Why Malala Matters


While some are sceptical about the amount of recent media attention on Malala Yousufzai, Merium Kazmi contends that her cause is legitimate.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban after campaigning for girls' education, attends the first Global Citizenship Commission, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland on October 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ANDY BUCHANAN
Malala Yousafzai attends the first Global Citizenship Commission, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland on October 19, 2013. AFP Photo / Andy Buchanan

There aren’t many people who will confess to not knowing about Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for speaking out in support of education for girls in her native region of Swat. Even as you read this, news feeds are aggregating stories about this young woman and the recent spate of awards and honours she has received in recognition of her bravery and hard work promoting education rights for children globally.

While much of the world is rightfully excited by the feel-good aspects of Malala’s journey from a young activist to a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, there are those who question her meteoric rise and the inordinate passion with which global media continues to singularly promote her and her achievements.

Some have used her attack to justify the use of drones, emphatically suggesting Pakistan’s need to embrace the strategic advantages of drone strikes to curb terrorism.[i] The implication is clear: US military encroachment in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are hence justified because they serve to protect women and girls like Malala.

Yet most segments of the mainstream Western media have chosen to overlook the victims of drone strikes[ii] which, along with Pakistan’s military operations in South Waziristan, has displaced thousands more.[iii]  Assed Baig, a Huffington Post blogger, goes so far as to parallel Malala’s journey to the “white saviour complex” where “the white man saves the native woman from the savage men of her home nation”.[iv] Even the Taliban has justified shooting Malala by suggesting she was “pro-West”, a fan of US president Barack Obama, and so deserved to be brought to task.[v]

While her popularity continues to soar internationally, it has declined in her native Pakistan. Early on, much of the country remained united in the face of the tragedy that had befallen the young girl. Pakistanis from all walks of life came out to protest the attack on Malala,[vi] supporters held candlelight vigils for her,[vii] and local media treated her like a heroine – which indeed she was.

At the time, no one questioned her patriotism or her love for education. In the run-up to her shooting, Malala appeared on local news channels giving interviews and speaking candidly about life in the Swat Valley.  She also received a National Youth Peace Prize – the third-highest civilian award – from then Prime Minister Yousuf Gillani, for raising awareness about education and girls in her hometown of Mingora.

At the height of her visibility and prominence, Pakistan’s love affair with its “daughter” declined. Her speech to the United Nations general assembly barely got a passing mention on local news channels. People have lashed out against her on social media,[viii] calling her names and positing a number of conspiracy theories about her attack and her subsequent rise to fame.[ix]

New York Times columnist Huma Yusuf sums this up in what she calls the three main complaints of Malala’s critics: “Her fame highlights Pakistan’s most negative aspect (rampant militancy); her education campaign echoes Western agendas; and the West’s admiration of her is hypocritical because it overlooks the plight of other innocent victims, like the casualties of US drone strikes.”[x]

In an interview with the Atlantic, Malala attempts to refute some of the “oddball conspiracy” theories about her.[xi] Unfortunately, her recent meeting with President Obama has probably fuelled more backlash in Pakistan than anything else.

As annoying as it may seem to watch Western institutions and media outlets fall over themselves to save our women (while ignoring others), and as sordid as it may seem to suggest this, it bears considering – what might have happened to young Malala had she not survived the attack? Would she have become just another statistic in Pakistan’s fight against extremism? Would her legacy have served as an impetus for education reform in her homeland?

Take the case of Mukhtaran Mai (also known as Mukhtaran Bibi or Mukhtar Mai), the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped by members of an opposing clan as a form of “honour revenge”.[xii] Mukhtaran made attempts to seek justice only to watch helplessly as five of her six assailants were set free due to lack of evidence. She too received considerable media attention and accolades and, much like Malala, also garnered resentment and fury back home for attracting interest from the West. Mukhtaran would go from being a victim of gang rape violence, to becoming a champion of strength and bravery, then back to becoming a victim when her own countrymen, including her president, turned against her.[xiii]

Yes, Western media has a tendency to latch onto “women as victim” status, but had Mukhtaran remained silent (or committed suicide as is culturally expected or accepted of rape victims), she may have also become another statistic of sexual violence in the country, besides a handful of activists or a few op-ed columns protesting her case. Similarly, had Malala been “martyred” by the Taliban, no one would dare question her passion for education or her allegiance to her homeland.

