Benjamin Siegel on Malala Yousafzai and Muslim South Asia’s rich tradition of women social reformers
On December 10, clad in a flowing scarlet hijab, seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo’s city hall, becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the 113-year-old prize, sharing the honor with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian campaigner against children’s exploitation. The Pakistani advocate for girls’ education — whose outspoken advocacy earned her a bullet in the face from a suspected Taliban militant — maintained that she was but one voice among the sixty-six million girls worldwide deprived of education. “It is time to take action,” Malala declared, “so [that now] becomes the last time that we see a child deprived of education.” In the audience were several of Malala’s attendees, including Amina Yusuf, a seventeen-year-old mentor for girls from Northern Nigeria, Mezon Almellehan, a sixteen-year-old Syrian refugee-turned education activist, and Kainat Soomro, a Pakistani woman who doggedly pursued justice from the courts in the wake of her gang-rape at the age of thirteen.
Malala’s campaigning, and her personal struggle, has wowed the West, while antagonizing a surprising plurality of Pakistan’s citizens. Yet her story would not have sounded terribly unfamiliar to another Muslim teenager from the Indian subcontinent, writing more than a century before.
In early 1899, a serialized memoir ran in the pages of Tahzib-e-Niswan (“The Women’s Reformer”), a year-old Urdu journal funded by a prominent Islamic cleric, Sayyid Mumtaz Ali, and edited by his perspicacious wife, Muhammadi Begum. The author of this short autobiographical essay, “How I Learned to Read and Write,” was Bibi Ashraf, the sixty-year-old principal of the Victoria Girls School in Lahore. Bibi Ashraf, born Ashrafunnisa, had been raised by a Shia family in the dust-blown village of Banhera, in what was then the United Provinces. Engaged at birth to a second cousin nine years her senior, Bibi Ashraf was widowed by thirty. Declining the offer of a teaching job made by her husband’s sympathetic colleague, Bibi Ashraf made ends meet by stitching clothes and sewing lace. Eight years later, when asked again, she accepted, and began a successful teaching career that would last until her death in 1903.
In her memoir, Bibi Ashraf recalled her childhood alongside five sisters within the confines of purdah, the veiled and separate world reserved to Muslim women. Her grandfather had hired a widow to teach the girls how to sound out the Arabic alphabet so that they might recite and then memorize the Qur’an. But as no woman Urdu instructor could be found, and most men in the family were opposed to this sort of instruction for women — let alone the question of women learning to write — the Arabic alphabet marked the outer limits of what could be taught in the zenana, the secluded household women’s quarter. Muslim patriarchs could find no shortage of theological texts to justify their position, most frequently in the Akhlaq-e-Nasiri, a canonical Persian ethical manual that urged families to “teach the girls neither reading nor writing.”
Bibi Ashraf prayed for the opportunity to learn these skills. While she prayed, she also hatched a plan. There were no pens and no paper in the women’s quarters — but there was a kitchen. And while the other women were distracted, she collected the black char on the griddle there, snatched a fistful of twigs from the broom, and took the clay lid covering the water pot. While the women fretted over the missing lid, Bibi Ashraf practiced copying Urdu letters. She was wracked by guilt for the “intense desire” that had led her to sin, yet “I could not give up my improper ways, and continued to blacken sheets of paper.” When she realized that she could not connect these letters to their sounds, she fell into despair. “Then,” Bibi Ashraf recalled, “God gave me a teacher.”
