was like being in the Stone Age, "everyone was afraid of the Taliban, a child or a young man, because they were so cruel, they just cut peoples’ throats or left them hanging in the square." The Taliban used the radio to spread their ideas, to appeal for money and canvas for new members. They took over the airwaves, imposed Sharia law onto the area and banned girls from attending school. They said any girl caught going to school would be kidnapped and married off to one of their young talibs.

Malala and her class had been the centre of resistance to the Taliban. This group of young girls lead by Malala were horrified at the idea of giving up their education at such a young age. While others were so traumatised by the violence they had witnessed that they stopped attending, Malala’s group continued schooling in secret. They were so afraid of being stopped and questioned by the Taliban, that they had to make their way to school wearing plain clothes and hiding their books.

We were taken to the school where the students gave a stiff formal greeting before giving way to fits of shy giggles. There we talked to the girls about their experiences under Taliban rule and Malala gave an impassioned speech about the importance of education for women.

Painted on her wrist was a small Pakistani flag and it became clear to us that this girl was speaking from a place filled with nothing but love for her country. She says that before the Taliban she wanted to be a doctor, but after witnessing the ineffectual nature of her country’s politicians, she now wants to become a spokeswoman for her nation.

As a child, she would have been excused for giving up on such a dream once the imminent danger had passed. Despite the disappearance of media interest in the Swat Valley, Malala has continued to promote freedom as proven by her National Peace Award.

Malala’s father is her inspiration. Throughout Taliban rule he also worked tirelessly, a lone voice promoting equality and education for women. He is an example of conviction and bravery, qualities that have been adopted by his daughter. She would make most fathers proud but these aren’t ordinary circumstances.  It is worth questioning the wisdom behind encouraging Malala to speak openly against the Taliban. Though it is disheartening to think that the only way to have avoided this devastating act, would have been to silence a young girl brave enough to carry the hopes of every woman in her country.

When Malala Yousafai spoke "there was an aura of confidence that only comes from speaking the truth." Photograph: Geoff Brokate and Kaye Martindale.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.