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All in the name of the one true faith

Last updated on: November 27, 2012 21:41 IST

We need to celebrate those that buck the stereotype, such as Malala, Toorpekai, and Ziauddin Yousufzai in Pakistan.

But, by the same token, we also need to condemn blind adherence to tradition in the urban, civilised areas of the West as in the case of Savita Halappanavar's death, says T V R Shenoy.

Which is the more cruel way to kill someone? To shoot them in the head? Or to let them die an agonising death by blood poisoning over a period of several days?

And all, it goes without saying, in the name of the one true faith. (Whatever that might be.)

I refer, of course, to Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani girl that was the subject of a murderous assault by the Taliban, and to Savita Halappanavar, the Indian woman who died because Irish doctors reportedly refused to perform the abortion that might have saved her life.

Malala Yousufzai survived through what one can only describe as a miracle of modern medicine; Savita Halappanavar died through what one can only describe as an instance of medicine being trumped by hopes of a miracle.

Almost the entire world -- bar the tribe of fanatics that actually pulled the trigger on a fifteen year-old schoolgirl -- was left aghast at the shooting of Malala Yousufzai. But along with the shock there was an undercurrent of weary disgust, almost as if to say that nothing better could be expected of those fanatics in Pakistan.

That shooting was on October 9, 2012; in the light of the other death that occurred just nineteen days later, you have to wonder if it is not time to take a good hard look elsewhere too. A blind adherence to tradition is found in the most unlikely places, not just in the wild mountains of Pakistan but even in the ever-so civilised European Union.

Two of the unsung heroes of Malala's story are Toorpekai and Ziauddin Yousufzai, her mother and her father. Bucking the stereotype of the stern tribal father that locks away his womenfolk, Yousufzai was the one that actually encouraged his daughter to go to school, to develop an active interest in politics, and to accept the BBC's offer of writing a blog -- at a time when the Taliban had taken over the Swat Valley and were trying to prevent girls from going to school.

The older Yousufzais -- who reportedly still hope that their daughter becomes a politician, and still wish to return to Pakistan rather than seek asylum in Britain -- simply do not fit the usual narrative.

As their surname indicates, the Yousufzai family is part of a large and famous tribal confederation that is spread across both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Were it not for their daughter being shot, the first image on hearing the name 'Yousufzai' would have been that of a Talibani.

Interestingly, the Yousufzais claim that the bedrock of their faith is the same Islamic traditions that drove the Taliban to shoot their daughter. I am by no means a scholar of Islam -- much less of the Islam practiced in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan -- but there is obviously a more nuanced, far more complex narrative waiting to be written than you would find in the usual Western account.

Malala Yousufzai, as we know, was shot because the Pakistani Taliban accused her of betraying the faith. By rights -- since we generally assume all Pakistanis to be fanatics --the doctors in the hospital in Peshawar would have been right to deny treatment to someone like that. (Doubly so, since it was a military hospital, and the Pakistan army is popularly held up as a garden of fanaticism since the days of the late, unlamented General Zia-ul Haq.)

Instead, as we now know, it was the doctors at the University Hospital in Galway, Ireland that reportedly made their medical duties to their patient subordinate to their faith. And may I note that while no Muslim cleric in India has tried to justify the attempted murder of Malala Yousufzai their Catholic brethren -- and fellow citizens -- have certainly not maintained silence over the death of Savita Halappanavar

There was an amazing statement by Joseph Dias, on behalf of the Catholic Christian Secular Forum. (You know that the word 'secular' has lost all meaning when applied alongside 'Catholic' and 'Christian'!)

The statement said, among other things, that the death of Savita Halappanavar, was 'hardly any justification for Vatican to change its doctrine into one to suit deviants from the faith'.

Does this make any sense? Savita Halappanavar was hardly a 'deviant from the faith'. She was a practising Hindu, not a Christian of any denomination at any point in time.

The Catholic Christian Secular Forum also reportedly said, 'It's a medical decision backed by the laws of that country... Like pornography in India is not legally accepted unlike in many Western countries, abortion is illegal in the West unlike in India.'

This is just plain wrong. Irish law does permit abortion in certain restricted cases, so it was hardly illegal. And to assert that abortion is 'illegal in the West' is patently absurd. Had her medical condition permitted, Savita Halappanavar could have travelled to neighbouring Britain, where abortion is perfectly legal.

Actually, the Catholic Christian Secular Forum's case was undercut by none other than the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference itself. Meeting in Maynooth, Ireland, on November 19, the Bishops felt that 'whereas abortion is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances, this is different from medical treatments which do not directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby. Current law and medical guidelines in Ireland allow nurses and doctors in Irish hospitals to apply this vital distinction.'

Does the Catholic Christian Secular Forum draw that distinction? More importantly, were the doctors who attended Savita Halappanavar taught that distinction in no uncertain terms?

Joseph Dias reportedly also said that people who work abroad must follow the law of the land just as Indians expect foreigners to follow our laws as in the case of the Italian marines!

Were Malala Yousufzai and Savita Halappanavar the targets of some uniquely anti-female bias by religious fundamentalists? Yes and no.

History tells us that every major religion discriminates against women to a greater or lesser extent. But the Pakistani Taliban, mediaeval monsters though they are, have been gender-neutral in their choice of targets, killing men and women with equal lack of discrimination.

Pregnancy and abortion, however, are uniquely women's issues -- and the injustice is doubled when men lay down the law without the figleaf of consulting women.

There are women consecrated as priests in Protestant Christian denominations. But how many females are there up and down the hierarchy of Roman Catholicism? There are -- pun fully intended -- none.

Consider this a plea for more nuanced narratives. We need to celebrate those that buck the stereotype, such as Malala, Toorpekai, and Ziauddin Yousufzai in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan.

But, by the same token, we also need to condemn blind adherence to tradition in the urban, civilised areas of the West.

Tailpiece: It would be tempting to paint the arrest of Shaheen Dhada (and her friend Renu Srinivasan) -- after the young woman posted on Facebook -- as another instance of a male-dominated hierarchy assaulting educated women.

But it is actually yet another case of the powers that be trying to control the public narrative -- in line with the Mumbai police arresting the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for his anti-corruption drawings, the Puducherry Police arresting Ravi Sridhar for tweeting about Karti Chidambaram (son of the Union finance minister), and the police in West Bengal arresting Professor Ambikesh Mohapatra for posting cartoons about Trinamool Congress leaders.

Silly and unConstitutional, but there is no clear trend of any gender bias!

For more columns by Mr Shenoy, please click here.

T V R Shenoy