The teacher was her cousin, some years older, who had come to her begging for help memorizing verses of the Qur’an, the welts on his back testifying to the beatings he had received when his own efforts had come up short. She agreed to help him study, and though her request that in return he teach her how to read was met with an initial rebuke, her cousin eventually, reluctantly agreed. “Bismillah,” Bibi Ashraf said with a smile as she began her first lesson — in the name of God. When her cousin was sent to Delhi to continue his studies, Bibi Ashraf brought out the twig and the clay lid and the char once more, until the letters flowed readily from her makeshift pen.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s selection in October was a resounding return to a human awardee, after the last two awards to the European Union and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And Malala is, by all means, a singular figure in the contemporary Pakistani landscape. Born in 1997 to a Pashtun family of educators in Pakistan’s anarchic Swat Valley, Malala began to blog anonymously for the BBC’s Urdu website while still a seventh grader, offering a precocious schoolgirl’s perspective on the Valley as the Taliban tightened their hold upon it — banning television, silencing music, and shutting down girls’ schools. As Taliban militants continued their blinkered advance, Malala was sent to the countryside. In the wake of a documentary covering her story, the identity of the secret blogger became known, and Malala emerged as a cogent and fierce advocate for girls’ education, delivering determined homilies in English, Urdu, and Pashto. Her campaign in Pakistan was interrupted in October 2012, when a masked gunman rushed a bus full of schoolgirls, emptying a bullet through her skull and another through her neck. Airlifted to Peshawar, Islamabad, and finally to Birmingham, England, Malala eked out a recovery over the next six months, before transforming her stage from Pakistani cable channels to the Oval Office, Harvard University, Buckingham Palace, and the United Nations.
The polarized Pakistani reaction to Malala’s international advocacy has grown even more so in the two months since her Nobel Peace Prize was announced. International admirers have celebrated Yousafzai’s resolute courage in the face of brutal violence, citing her as an inspiration to women and men the world over, and she has earned glowing statements from the country’s top brass — from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the top officer of the Pakistani Army to the playboy cricketeer-turned-politician Imran Khan. The U.S. House of Representatives, in a rare note of bipartisanship, passed the Malala Yousafzai Scholarship Act, authorizing three years of funding to academically talented Pakistani students, half of whom must be women.
Yet scorn for the seventeen-year-old has been just as loud as the notes of praise. Commentators, columnists, and Pakistan’s electric Twittersphere have accused her of fifth-columnism, of cozying up inappropriately to the West’s embrace, and of conspiring with America, India, or Israel against the Pakistani state. Conspiracy theorists have accused Malala’s father of being a CIA agent. The All Pakistan Private Schools Federation’s 150,000 poor and middle-class schools observed an “I Am Not Malala Day” — a play on her 2013 memoir, I Am Malala — condemning “this persona who is against the Constitution and Islamic ideology of Pakistan.” Even more sober critiques have accused the seventeen-year-old of playing up Pakistan’s fight against militants for her own gain, or overlooking the scourge of American drone attacks in her visits with Western dignitaries.
This popular hostility against Malala has some ugly precedents. International commentators have likened Yousafzai to Anne Frank; another comparison might be to Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only other Nobel laureate. The theoretical physicist, whose Prize also made him the first Muslim laureate in science, struggled to gain recognition in Pakistan. As a member of Pakistan’s minority Ahmadi sect who are horrifically persecuted within the country, Salam found himself ostracized and ignored by a large swath of Pakistan’s citizens.
Yet if Malala’s reputation is Anne Frank abroad and Abdus Salam at home, her fellow Pakistanis and those who admire her from abroad alike would do well to consider the young advocate in another way still. Malala, for her singular courage, might nonetheless be seen as the latest in a line of brave and creative Muslim South Asian women whose advocacy has been a perennial feature of public life on the Subcontinent since the early nineteenth century. These women, beginning nearly a century before Bibi Ashraf penned her memoirs of learning to read and write, have responded to Western calls for educational reform by offering up more creative visions instead. And in braiding together notions of justice, Islamic piety, and social reform, these women have offered models for social and personal transformation in a manner far more inventive than that offered by Western liberals — be they imperious British missionaries, aging Irish rockers, or the pious members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
Like turbulent Pakistan at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the world that Bibi Ashraf entered into nearly two centuries ago was a blur of radical ideas and rapid transformation. Across northern India, a handful of schools for women were opening, and the boundaries between home and the world were growing less and less clear. Among the ulema, the Islamic learned class, the question of what sort of learning might be permissible to women had grown electric, splintering communities and families alike. Yet in her covert pursuit of literacy, and an education in turn, Bibi Ashraf was joining an order of determined women whose efforts to learn had begun even earlier.
