April 2, 2018
Being an activist in Pakistan is hard but when I met Malala my work seemed validated, says Sarah Belal in an editorial.
We didn’t know who we were meeting until just a few hours before. All we had been told was to show up.
Perhaps that is why when 20 of us female human rights defenders found ourselves in a room waiting for her to arrive, none of us had quite calibrated what was happening.
Women, many of whom are institutions unto themselves, were teetering with excitement, joy – emotions not common in the lives of activists.
There was Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who works to liberate brick kiln slaves, Anis Haroon, a National Human Rights Commissioner, Khawer Mumtaz, Muniba Mazari, Nighat Dad, Samar Minallah, activists from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
We all know of each other but our schedules rarely, if ever, bring us all into the same city, let alone the same room.
We started taking pictures to commemorate this moment. It isn’t often you are in the same room as all your sheroes.
As we took our seats, the doors opened.
The first thing you notice about Malala Yousafzai is how small she is – barely clearing 5’3 ft. But her effect on the room was immediate, that suddenly seemed too little to contain our shared pride. We all jumped to our feet and burst into spontaneous applause.
That after six years, she was home. That she had survived being shot in the head. That despite all the media scrutiny, the relentless bullying, the robbed childhood, she was back.
Despite a whirlwind schedule, the world’s youngest Nobel Prize winner had made time to meet the women on the ground to inspire both the old and new generations of activists.
Malala went around the room, greeting each female activist individually by shaking their hand, sometimes leaning in for a quick hug.
Some had met her before. Some, like me, had only ever seen her on television. But the delight of both was the same.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who had organised the meeting, asked everyone to briefly introduce themselves to Malala. But this moment was about Malala, nothing else.
Some told her they had not been able to sleep the night before when they found out they would be meeting her.
Anis Haroon, who has dedicated her life to the cause of human rights in Pakistan, had flown in from Karachi just that morning. The short notice had made it difficult to get a proper token of her affection, she said.
But she had brought with her the iconic Women’s Action Forum scarf, yellow, imprinted with laws and poetry that uphold the rights of women.
Malala got up and went up to Anis Haroon, who draped the scarf around her shoulders, welcoming her into this decades-long battle.
Anis Haroon then invited present and past WAF activists to be photographed with Malala, in a moment of inclusiveness that echoed the generosity and positivity in the room. That is Malala’s power.
Malala is a listener. She speaks when called upon, and when she does, her words take comfort in their wisdom. She sits up straight, she makes eye contact. Her confidence is one fostered over years of experience. Only, Malala is just 20 years old.
Her small stature emphasises this. We all know the battles she has fought. We all know the enemies she takes on. We all know the ambitions she has.
I told her, you are so young. I told her that I have two daughters and as inspirational as she was for them, I hoped that she could still find time to enjoy what is left of her childhood.
There is a collective acknowledgement of this in the room, each looking at her, aware of the normalcy she has traded in for her extraordinary life.
When the introductions are done, Malala takes a deep breath. If she is overwhelmed, she does not show it. She knows how to navigate her distinction without a trace of arrogance.
She is comfortable in a room full of Pakistan’s leading activists. And surprisingly, Pakistan’s leading activists are comfortable in a room with her.
Earlier in the day, I had met a fellow activist at a café who was bursting with excitement at having just met Malala at the Prime Minister’s House.
I asked him how she was, and he said she was thronged by people which seemed to overwhelm her. And yet in this room, as we bonded over her arrival, she was calm, collected and eager to listen.
Malala is thrilled to be home. She has dreamed of this moment, and like many of us, can’t bring herself to believe that her dream of returning to her country came true.
She was apprehensive about her reception in Pakistan but was glad to see that she had been welcomed with open arms.
Sure, she manages the Malala Fund for Education. But, she tells us, she has assignments due at Oxford. She worries about homework.
Her friends at university have been texting her constantly, who are in disbelief that she managed to keep her trip to Pakistan secret from them.
We are heartened to hear of these small marks of student life. It is apparent that Malala can have a life, not entirely untouched by her celebrity but still pretty close.
Malala has always been serious about her studies, we know that. Even after she was shot, her first conversation with her father from the U.K. included an impassioned plea to bring her books with him. Her Matriculation exams were right around the corner, after all.
Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, sits next to her. He lets her shine, and speaks with the same respect he has passed down to his daughter.
There was something personal about how we understood what his support had done for Malala.
We all know how enabling having a father-figure that supports our work can be, and the courage it gives you to embark on a path less trodden.
Malala says her home country looks the same. Only, everything is different. There is so much hope, she finds, and is deeply touched by the kindness she has found in just this room.
I have never seen activists in such a good mood.
Last month, the civil society in Pakistan lost one of its giants. There was a sense of foreboding, as if we had lost a compass in a terrain that suddenly had become unfamiliar despite years of having walked it. Even the most steadfast of us felt broken by Asma Jahangir’s death.
Being an activist in Pakistan, being an activist anywhere, is a taxing road. But when we met Malala, the work seemed validated.
That if this young woman could find her way back, after everything she had been through, with her faith and will intact, how could we not keep fighting?
The struggle is long and often a lonely one, but how were we alone if we had each other?
And make no mistake, Malala fights the good fight. She brings nuance to the narrative about Pakistan in the West.
She is accused of being a tool for this narrative, but rest assured, she is no one’s fool.
She was not yet 16 years old when she met President Obama, who had asked her to come at the White House, and raised the impact of drone warfare on her people, reminding him of their murderous consequences.
Her very existence complicates things for the very institutions that paint Pakistan with a broad brush. And she does not let them forget that.
To those who know this, her homecoming was the triumph for the years of standing up for her.
This meeting wasn’t a baton-passing ceremony. None of us marked her out to continue the journeys that many of us embarked on before Malala was even born. That is not what we were there to do.
What it was, was a moment of validation and joy, for what she meant as a global symbol of Pakistani women fighting for a just world.
It is easy to overlook how much courage it took for her to come back home, and in that room, that bravery was infectious.
The best you can do as an activist is to create a path for future activists. You are lucky if you even guide one.
And here was Malala, uniting us all to continue to march forward, demanding more, fighting back and never giving up.
When she left the room, we all looked at each other in excitement. We took some more photos, hugged each other, promising to help each other in our respective battles.
Eventually, we all got up and returned to the work that we do.
(Sarah Belal is the Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan. She tweets @SarahBelal_ )