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Freedom that comes at a high price

19 October 2012

A young Pakistani girl has drawn the West into her struggle, says Elaine Storkey

IT TAKES only one shocking event to reveal to the world the ordeals suffered by human beings who struggle daily under oppression. That event can lay bare the stark issues of injustice, violence, and fear that lie unresolved in the lives of millions. Such is the story of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan, who was shot in the head by the Taliban because of her active support for women's education. She is now in the UK to receive medical treatment.

At one level, it is the familiar issue of the suppression of women - an issue that, at some time or another, has faced almost every society on earth. At another level, it is about the assertion of tyrants who believe that shooting a young girl is a justifiable way of asserting their control and silencing opponents.

Many of the journalists who have told the story paid homage to Malala's fearlessness before the ruthless atrocities of the Taliban. But that description does not really seem apt; for people who are fearless rarely understand what it is to be afraid. They are impervious to the fear that can destabilise ordinary mortals. In contrast, this girl has known fear only too well. She has spoken of it, described it, explained what it has been like for her. Everything about her situation has made her want to run, but she has stayed. It is not fearlessness but courage that defines her tenacious resistance.

Courage is a very human quality. To start with, it does not ignore danger. Since the age of 11, Malala seems to have been acutely aware of perils that have surrounded her, as she has lived consciously along the chasm of two incompatible world-views. The world-view she inherited from her father embraces human rights and education; it urges respect, hope, peace, love, and freedom for women.

The world-view that she rejects embraces the misuse of power, as well as torture and bloodshed. It is driven by an ideology that dismisses freedom, hates the West, and denigrates women. Few children would see the gulf so clearly. Even fewer would have the enormous courage to face the implications of choosing to resist the powerful.

But courage lives with vulnerability. Malala had nothing to protect her as she spoke out against what she had witnessed, as she asserted her desire to be educated, and travelled to the school that had been banned. No armed bodyguards surrounded her as she left her home or boarded the bus. The images splashed across our screens and newspapers illustrated her vulnerability - the openness of her young face, the blood-soaked clothing on her body. In facing vulnerability, she shared truth, and drew us into her struggles.

Courage also reveals the true nature of evil, highlighting for us all the cowardice of her assailants, their hatred, their brutality. Their faces were hidden. Yet vicious cruelty can never bear good fruit. Whatever just cause these men thought they were fighting, whatever power they thought they wielded, the courage of this child has exposed them as cowardly bullies. A Pakistani satirist, Nadeem Paracha, summed it up perfectly: "Come on, brothers, be real men. Kill a schoolgirl."

For me, this story reflects not the power of Western liberalism, but the truths of the Christian faith. Vulnerability and courage are at its very core. Jesus incarnates them. It was not fearlessness that he exhibited at Gethsemane the night before he died, but naked terror, as he contemplated what lay ahead.

We may never know what courage Christ needed for our salvation. But when we see the best of human bravery exhibited in the life of a defenceless young Pakistani girl, we begin to understand its power.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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