Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who is now recuperating in a British hospital under extremely tight security after getting shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in her native Swat Valley for advocating women's education, has emerged as the face of a new Pakistan: a face (a beautiful, marketable one at that) that provides some semblance of hope for a country battered by decades of sectarian violence, government corruption, poverty and ludicrous social injustices.
Ironically, this tragic assault, which appears to have galvanized a broad swath of the Pakistani public, may serve as a kind of catalyst for the beginning of positive changes for the beleaguered people of that deeply-troubled nation.
However, there is another side of this saga that bothers me.
Malala has been widely embraced by a multitude of voices in Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with Westerners embracing Malala as a symbol of peace, education, rationality and goodness, I get the distinct impression that they want Malala (and all the other girls in Pakistan) to adopt a more 'Western' model of behavior and lifestyle.
After all, the West gave the world the principles of democracy, equality, upward mobility, press and religious freedoms, as well as technological advances.
All very good things, no argument.
But all this “advancement” and “progress” has come at a steep price – one of which is the destruction of traditional cultures, which, in turn, has created societies steeped in crass materialism, vulgarity and coarseness.
Consider what the U.S. and UK – the two countries that are most intimately linked to the concepts of freedom, equality and democracy – have metamorphosed into in recent decades: an (ironically) under-educated, over-entitled, materialistic public desperate solely for money and status.
This is the paradox of what affluence and democratic freedoms have wrought – they seem to have inadvertently led to a society knee-deep in corruption, decay, materialism, selfishness, mediocrity, laziness and mental illness.
In the United States – the "land of plenty" where life is "good" – many (perhaps most) people eat junk foods, watch vulgar movies and TV shows, listen to garbage music, know very little about their own history (much less about foreign countries), are addicted to drugs and alcohol, read very few good books, and still aspire to wealth and dream of "climbing the social ladder."
Secondary education is free, but precious few Americans are truly well-educated; libraries are free, but few avail themselves of the classics of literature; food is plentiful, but too many gorge themselves on McDonald's, Burger King and sugar-laden soft drinks and become obese by adolescence.
I have known "college graduates" who are basically illiterate (many can hardly speak proper English, much less have an aptitude for foreign tongues).
Everyone has a cellphone, Blackberry or Smartphone – yet few can effectively communicate or even speak in a complete sentence.
"Sexual freedom" has led directly to a super-high divorce rate, massive adultery, the proliferation of various sexually-transmitted diseases and skyrocketing abortions.
Britain and America are societies where culture is essentially dead – and is unlikely to ever come back. The U.S. is a nation where no-talent, no-skill mediocrities like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Moore, David Letterman, Larry King, Spike Lee and Bruce Springsteen – among many, many others -- ascend to the status of "icons" (and, of course, enjoy lavish compensation).
Is this what "freedom, democracy and opportunity" were intended to create – a society that perpetually stagnates?
I want Malala (and all the other "Malalas" in Pakistan and other poor countries) to go to school, learn as much they can and become whatever they wish to be -- doctor, lawyer, accountant, chef, journalist, scientist, housewife, etc.
But I don't want this "advancement" to arrive at the expense of culture and gentility. I fear that is what will happen – in fact, this phenomenon has already occurred in places like India, Japan and South Korea, i.e., where the worst elements of Western society have polluted the foundations of those ancient cultures.
Indeed, I shudder at the thought of Malala growing up and forgetting her beautiful Pashtun culture. I can see it now – a 25-year-old Malala working in the big city, wearing a baseball cap, listening to hip-hop music, watching "reality shows" and NBA basketball on TV, eating hamburgers, and seeking to emulate Oprah (that much-admired "role model" for women in the West).
This would be nothing short of a disaster.
Surprisingly, some females in the West seem to agree with me.
Sinead Moriarty, the Irish novelist, wrote a stirring column in the Irish Independent newspaper about Malala that contrasted her sweet, pure, unselfish lifestyle with the behavior of spoiled, lazy, uncaring youth in the West.
Moriarty suggested that Western youth – particularly women – should try to pattern themselves after Malala, rather than the other way around.
”Perhaps we need to take down the posters of Cheryl Cole and Rihanna from our teenagers' bedrooms and replace them with posters of Malala Yousafzai,” Moriarty wrote.
”Our children's role models now fall into two categories -- sports stars or pop stars (with the occasional WAG thrown in).”
My heart nearly jumped when I read Moriarty's next sentences.
”They watch talentless wannabes on reality TV, selling their souls to the devil for fame,” she declared.
”Ask teenagers what they want to be when they grow up and the majority will say 'famous.' Nobody seems to remember all the people who won the 'X Factor' and are now back working in their local fish shop.”
Moriarty further pointed out that – counter-intuitively – young women in the West have actually slipped backward.
”In this post-feminist world, girls have become commodities. Where are the young women who want to shatter glass ceilings?,” she boldly pondered.
”Where are the girls who want to change the world, not the size of their breasts? Where are the teenagers who want to grow up and rule the world, not the tabloids? Nowadays teenage girls look at footballers' wives and think, 'I want that'. I want to live in a big house, drive a flashy car and shop in designer boutiques.”
Similarly, in a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Christine M. Flowers compared Malala's plight with the “saga” of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who gained national fame by calling for insurance plans to cover birth control.
“Sandra Fluke with her simpering demands and outstretched hands makes me ashamed to call myself a woman,” Flowers thundered.
“Sandy has spent so much time this summer and fall drumming up sympathy for her condom crusade that she probably hasn't heard about [Malala].”
Flowers bitterly adds: “Sandra Fluke earns accolades because she wants the government to subsidize her love life. Someone needs a reality check.”
I simply could not agree more!
Pakistan, despite its many problems, boasts a beautiful culture. Malala Yousafzai comes from an extremely conservative and tradition-bound Pashtun community in the northwest part of the country.
I hope and pray she is able to find material success in her life, without losing the precious and priceless elements of her origins.
I wouldn’t want Malala to turn into Sandra Fluke.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.