Malala Yousafzai and the Misrepresentation of Muslim Women in the West: Part 1

I would like to christen this new blog by serialising my undergraduate dissertation. I had a lot of fun writing it and even more fun researching it throughout my 3rd year of university. Malala is an idol of mine, and I have nothing but the utmost respect and adoration for her. I would like to state here that I am writing as a fan, as someone who is interested in the topic (not highly educated in it; I chose this project myself,) and importantly as a white woman. I understand the implications of that and will hopefully address it in in later posts. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

 

Introduction

On October 9th 2012, while travelling on her school bus, 14 year old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. Malala had gained fame in the years preceding this for writing about her experiences living in Taliban-occupied Swat Valley in Pakistan for the BBC’s Urdu news website in 2009. She also spoke out against the Taliban for preventing girls from going to school, which earned her Pakistan’s first ever National Youth Peace Prize in 2011, and after she had recovered from the shooting, in 2014 she became the youngest person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala continues to campaign globally for the education of women and girls around the world, all while still attending school herself in Birmingham, England.

When Malala was shot, the media coverage her story received globally was almost unparalleled, especially in a world where war and conflict result in the deaths of children and civilians every day. Updates about Malala’s health would appear daily on online media outlets, and within days she was transferred to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where she recovered before being discharged a full 4 months after the incident. Pakistan Taliban spokesmen claimed responsibility for the attack immediately, and while Malala’s stance on education certainly called her out as a target, their statement also claimed that she “leads a campaign against Islam” (Dawn: Taliban use Islamic Shariah to defend Malala attack). Their real issue apparently lay with Malala’s connections to the West:

“If you were shot [by] Americans in a drone attack, would [the] world have ever heard updates on your medical status? […] Would you were [sic] called to UN? Would a Malala day be announced?” (Imitaz, Guardian: Taliban’s letter to Malala Yousafzai: this is why we tried to kill you)

On her 16th birthday, Malala spoke at the UN with the support of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but as Assed Baig pointed out, “he is the very same Gordon Brown that voted for the war in Iraq that not only robbed people of their education but of their lives.” (Media Diversified: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex).

In this essay, I wish to explore the way that Malala and other Eastern, Muslim women are represented in Western discourse. I wish in part to react to some of the criticisms brought forward about Malala’s connections to the West, exploring some of the theory behind those criticisms. I also wish to look at the media coverage of the incident and her actions since being taken to the heart of Western society. I will primarily base my understanding of Malala’s life and her ideas on the book she released in 2013, which was co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb. I hope to give a brief political and historical background to both Malala’s experiences as a girl growing up in Swat Valley, as well as the narrative that is ascribed to those experiences.

I wish to make it clear that I do not at all think that the Taliban are anything close to justified for any of their actions. Malala, and indeed most Western media, stand on the correct side of adversity to the principles by which the Taliban and other fundamentalist-extremist groups operate, especially in relation to the restriction of the rights of women and young girls. Additionally, any criticism of the way Malala’s story is handled is often interpreted as criticism of Malala herself, or the incredible work she has done as a women’s activist and advocate of global education. This is of course not my intention. Malala is an inspiring woman, and her creation of the Malala Fund, as well as her frequent talks and visits around the world, have given hope to thousands of young girls fighting for their education. However this is not the focal point of this essay. My criticism firmly lies with representation of Malala’s story within Western discourse, and the way in which her brave actions are narrativised in order to condemn the very society that Malala wishes to aid.

 

Malala, Education, and ‘Western Puppetry’

In her 2013 autobiography I Am Malala, Malala relates her experiences from her birth all the way through to her new life in Birmingham. Heavily influenced by her father, Malala’s passion and bravery in the face of adversity is simply astounding. She lived in an area in which women would be flogged in the street for walking in the market unaccompanied, let alone speaking a word against the Taliban’s regime. Malala gives a political background to the problems that her family had encountered in Swat, including the involvement of Western military forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She describes how when the Taliban first appeared in Swat, they appeared to represent the general political feeling at that time, seeing “what the local problems [were] and target[ing] those responsible, and that way they get the support of the silent majority” (Yousafzai and Lamb, 94). However as their views became more extreme, as they began burning books and televisions and restricting the rights of women while citing Islamic law, Malala and her father felt they had to speak out against the insidious and dangerous nature of the group.

