Thursday, 8 November 2012

How Not to Talk about Malala

[Summary: Critics are exploiting Malala’s attack either to prove a point about drones or to “prove” Muslim barbarity.]

by Orbala

Many analysts and critics across a spectrum are exploiting Malala's attack to justify their own political ambitions whether it’s a position on drones or a moment to allegedly prove the barbarity of the Muslim world.

Those who support drones read Malala’s predicament as a reassertion of the Taliban’s destructive force in Pakistani society. They believe that drones are the only possible means to cleanse the region of the Taliban. Others who condemn drones have pointed out that Malala, a victim of the Taliban’s attack, has become an international icon and a heroine while innocent children killed by drones are ignored. The latter group argues that, while Malala is a significant part of Pakistani society and an important and influential teenage leader, it is unfair to condemn the attack of the Taliban on Pakistani soil while ignoring U.S. attacks that kill many more.

Neither side discusses the Pakistani army’s attacks on the people of FATA. The army bombs and utterly destroys lives, homes, and families. The motives for these attacks are disguised under the umbrella of the “war on terrorism,” but, in truth, Pakistan has its own motives in Pashtun-dominated areas, particularly the Waziristan region.  That is one reason among others to believe that the Pakistani state’s role in the destruction of the FATA people and their land is deliberately overlooked. Consistent focus on drones, in fact, facilitates Pakistan’s attacks because it deflects attention from army attacks.

The outcry over drones is partly because they are executed by an outside force, the United States, which drone critics interpret as a form of colonialism. Yet, greater numbers of civilians are killed in Pakistan’s operation in the same region.  Both need to be discussed in such a way that one perpetrator is not privileged over another, such that one is rendered completely invisible and nonexistent, particularly when both claim to share an ultimate aim. So, it is not outlandish to hope that one may soon be able to read equally careful studies about the Pakistani’s army operations in Waziristan, their mission and their impact, in the same way one reads studies on drones.

It is in this context that I find myself wondering what Malala would make of these connections. Would she find the drone discourse too complex to offer a simplified yes or no response to the question of drones? What if she does not appreciate being instrumentalized to support a political discourse?

The Western media, too, has made political use of Malala. For this media, the attack on Malala is “proof” of the barbarity of the Muslim world and hence a justification for Western intervention. Yet, it is important to ask, why Malala now? Why didn’t Malala become a household name during the time when she was speaking out against the Taliban? Why did she only become important after she was attacked? A tentative answer is that before her attack, Malala’s outspoken-ness demonstrated that our oppressors are not completely successful in silencing us because we are still speaking out. We, Muslim women, are still active agents. It would have been unsettling to Western ideas about the passivity of Muslim women.

The American media has falsely convinced its viewers that Malala was shot because she wanted to go to school. It is unfortunate that most viewers have accepted this narrative and failed to ask simple questions like, “Is Malala the only girl in all of Pakistan who goes to school?” The average Muslim woman, or even the average Pakistani woman, does not get shot on a daily basis; millions of girls and women go to school daily, even if there are still many families who deny education to their daughters. Yet, for the Western media, Malala has become a stand-in for the condition of the generic Muslim woman.

Yes, there are issues in the Muslim world—including Pakistan—but many of the experiences of women in the Muslim world are shared by our sisters in the non-Muslim world. Highlighting one Pakistani girl’s case, and misrepresenting it as an attack on any Muslim woman who wants to go to school, not only trivializes the issue but also diverts attention from women’s mistreatment in the rest of the world—including the Western world.

Such a diversion has several problematic implications. It affirms the classic juxtaposition of the “Western” world with the “Muslim” world, supporting political theorist Samuel Huntington’s facile division of the world into mutually exclusive, essentialist civilizational categories in which some, like the West, were “civilized,” while others, like the Muslim world, were “barbaric.” It further suggests that women are perfectly well off in the non-Muslim world, and all that remains to be done is to raise “them”—the “barbaric” Muslim world—to “our” level of civilization. It makes gender issues within the West invisible. 

Indeed, Malala represents all women rightfully demanding to practice their right to speak up against injustices as well as any other right that they rightly believe are inherent to them. But Malala is not a symbol of Muslim women’s resistance to mistreatment and injustices— she is in fact a symbol of the resistance of all humans, irrespective of their religious, sexual, gendered, racial, national, and all other identities. She represents the mind, Muslim or not, that is deemed a threat to the social structure of any given society, the voice that is constantly but unsuccessfully silenced because of its power, its potential to bring change that many in any given society often fear. This change should not be limited solely to women’s right to schooling; it should include all people’s human rights—which encompass the rights of all marginalized and “othered” individuals and groups, particularly those against whom discrimination of various sorts has historically been normalized. It is this symbolism of Malala’s case that helps us to understand and appreciate Malala’s struggle as one that all humans, particularly all marginalized groups of people, can relate to, empathize with, and perhaps even sympathize with.

Obviously, the attack on Malala must be condemned widely, and Malala deserves justice; what I am critiquing is the course of conversations surrounding Malala. We may have little control over the Western media’s instrumentalization of Malala to represent all Muslim women as passive victims on whose behalf the West should intervene. But, we must not allow Malala’s case to be used to make Pakistani army operations invisible by incessantly talking about drones to the exclusion of the army operations.  

The writer is a student of Islamic Studies and Gender Studies. She blogs at and tweets @qrratugai.

A version of this article was published at
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