Malala Yousafzai has been speaking out for girls’ rights to education in Swat Valley, Pakistan, and against the oppressive regime of the Taliban since the tender age of 10 — long before she became a darling of the Western media. But through the media’s recently renewed obsession and essential co-optation of her story and cause, Malala and her incredible achievements have been reduced to yet another portrayal of the West as the saviors of the East.
We can’t deny the horrific acts of the Taliban regime or the fact that it has committed a gross violation of human rights in denying Pakistani girls the right to education. It is imperative that we see the deeper historic and racist narrative at play here.
For instance, take Jon Stewart’s interview with Malala. I usually enjoy watching his show, but his offhand comment about wanting to “adopt” Malala is both naïve and offensive. By even joking about adopting Malala, Stewart has made light of the fact that women are seen as property in many parts of the world. Although he may not have intended to commodify Malala as something even capable of being adopted, his seemingly innocent words further propagate the idea of a superior Western ideology and further the image of women as unequal. I’m almost positive Stewart wasn’t trying to support the troublesome neocolonial Western ideology of taking what isn’t theirs to take. Such a naive comment, however, did exactly that.
This “adoption” of Malala by the Western media has had several unforeseen consequences. Her own people are rejecting her as a “tool of the West.” One Pakistani blogger recently wrote, “It doesn’t matter if she denies (it). She is, what she is; that is, (a) Western puppet … Yes, you are an American puppet.”
It’s heartbreaking to see someone make as many personal sacrifices as Malala has only to be rejected by her peers and her motherland, not because of the Taliban’s target on her but because her own people’s offense at the Western media’s obsession with her and Malala’s seeming acceptance of such. Pakistani people have no reason to trust any Western actions toward them — no matter how benevolent they may seem. What with America’s use of international doctors as a means of getting to Osama Bin Laden without any communication with the Pakistani government or intelligence, why would the Pakistani people trust the West after all we’ve done?
Swallowing Malala’s story is much easier than casting a critical eye on the role the West has had in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria, which has contributed to a significant portion of the suffering that the people in those respective nations are undergoing. U.S. policy supported the rise of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, precursors to the Taliban, supporting radical jihadism and Islam as a retort against the Soviet Union and communist ideologies. Furthermore, U.S. military operations in Pakistan have ended thousands of innocent lives — actions that have gone largely unpunished and relatively unnoticed while the victims and their families have been sadly forgotten. It is not just the Taliban that is committing crimes against humanity. If the Western world wants to celebrate and take part in Malala’s advocacy for justice, it must first recognize all the different parties who have infringed on that justice, including its own policies — both historical and ongoing. Justice can’t be served selectively, for such justice really isn’t justice at all.
Still don’t believe me when I say Malala’s story is being unfairly co-opted? Then let me ask you this: Where are the names and stories of Malala’s classmates who were also shot, some of whom were killed? Where is the report on Perveen Rehman, a Pakistani social worker who was shot dead earlier this year in Karachi? Where are the commendations or Nobel Peace Prize nominations for Abdul Sattar Edhi, the elderly Pakistani philanthropist who runs the world’s largest volunteer ambulance service and is recognized for saving thousands of lives through his efforts? These stories go unheard, particularly the latter, because they do not fit the blinders of Western ideology of a brown Muslim man who is not a terrorist.
Western media have a long history of entering certain international “crisis” situations around the world, giving handpicked individuals a platform from which they can speak at a particular time. This occurrence has a tendency not only to suit Western political needs and causes but also to imply their own goodwill and big-hearted benevolence. It is this metaphorical patting-on-the-back that I have issues with: the co-optation of Malala’s work and success as Western work and success.
The Western states and their media have done nothing worthy of worldwide recognition. If you’re going to give Malala a platform to address change, then at least have the cognizance to recognize that she, and other young people like her, has been forced to take a stand for herself on her own for years. There should be more awareness that children such as Malala have had to stand up for their own rights and put themselves in danger when they should be protected by those who have more power, reach and agency to affect change.
Malala Yousafzai is a courageous, intelligent and determined young woman who has undergone countless struggles to shed light on issues that affect young women like herself on a daily basis. The Western world and media played no role in helping Malala with her struggles and subsequent accomplishments. We don’t deserve a pat on the back. It’s time we stop trying to take credit where it’s simply not due.
Smriti Joneja is a third-year student at UC Berkeley.