Malala is the latest in a long line of brave and creative Muslim South Asian women reformers.
Half a century before Bibi Ashraf’s struggle, Rassundari Devi, a teenager in a prosperous Bengali family, found herself drowning in chores, imagining herself no freer than the cow outside her window tied to the oil-press. Towards the end of her life, Devi recalled how “the desire to learn how to read properly grew very strong at me,” but how “I was angry at myself for wanting to read books.” In spite of the older women who used to cluck with displeasure when they saw girls so much as touch a piece of paper, Devi, like Bibi Ashraf had proceeded to teach herself these liberating skills. As Devi taught herself within the confines of her home, European missionaries were beginning to stream into India, emboldened by the arrival of a new generation of British administrators and their cocksure liberal ethos. At the turn of the nineteenth century, colonial administrators had estimated that, in Bengal, the seat of power in India, there were a mere eleven Qur’an schools with an enrollment of no more than 142 pupils. Female literacy across the subcontinent was almost immeasurably low, and the 1816 founding of the Calcutta School Society for the education of girls must have seemed a quixotic act. The first female missionaries began to arrive in India in the 1840s, focusing more on conversion than on functional literacy, teaching in English, as per a new colonial emphasis on the language of empire.
As the century advanced, and the high water mark of liberal intervention receded, India’s colonial administrators began making new efforts in the realm of vernacular education. Acts in 1840 and 1854 deepened the colonial commitment to vernacular education, and pamphlets on the full range of subjects at the heart of European learning were printed in Hindi and other languages. New textbooks and school book societies proliferated — and as they made their way into schools and homes, so too did they find their way into the hands of women.
Yet it would not be until the Governor-Generalship of Lord Dalhousie, who assumed this post in 1848 and held it for eight years, that the colonial push for education, and female education in particular, would emerge as a real priority, stoking a wave of creative responses from Muslim women in particular. Dalhousie had declared early in his administration that no transformation held as much promise for the complete remaking of India as did the prospect of female education. Its importance, Dalhousie noted, “cannot be overrated; and we have observed with pleasure the evidence which is now afforded of an increased desire on the part of many of the natives to give a good education to their daughters. By this means a far greater proportional impulse is imparted to the educational and moral tone of the people than by the education of men.” Six years into his administration, a new policy saw the colonial government granting new aid to private schools — and urged a new focus on opening female schools, preferably in partnership with private organizations. This policy gave a fillip to girls’ education, yet the absolute numbers remained quite small. In the populous North Western Provinces, in today’s Uttar Pradesh, an 1865 estimate revealed that there were 479 government-run girls’ schools enrolling 9269 pupils, and another 77 private girls’ schools enrolling 1494 students. The Muslim response to these schools, the Urdu notes of a debate on these schools reported, was decidedly mixed.
Muslim supporters of girls’ education and colonial officials both agreed, however, that even with the proliferation of these schools, there were still very few adequate textbooks suited to them, nor texts demonstrating the value of this education. In 1868, the Secretary to the Government of the North Western Provinces announced that the Government would be sponsoring cash prizes of 1000 rupees or more for the authors of useful compositions in Hindi and Urdu. “Books suitable for the women of India,” his notification remarked, “will be especially acceptable, and well rewarded.”