Malala is not wrong to push an education campaign in a country where the adult literacy rate hovers at 55 percent (as of 2009)[xiv] and where GDP allocation on education is a dismal 2 percent.[xv] With approximately 21 percent of the population living below the poverty line, Pakistan is also not on track to meet one of the Millenium Development Goals of universal primary education.[xvi]

In a way, she has galvanised the development community with the “I am Malala” catchphrase, reiterating time and time again, how “one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”.[xvii] It is not a new idea, as the importance of education in poverty reduction is well documented – particularly the role that women, as child rearers and household managers, play in making that happen.

By now, it is not impossible to suggest that with an agent, a manager and a supportive father at the helm, Malala has benefited from the modern business of image crafting, which has turned her into a household name. With the world’s eyes on the young Pakistani, it is unsurprising that she and her family need help managing her time and commitments.

One report indicates that Malala has gained the support of Edelman, one of the world’s top public relations firms. Additionally, an employee of consulting firm McKinsey is chairing the Malala Fund under the auspices of former British prime minister Gordon Brown.[xviii] While corporate support for her cause is bound to raise more eyebrows and further the conspiracy theories surrounding her, many have conveniently forgotten what she has accomplished: she defied the Taliban and lived to tell the tale.

It matters little to her whether her attackers are foreign funded or locally supported, or even if a consortium of well-dressed men in shiny black suits are responsible. The Taliban hurt her and took away opportunities for a future in her own country. Luckily for her, she fought back and the world noticed.

[i] See for example, ‘Correction: Did a drone attack Malala?’, DAWN, 16 Oct 2012, available here, and ‘The power of one young voice’, CNN, 11 Oct 2012, available here
[ii] Chris Woods, ‘Drone War Exposed – the complete picture of CIA strikes in Pakistan’, The Bureau, 10 Aug 2011, available here
[iii] Dera Ismail Khan, ‘IDPs from South Waziristan begin hesitant return’, IRIN News, 9 Dec 2010, available here
[iv] Assed Baig, ‘Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex’, The Huffington Post, 13 Jul 2013, available here
[v] ‘If Malala survives, we will target her again: Taliban’, The Express Tribune, 9 Oct 2012, available here
[vi] Nicholas D. Kristof, ‘Her “crime” was loving schools’, The New York Times, 10 Oct 2012, available here
[vii] Peerzada Salman, ‘Candlelight vigil for Malala Yousufzai’, DAWN, 11 Oct 2012, available here
[viii] Omar Waraich, ‘Pakistan’s Malala Problem: Teen activist’s global celebrity not matched at home’, Time, 15 Jul 2013, available here
[ix] Zubair Torwali, ‘Malala Yousufzai and the apologists’, The Express Tribune, 16 Jul 2013, available here
[x] Huma Yusuf, ‘About the Malala backlash’, The New York Times, 18 Jul 2013, available here
[xi] Abdul Hai Kakar, ‘Interview: Malala Yousafzai defends herself against oddball conspiracy theories’, The Atlantic, 8 Oct 2013, available here
[xii] Saeed Shah, ‘Pakistan court frees five alleged attackers in gang rape’, The Guardian, 21 Apr 2012, available here
[xiii] Harris bin Munawar, ‘Rape and rhetoric’, The Friday Times, 29 Apr 2011, available here
[xiv] ‘Literacy rate, adult total’, The World Bank, available here
[xv] ‘Improving education: Hike in education budget necessary’, The Express Tribune, 6 Oct 2012, available here
[xvi] ‘Infographic on Pakistan’s MDGs status for 2012’, UNDP, 1 Sep 2013, available here
[xvii] ‘One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world’, The Express Tribune, 12 Jul 2013, available here
[xviii] ‘Malala Inc: Global operation surrounds teenage activist’, AFP, 11 Oct 2013, available here

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