Pseudoscience & Religion

Life, at Fourteen

What was I doing at 14? Nothing of consequence. I was at secondary school, studying in the 8th standard. I had changed schools, enrolling in a residential school away from my home city. So at 14, I was struggling to adjust to a new environment, new school and new faces, whinging a bit, eventually settling down to a humdrum life of mandatory study time, mandatory play time, and mandatory chore time, and – oh, yes! – trying to deal with raging hormones, inevitably doing something so stupid that I can look at those incidents only with sheer embarrassment and a shake of the head.

And by that same age of 14, in a different corner of the world, this amazing and courageous young woman, Malala Yousafzai, had already expressed the pain of her people through her words (written under the nom de plume of Gulmakai and published by BBC Urdu in 2009; excerpts here); spoken out for children of her generation, articulating the need for education in her part of the world (see video below); won the first National Peace Award by Pakistan government in 2011; and for all her efforts, she – all of 15 now – has been shot in the headshot in the head! – by religion-soaked, stuck-in-the-Dark-Ages, pathologically-misogynistic, gun-wielding ignorant scum, collectively known as the Taliban. I know! Life of a teenager, right?

By virtue of valiant and skilful efforts of doctors and surgeons across two continents, military neurosurgeons in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and trauma specialists at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, UK – no thanks to any god(s) anywhere – she is going to be fine. The UK daily, Guardian, reported on October 19, the Malala retains her higher neural functions, and will possibly make a complete recovery. She can’t talk yet because of a tracheotomy tube, but is able to stand with help and write. She has expressed a desire to share with people her details and her gratitude for their support.

Why is the Taliban so afraid of this young teenager, that they must try to silence her voice permanently? It is because what Malala represents: an inspiration to countless others. Her act of defiance of the barbaric brutality of the Taliban, her brave refusal to be cowed down by their threats of violence and death, her strength of character and determination – all these have the potential of taking on the form of sustained movement of opposition to the Taliban. Shooting to murder Malala was a desperate act of intimidation, but only betrayed their cowardice and laid bare their frailties for the world to see and mock at; they are so dead scared of this one adamant young woman that they wish to target her again should she survive. Deluded, uncouth morons! Do they imagine, for one moment, that eliminating one Malala will stop the eventual uprising of many more like her, frustrated with the misogyny and oppression entrenched in their patriarchal, tribal customs, disappointed in their government and its inability to protect them and their loved ones, and desirous of wresting their basic Human Rights?!

Malala, named by her father after an Afghan national folk heroine who fought alongside a Pashtun general in the Battle of Maiwand against British troops in 1880, grew up in an über-conservative, patriarchal society in a troubled part of the world, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Despite being a witness to the atrocities perpetrated by the Taliban, having her school closed down by Taliban decrees and her family displaced by war in the Swat Valley, Malala never gave up hope and courage, becoming a fearless activist for her cause, education, especially education for girls in her region. Where did she so much strength? Writes Adam Ellick, who made a documentary named “Class Dismissed” in 2009 on some of the most critical days of Malala’s life (see below), about her father, Ziauddin:

Her father’s personal crusade to restore female education seemed contagious. He is a poet, a school owner and an unflinching educational activist. Ziauddin is truly one of most inspiring and loving people I’ve ever met, and my heart aches for him today. He adores his two sons, but he often referred to Malala as something entirely special. When he sent the boys to bed, Malala was permitted to sit with us as we talked about life and politics deep into the night.

After the film was seen, Malala became even more emboldened. She hosted foreign diplomats in Swat, held news conferences on peace and education, and as a result, won a host of peace awards. Her best work, however, was that she kept going to school.

In the documentary, and on the surface, Malala comes across as a steady, calming force, undeterred by anxiety or risk. She is mature beyond her years. She never displayed a mood swing and never complained about my laborious and redundant interviews.

But don’t be fooled by her gentle demeanor and soft voice. Malala is also fantastically stubborn and feisty — traits that I hope will enable her recovery.

The world, too, awaits with bated breath.

Malala Yousafzai recovering in a hospital bed

Malala Yousafzai recovering in a hospital bed. Image via The Guardian; links to source.

This article originally appeared on the author’s blog, Oh, The Humanity of it All.