The promise of cash spurred Urdu authors into action, and over the years that followed, Government offices were flooded with books designed for use in or to more abstractly promote women’s education, and Muslim women’s education in particular. A total of 24,675 rupees was doled out in prize money, the highest amount of which, a thousand rupees, went to a young Urdu author, Nazir Ahmad, for his novel Mirat al-Arus, “The Bride’s Mirror.” The tale of two Muslim sisters attempted to demonstrate to Muslim readers the virtues of a girl’s education, even if that education would ideally be aimed at facilitating the efficiency and quality of domestic work. The point was driven home by the divergent experiences of these two sisters: the elder, uneducated and uncouth, saw her marriage and household crumble, whereas the younger, educated sister saw her domestic life blossom. Mirat al-Arus’s remarkable success far exceeded the expectations of its colonial sponsors: the novel became an inspiration for copycat publications in multiple Indian languages, including the author Gauridatt’s 1870 book, Devrani Jethani ki Kahani (“The Sister-in-Law’s Tale”), said to be the first published Hindi novel. The tangible results of these consequences can easily be overstated: a major educational commission in 1881 estimated that no more than 0.2% of Indian women were literate. Even if this number ignored women taught informally at home, invisible to the Indian census-taker, in the realm of female education, there was certainly more smoke than fire.
By the turn of the century, female missionaries had established a smattering of girls’ schools across India, their class rosters slowly growing. Yet these British women’s efforts paled in comparison to the electric reception that Indian women clamoring for education — for themselves and for others — could garner. The Hindu reformer Pandita Ramabai, orphaned at sixteen, had been the beneficiary of liberal parents who had allowed her to remain unmarried and encouraged her education in Sanskrit. Her travels around India advocating for women’s education saw her gaining plaudits from many, (including her title, referring to a female pandit) and angry jeers from others. Refusing the entreaties of female missionaries to convert to Christianity, Ramabai toured England and the United States in support of her campaign, before returning to Western India to educate abandoned widows.
The conversation was no less charged among Muslim men and women. As a new century dawned, new Urdu magazines like Tahzib-e-Niswan (“The Women’s Reformer”), Ismat (“Honor”), Saheli (“Girlfriends”), Purdanashin (“The Veiled Woman”) and Khatun (“Lady”), circulated across north India, collectively presuming a need for Muslim women’s education, and disagreeing primarily on its character. These magazines, publishing the opinions of women who advanced differing conceptions of how best to educate Muslim women in the interests of the household and the community, took their cues from Muslim reformers of the era like Sayyid Ahmad Khan, an outspoken British loyalist who had founded the influential Anglo-Muhammadan College in Aligarh. Its graduates, eager to advance the interests of a growing Muslim middle class, were eager to find educated wives appropriate to their gentlemanly stature; thirty years after its founding in 1875, a parallel women’s school was established. And in cities like Lahore and Bombay, prominent Muslim reform organizations saw their members increasingly vocal in their support of women’s education. Even more conservative voices lent qualified support. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, one of the most influential Sufi teachers of the era, gave his full approval for teaching women to read. “As for teaching them to write,” he continued, “there is nothing wrong with it except in the case where you get the impression that the girl might be somewhat brazen by nature.”
The zeitgeist was evident in a celebratory 1905 poem published by the doyen of Urdu verse, the pages of Khatun, and translated here by historian Gail Minault. Women had endured no shortage of indignities over the years, Hali declared to his female audience, but now, “the world must answer to the charges of stealing your rights, so dear” at a moment of fundamental transformation:
The time is gone forever when you found no comrades anywhere;
When the heavens looked the other way, and even the earth was bare.
When all the learned doctors trembled in fear,
Lest upon you fall the shadow of knowledge from somewhere.
Lest, they said, with education the distinction not remain.
How improper it would be for you to become just like a man!
Much of the credit for this renaissance, Hali suggested in the closing verse of his poem, was due to Muslim women reformers themselves, and he singled out the example of Sultan Jahan, the Begum of Bhopal, whose tenure was marked by the remarkable site of a sovereign traveling the breadth of the country, clad in a head-to-foot burqa, to lobby for the education of Muslim women. Inveighing against the practice of early marriage shared by Hindus and Muslims, the Begum of Bhopal spent the last two decades of her life advocating for female education and women’s rights, patronizing countless schools, women’s organizations, and conferences aimed at encouraging Muslim families to send their girls to school. Unlike many of her male Muslim counterparts, the Begum of Bhopal’s advocacy of education was not constrained by class: whereas male reformers still dismissed educated women outside of the ashraf (noble) class as “prostitutes” and “demons,” the Begum and her female counterparts frequently argued for the education of women regardless of their condition.
