Malala Yousafzai, a campaigner who was shot in 2012 for her activist work
Last month, Malala Yousafzai won a Grammy award for the audio narration of her book I am Malala — the latest in a series of honors received by the 17-year-old Pakistani girl after being ruthlessly shot by Taliban gunmen in 2012 for speaking out against the Taliban-imposed ban on girls’ right to education in the Swat district of Pakistan. The incident, which drew condemnation from world leaders including President Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, sent shockwaves around the globe and was immediately picked up by Western news media. Little known before the failed assassination attempt, Malala has now become a global icon for girls’ right to education: she spoke before the United Nations in July 2013, met with President Obama and his family at the White House that same year, and became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2014.
Malala’s intentions and deeds are unquestionably noble and need to be acknowledged as such. That said, the dominant Western portrayal of Malala appropriates Malala’s story to serve a particular agenda and reduces the intricacies of a complex reality to an us-versus-them binary. In Malala, the West can find assurance in being the “good guys” fighting the “bad guys” for the liberation of women — a narrative which allows us to absolve ourselves from the devastating consequences of our own actions around the world.
In fact, by diverting attention from the immense harm to women’s rights and access to education that Western interventions and occupations have brought about, the hegemonic narrative of a brown girl being saved by the West racializes morality. In this narrative, the West becomes the sole champion of human rights in non-Western societies, corroborating orientalist stereotypes, a deep-rooted legacy of colonialism.
This phenomenon is accompanied by the “otherization” of issues of inequality and injustice, where the voices calling for justice within Western societies are lost amidst those trying to cast issues like unequal access to education as being characteristic of only those backward societies. Of course, this is not to equate the differing realities of educational access around the world. Education, to be sure, is not always inhibited by gender — as in the Taliban-dominated Swat valley — but also by income level and race as demonstrated by the education gap in the United States and the exclusion of veiled Muslim women from educational institutions in France. By making a brown, Muslim girl the poster-child for an education movement through a feel-good narrative, the West undermines the nuanced but universal struggle for equal access to education and portrays all injustice to be taking place “over there,” which denies progressive domestic voices the public visibility that they deserve.
To understand how the prevailing narrative around Malala provides a purged portrayal of reality, one needs to look no further than the innocent victims of drone warfare, a distinctly shameful feature of American foreign policy which has generated countless faceless Malalas who remain unacknowledged by the West. On October 24, 2012, eight-year-old Nabila Rehman was gathering okra with her grandmother and siblings in a field beside her home in a village of North Waziristan, Pakistan, when a drone missile hit the field, blowing her grandmother to pieces before her eyes, and wounding her and her siblings. Receiving no apology or acknowledgement of the attack from the Pakistani or US governments, Nabila along with her father and older brother overcame tremendous obstacles to travel from her remote village all the way to the US in an attempt to shed light on her story and that of many other innocent victims that have been forgotten as “collateral damage.”
For Nabila, however, there were no outpourings of love and support from celebrities, nor did the mainstream media provide the coverage that her story deserved. The Obama administration largely ignored the presence of the family and merely 5 out of 430 representatives showed up at the congressional hearing where the family gave its testimony. “I no longer love blue skies,” Nabila’s 13 year-old brother told Congress. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.” As Nabila sought answer to the question “What did my grandmother do wrong?” her story was discounted and failed to garner the support that Malala’s did.
The terrorizing presence of drones has caused serious damage to civilian life, from education to mental health, with some parents choosing to keep their kids from going to school while injured and traumatized kids have been forced to drop out. Clearly, the West’s refusal to acknowledge the plight of its own victims illustrates the blind spots in the Western narrative, which is bent on painting a perverted dichotomy between good and evil. As British MP George Galloway tweeted: “If Malala had been murdered in a drone-strike, the UK media would never have told you her name.”
No doubt Malala’s invaluable work and activism for girls’ right to education should be honored as indigenous advocacy. At the same time, however, a one-dimensional narrative around Malala that reflects our selective memory as to who we choose to make heroes and who we don’t should be rejected. Malala should not be used as a human face to the “War on Terror,” nor should her story be appropriated to serve a militaristic agenda, or her plight exploited to morally sanctify the use of drone attacks, which kill civilians like her.
To fully champion the cause of human rights, it is imperative to recognize the biases and contradictions underpinning our current narrative, which tends to exploit the voices of people like Malala to serve particular ends, at the expense of silencing the West’s own victims in both non-Western and Western societies.
Arwa Awan is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying History and Government.