How Not to Talk About Malala

Nov 2012

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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 American 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 so-called 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, are “civilized,” while others, like the Muslim world, are “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 so-called West invisible.

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 American 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.

Orbala, a Pashtun by ethnicity, is an Islamic Studies and Gender Studies scholar. She blogs at and tweets @qrratugai.

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8 Responses to How Not to Talk About Malala

  1. […] to the question, and they have risen to the occasion magnificently. Orbala, from Swat herself, responds to the instrumental uses to which Malala’s attack has been put, both by the so-called […]

  2. […] her as a young hero. I have since had time to reflect on that, especially when I came across this article in Tanqeed. You should go read the whole thing, but I will summarize a few […]

  3. […] possible agenda relating to Pakistan out there, whether she agrees or not. What is most worrying is the use of her name to further the pro-war agenda in the northwest, by both American and Pakistani armies—an agenda Malala herself has stated she […]

  4. […] person in Pakistan feel that the whole story was just a drama staged as a reason for West to justify their drone […]

  5. […] one needn’t subscribe to some grand theory of a Great Game to know that global icons are co-opted for political aims. This much is straight forward. That, to me, is the least interesting thing […]

  6. […] I’ve been critical of the narrative that the Western media has been feeding people (see How Not to Talk About Malala). Or sheep, should I say. Few have stood up to question it, and that’s mindblowing. No, […]

  7. […] who gains fame in the west must be some western puppet. Don’t get me wrong – I hate how the west has highjacked Malala’s story and is using it left and wrong for its own vested interests; but that doesn’t make Malala or he […]

  8. […] who gains fame in the west must be some western puppet. Don’t get me wrong – I hate how the west has highjacked Malala’s story and is using it left and wrong for its own vested interests; but that doesn’t make Malala or he […]

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