And while the Begum of Bhopal lobbied at conferences and in advice manuals, a Muslim woman of lesser birth was working tirelessly to afford to Muslim women the sort of progressive education offered that Pandita Ramabai had offered her primarily Hindu students. Born in 1880, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain had opened up a girls’ school in a small town in Bihar after her husband’s death. Yet Rokeya had been driven out of town by angry relatives, and soon moved to cosmopolitan Calcutta to open up the Sakhawat Memorial Girls School, its curriculum designed for girls who observed purdah. Rokeya knew first hand the obstacles facing her students: discovering that her older brother had taught her to read English, Rokeya had been banished to her grandparents’ house until a marriage could be arranged. But the well-educated man she married took pleasure in Rokeya’s English writing, and encouraged her to practice the same.
As Rokeya built up her school she began making the case for women’s education on paper. An early essay, “Sugrihini” (“The Ideal Housewife”), parroted the traditional case for Muslim women’s education, rooted in notions of proper Muslim, and perhaps even Victorian, domesticity. But her writing soon took a more fantastical turn. In 1905, Rokeya published an English novella in the pages of the Indian Ladies Magazine of Madras entitled Sultana’s Dream — a story that may well be the first work of science fiction published in India. Its protagonist, Sultana, falls asleep and awakes in a world where, thanks to good education, gender roles have been completely reversed. Men, who have “not patience enough to pass thread through a needle’s hole,” have been appropriately relegated to a separate corner of the house to take care of chores, like women before them, while women naturally control affairs of the state. Their nation, Ladyland, is a gynarchy free from sin, harm, crime, disease, and mosquito bites. And free of these maladies, the women of the state can devote their attention to inventions that better the lot of womankind: their efforts yield flying cars and automated farming, a solar panel to heat homes, and “a wonderful balloon” to harness water from the atmosphere and regulate the flow of rain. The impact of female education, Sultana’s Dream suggested, would be nothing short of revolutionary.
Muslim girls’ education owed little to imperial patronage, and nearly all to the efforts of the subcontinent’s women themselves.
The visions of women like Bibi Ashraf and the reformers writing in the pages of journal, alongside the patronage of reformers like the Begum of Bhopal and the creative possibilities offered by Rokeya Hosssain and others had begun, by the 1930s, to crystalize into real change. “Even the Mohammedans,” one British woman declared incredulously at the end of her twenty years in Dhaka, having surveyed reports from across India, “are beginning to send their little girls to school with the boys when there is no separate girls’ school.” Yet British women like her could claim little credit: the onward march of girls’ education, and Muslim girls’ education in particular, owed little to imperial patronage and nearly all to the efforts of the subcontinent’s women themselves.
Malala Yousafzai’s zealous campaigning in the name of girls’ education is separated from the first heyday of these efforts by nearly a century — years marked by the scars of India’s partition and the failures of a postcolonial Pakistani government that has frequently veered from democratic promise to autocratic military rule. The challenges independent India has faced in its efforts to bring about gender parity in education have been doubly difficult in Pakistan: at the moment of independence, India’s grab for the lion’s share of the Raj’s coffers left Pakistan scrambling for cash, its central government siphoning off provincial funds for education and other social services in an effort to stay afloat. Education in general has often gotten short shrift in cash-strapped Pakistan, and the efforts to transform the colonial project of girls’ education into national policy have been set back by poor funding and unfortunate politics which have too often been played out on the social and developmental experiences of its women. A 1974 promise by then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to provide free universal education to all children, boys and girls, was a nifty bit of populist rhetoric which shored up his support among the poor, but saw no financial follow-though. The so-called “Islamization” policies of Bhutto’s successor, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, similarly designed to garner popular support, saw the passage of dubiously Islamic laws which punished accused female adulterers with whipping, amputation, and stoning, and declared women’s court testimony as equal to half that of a man’s. In spite of Zia’s appointment of Pakistan’s first female cabinet secretary, these moves set back the course of women’s empowerment in Pakistan immeasurably — even if they simultaneously galvanized and built popular support for the nation’s robust network of women’s advocacy groups.