For Malala, the most direct way she was affected by the Taliban as a young girl was their insistence that there was no need for women to be educated. Having grown up living above her father’s school, education had long been one of the most important things in Malala’s life; “For us girls that doorway [into school] was like a magical entrance to our own special world. As we skipped through, we cast off our headscarves like winds puffing away clouds to make way for the sun then ran helter-skelter up the steps” (Yousafzai and Lamb, 2). For Malala, education meant a chance to enter a world different to her own, in which she could simply be a child, unburdened by cultural expectation or social responsibility. Education was a means of bettering herself, furthering her understanding of the world, and taking her place as an equal among her male peers. Now continuing her studies in the United Kingdom, Malala believes that she “must get an education to strengthen myself for the fight I will surely have against ignorance and terrorism. My plan is to learn more about history, to meet people and listen to their opinions.” (Preface XIX). Here, she equates terrorism to ignorance, not evil. To her, it is yet another one of the world’s problems that can be resolved with education. She does not paint the Taliban simply as ‘barbarians’ despite the horrible things they have done to her family, and she does not blame them for the way they think. She views learning about history and understanding the experiences of as many people as possible as a key way of defeating terrorism, as she understands the importance of looking at political and historical contexts to understand the present. It is clear that the situation in Swat valley was never a simple one; a multitude of factors, including corrupt governments, ineffective judicial systems, and a massive disparity between rich and poor, to name but a few, all contributed to the rise of the Taliban in that region. However Malala’s simple message has always been the same: all children deserve a proper education.

Nevertheless, there are many who feel that this important message has been miscommunicated through the press, and hijacked by governments wishing to push their own agendas. This feeling mainly arose due to the widespread fame of Malala’s shooting, the support she received from various world leaders, and the fact that her story touched on the sensitive topic of women’s rights in the Middle East. Less than a year after the shooting, Assed Baig’s article addressing the media coverage of Malala’s story was posted on the Huffington Post’s Politics blog. The article gained traction and was revised and reposted on Media Diversified UK. Baig’s main grievance with what was being circulated about Malala was the way in which the West seemed to use Malala’s story to absolve their own guilt about their involvement in foreign conflict:

The West has killed more girls than the Taliban have. The West has denied more girls an education via their missiles than the Taliban has by their bullets. The West has done more against education around the world than extremists could ever dream of. So, please, spare us the self-righteous and self-congratulatory message that is nothing more than propaganda that tells us that the West drops bombs to save girls like Malala. (Media Diversified: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex)

Baig argues that for the West to stand by Malala’s cause is deeply hypocritical of them, and is purely a validation of their use of military force against the Taliban. Of course, Malala originally stepped into the public eye to criticise the Taliban, but as a group that have already caused an increase in Islamophobia worldwide due to their acts of terrorism, all voices that speak out against them become grouped together. The fact is that in the West, the word ‘Islam’ and the word ‘terrorist’ have become synonymous, and when Malala is seen supporting supposedly Western ideals, her story becomes lost under the sea of voices calling for further military action in the Middle East to put an end to extremism. The education of children globally is not as interesting to the media as a brown girl showing how ‘violent’ her culture and religion is.

On the other hand, Mariam Sabih posted her own article as a response to that of Baig, suggesting that he had “failed to understand the universality of Malala’s message”:

Those who want to paint Malala as an easily influenced “tool” and not as a strong young Muslim woman driving an inspirational campaign have failed to really listen to her message. They failed to know who Malala is and to know the message she has always stood for. We face a grave danger to our own advancement as a society if we label brave female activists who use an international platform as ‘tools’ or ‘traitors’ hurling an attack on the native man’s honour. (Media Diversified: Silencing Malala Yousafzai and ‘the Brown Man’s Honor Complex’)

Is suggesting that Malala’s voice is being silenced or twisted simply a further reinforcement of a racist, sexist narrative that perpetuates the stereotype of the ‘oppressed brown woman’? Or is this criticism legitimate in the struggle to have women’s voices heard? Following criticisms that she had become a ‘puppet of the West’ by some conservative Pakistanis, Malala herself was forced to comment on her sense of national identity: “My father says that education is neither ‘Eastern’ nor ‘Western.’ Education is education: it’s the right of everyone,” (International Business Times: Malala Yousafzai: Backlash Intensifies, Is Pakistani Girl A ‘Western Puppet’ And ‘Global Brand’?) Once again, she brings the focus back to her original cause, Education, while denying that standing up for the rights of the voiceless could in anyway mean she is disloyal to her home nation. Just as I believe that as a Westerner I have no right to say how women in the East ‘should’ live, I firmly believe that I have no right to say how Malala should conduct herself or who she should be seen to be affiliated with. Malala says herself that she does not act in the interest of the West, and I have no doubt that on a conscious, deliberate level, this is the truth. However Malala’s very existence of within the framework of our society leaves her open to the assignment of a multitude of Western narratives, whether or not that was her intention. The question becomes whether the presence of the West in Malala’s life is a help or a hindrance in allowing her voice to be heard and the rights of children worldwide improved.

 

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The next part is posted here.

Image via British Muslim Magazine

 

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