About the author


I am researcher in biological sciences. I am passionate about science, the scientific method and science communication. I am equally passionate about denouncing pseudoscience, religion and superstition. I prefer to inhabit a reality-based world.


  • In the darkest hellholes of Auschwitz there were bravehearts who, even as they were dying, continued to teach music and mathematics to younger inmates because they firmly believed that there still existed a future to look forward to. The human spirit at its best is unquenchable. Malala Yousafzai is another living proof of this fact, if proof were needed. Unfortunately, it seems to take something as horrific as a little girl getting shot in the head before the masses arouse themselves from their slumber. Keeping them awake is an even more difficult matter.

      • This is truly sad. But how do you fix this problem of religious extremism which allows a supposedly political group to shoot down a 14 year old girl? Even though the article in Dawn that you refer to asks the right questions to the Islamic apologists it does not propose a solution to this problem.

        What do you think is the solution?

        I guess Chris Hitchens would have made a case for fixing this problem by bombing the hell out these religious nuts. Even in Pakistan some are doing the same (

        But is there a peaceful solution to this problem?

        • Would that there were, CM… Would that there were a peaceful solution. If there is, and I hope there is, I would love to know what it is. What do you offer, what can one offer, as a placation to a group that is so brainwashed, so warped as to not consider at all the irreparable harm they are visiting upon their fellow human beings including co-religionists? What can one sell to a group of people whose eyes are firmly set upon the ultimate Scriptural prize of eternal happiness in presence of their deity (not to mention, the promised 72 virgins)?

          • May be there is no peaceful solution, atleast political leaders of Pakistan are not trying to find one. The only solution might be to have the US continue the drone bombings till the last taliban is killed. But then the liberals around the world will shout imperialism.

          • CM, I understand your sentiment. I do. Which is why I haven’t opposed the drone program so far. But it is not just ‘liberals around the world’. I have been reading a little bit about the lack of accountability of the drone strikes, and a part of me is wondering whether this is the only way to fight the Taliban menace – given the unacceptably high toll in civilian casualties. I don’t know whether the drone strikes can be made more targeted, even whether the existing technology has the capability of making them more targeted, so as to minimize collateral damage. Fighting fire with fire is sometimes necessary, but it also leaves a trail of destruction. Violence often only perpetuates the cycle of violence, death and suffering. I admit that I am ambivalent about this.

            What really bothers me, though, is the observation that the Pakistan government seems to be doing precious little to protect its citizenry. Remember how the Swat valley was evacuated before the US troop surge? I don’t understand why similar steps cannot be taken in the zones of current conflict.

    • Good grief! I don’t know if I should even qualify this utterly, mind-numbingly stupid comment by responding to it. Suffice it to ask: where exactly was god when Malala was being shot in the head – was god sleeping? Taking a bathroom-break? Hunting for some snack in the refrigerator?

      • where exactly was god when Malala was being shot in the head – was god sleeping? Taking a bathroom-break? Hunting for some snack in the refrigerator?

        There is a ready made theistic answer to this question. God was testing Malala’s faith.

      • I know what you mean! If there is one malaise that is even more deadly in the long run than overt fanaticism, it is pious sanctimony. The former kills its victims quickly, the latter does so slowly and painfully. Steven Weinberg said it best: “With or without religion, good people will do good things, and evil people will do evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I think we can agree that the pious sanctimony that is dripping in the comment you have replied to
        tells us quite a bit. The little girl is not safe either among the fanatical wolves baring their teeth or among the sanctimonious sheep mouthing pieties.

  • Fixing the problem of religious extremism may be very difficult but not impossible. The real culprit is the teaching of distorted history to Pakistani pupils right from school levels. A proper education in history right from young age will have a salutary effect may be after a couple of decades down the line. This is quite possible if well-meaning intellectuals in Pakistan force their authorities in its implementation.

    • Very true. The retailing of appropriately tailored history to impressionable minds has probably been a ‘useful’ device for as long as the history of the human race itself! Even today, in this networked world with its ubiquitous dissemination of information, there are pockets where people, especially children, have been insulated from reality quite effectively (e.g., North Korea). The consequences are obvious. I’m reminded of what a friend told me right after the 1971 war with Pakistan, when the Indian forces advanced quite far into enemy territory. It seems a school history book found there said, “When Alexander the Great invaded Pakistan in 326 BC…”

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