Malala Yousafzai was born into a Pakistan whose women had benefited tremendously from groups like these, and whose election of a charismatic female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, represented the first female leader of any Muslim country. Yet Bhutto’s election spoke more to dynastic politics than anything else, and Pakistan continues to suffer from some of the world’s worst gender disparities, particularly in the realm of primary education. On the eve of independence, British India’s literacy rates were mortifyingly low across the board, but the 23 percent of men able to read was still quadruple the number of women who could do the same. Those numbers climbed very slowly over the course of modern Pakistan’s history: female literacy had reached 24% by 1980, and an estimated 61% by 2010.
Malala confronts historical underdevelopment as much as armed gunmen and the ire of her countrymen.
Modern Pakistan remains far from the literate utopia of Ladyland conjured up by Rokeya Hossain, yet the impediment to better developmental indices is not, as too many Western commentators allege, something endemic to Islam: after Sri Lanka, whose near-universal female literacy owes to a very different historical lineage, the next-best South Asian country in terms of female literacy is overwhelmingly Muslim Bangladesh, with a rate nearing 80%, even better than India’s 74%. Bangladesh — the land of Rokeya Hossain and Haimabati Sen — is now one of a few countries in the world where girls outnumber boys in primary schools. Savvy analysts suggest that Bangaldesh’s rapidly rising living standards owes much to girl’s enrollment in, and women’s stewardship of, basic education. Malala’s northwestern Pakistan, its mountains and valleys now the playground of the Pakistani Taliban, is a far cry from the Bengal Delta, and its women have long lacked behind their neighbors in terms of education: in the 1930s, when statistics began to be available, it was estimated that around 1.6% of the Muslim female population in Punjab was receiving schooling, as compared with 0.5% in the Northwest Frontier Provinces and 0.4% in Baluchistan. These daunting statistics render Malala’s vision and her campaigning all the more impressive, confronting as she did historical underdevelopment as much as armed gunmen and the ire of her countrymen.
In a Pakistan scarred by autocratic rule and the indignities of Cold War politicking, alleging foreign collusion stands to score some cheap points. But whatever their populist merit, these misguided accusations miss the specificities of Malala’s politics, and the rich regional tradition of social reform led by Muslim women themselves, often with the explicit support of the men around them. Malala’s moves in the wake of her Nobel award quickly refute any easy characterization as a Western stooge: to the ire of the United States and other nations, Malala donated her prize money to rebuild schools destroyed by Israel’s war with Gaza last summer, and upon meeting President Obama, requested that he stop sending arms to the region and replace them with books. Obama’s reply, Malala responded dryly, was “pretty political.”
Those who would quash, dismiss, or otherwise ignore Malala’s demand for female education do an odious disservice not only to fundamental human rights and the cause of gender parity, but to the promise of Pakistani autonomy itself, so often the rallying cry of Pakistani conservatives and leftists alike who have decried the long history of intervention and meddling in a nation as pivotal in the “War on Terror” as the Cold War before it. A century before Malala, Muslim women across India were proving that social reform worked — but that it would be these women, and not their would-be saviors on assignment from Britain, who could identify the best course for that reform. The stirrings of women like Bibi Ashraf quickly informed the novelistic imagination of Urdu authors, the proliferation of reformist publications and Muslim women’s organizations, and in time the patronage and advocacy of ashraf Muslims and the creative fantasies of educators like Royeka Hossain — their efforts dwarfing the parallel efforts of missionaries and colonial administrators.
Pakistanis who assail Malala as a lackey or a puppet of the west might well be channeling larger frustration with their nation’s uncertain role in the world, and the ways in which, too often, social reform has been the pretext for geopolitical machinations. But in failing to take seriously one of the most outspoken and determined advocates their country has offered the world, they risk surrendering one of Muslim South Asia’s richest traditions of self-driven social reform.