“I want to give my message to Pakhtoons, to educate their sons and daughters. Not just school, work on them so they treat every human being well…Teach them tolerance. Teach them how to tolerate the ideas of others and how to live in coexistence with others.”– Malala Yousafzai
In a Pakistani interview long before she became a household name, outspoken Malala shared her dreams of becoming a politician, gave advice on foreign policy (yes including drones), and thanked the Pakistani Army for their successful operation in Swat. Malala was a force to be reckoned with long before the Taliban shot her in the head for speaking out for the education of girls. And despite their best efforts, she is an even greater force to be reckoned with now.
Assed Baig in his article, “Malala and the White Saviour Complex” failed to understand the universality of Malala’s message and did not give her the credit that she deserves. This is not the story of “the weak native girl being saved by the white man,” it is the story of the bravest girl in the world. A girl with a voice so powerful she had to be eliminated. The West didn’t offer Malala protection when she was receiving daily death threats nor did a knight in shining armor rescue her when she stood face to face with the Taliban. She endured these threats alone without the tactical support of the world’s largest armies; let alone a bullet proof vest or a bodyguard.
Baig argues that although her message is true and profound it has been “hijacked by the West.” Therefore this coverage must be scorned and vilified. His very masculinity as a brown man and worldview in which the West must remain the enemy are brought into question when Malala receives a warm welcome by the international community. How can the West be the enemy and then do any real good? He cannot fathom doctors, activists, institutions, and politicians around the world engaged in humanitarian work unrelated to a larger racist narrative.
More troubling, he can not fathom Malala being a true inspiration to the West. As she spoke from the podium of the United Nations inspiring millions by her words as the likes of Pakistan’s little Mother Teresa — others such as Baig felt a sense of shame that a native girl stood on a world stage “unveiling” herself as the poster child for a narrative which dishonors the brown man.
Does Baig realize he is identifying every brown man with the Taliban? At the UN Malala demanded the strongest leaders in the world “…to change their strategic policies in favour of peace and prosperity,” as she averred the urgency to protect the rights of women and children. Since being attacked she has not hesitated a single day in speaking out against the Taliban. In meeting with President Obama, Malala reiterated the concerns back home about drone attacks. One wonders if a Muslim man had made such a fearless litany of demands to both world leaders and terrorists alike would Baig and others have referred to him as a “tool for the West” or celebrated him as a hero?
Remnants of Baig’s distrust eerily reminded me the rambling letter Taliban Commander Adnan Rashid wrote to Malala explaining that every perceived Western good must have within it a sinister plot, a suspicion so deep and twisted that he justifies the killing of polio workers and education activists. He offered Malala a safe return to Pakistan only if she study Quran at a Madrassa and reject a western education. He too accused Malala of being easily swayed and “using her tongue at the behest of others” depriving her of her own agency and ideas.
Similarly Baig’s argument seeks to confine Malala and place restrictions lest she become impure with Western exposure, sympathy, or indoctrination. Though it was the Pakistani military who cleared Swat from the hands of the Taliban and the Pakistani military doctors which removed the bullet from Malala’s head, Baig continues in making even her medical treatment in England a means of shame for the native brown man. Such divisive attitudes seek to perpetuate a cycle of hate, cynicism, and distrust. There seems to be no room in such a world view for reconciliation, redemption, or working together with “the white man” for common goals.
Furthermore it is a sexist narrative. Vilifying coverage of Malala’s message is another attempt to silence her. Comparing her to victims of violence who were not specifically targeted for their fierce activism (literally called out by name and shot in the head for only that reason alone) doesn’t make sense, even though their deaths are tragic and wrong. Extremists have intentionally killed far more people in Pakistan than any drone. They have deliberately destroyed countless Pakistani schools and vow to continue doing so. And if we are comparing, how many schools have the Taliban built?
As Malala Yousafzai stood on the world’s stage, she paid homage to her culture, her religion, her heroes, and her dreams. Her eloquent voice aligned with those of countless other girls whom she spoke for, and imagining them all standing before her gave her peace. Far from needing a savior she embodied a remarkable image of Muslim female leadership and power — she was the savior — the likes of that of Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, her ideal, and another woman attacked and killed by the Taliban. Her message remains that we must join hands with all people from all walks of life who support education, and that includes Gordon Brown. It echoes the highest ideals of her heroes who taught mercy, unity, forgiveness, reconciliation even with one’s staunchest foes, and also called for non-violence.
“Our words can change the whole world because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness…” Malala Yousafzia
Malala’s dreams have not been hijacked, she has been given the largest global platform in order for her to amplify her voice. Why should that disgust us? Shouldn’t it make us proud? It is not just the West, but also the East which lauded her with praise. Pakistan’s former President has awarded her the highest national award in Pakistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has named her the Education Envoy for the country. If Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for Global education is presently ‘using’ Malala, it is certainly not to spearhead another war, but to grant free primary education to all children — a campaign that Malala along with other Muslim Nations fully supports.
By denigrating Malala’s profound message as “western propaganda” Baig and those like him are doing far more to try to rob Malala’s dreams before they even come to fruition simply because it’s not the kind of “so-called propaganda” they would like highlighted. Yet the irony of such sensationalism is that had the media largely ignored Malala’s story, Baig would be outraged that the image of a courageous Muslim fighting terrorism instead of promoting it is not deemed news worthy. And had she succumbed to her wounds, the media frenzy around her would not have amounted to some sinister plot to use her as a “tool.”
Yes there are hundreds and thousands of girls like Malala who struggle, who are robbed of an education, who are silenced, and whom Malala now speaks for. But as fate has it, there is only one Malala Yousafzai the captivating activist, just as there was one Hellen Keller, one Benazir Bhutto, and one Martin Luther King. The world needs heroes because of their innate leadership qualities, electrifying charm, and resolute unshakable commitment to their dreams that make them stand apart from every crowd and inspire us all to higher ideals. Even the Taliban could long see that Malala is no ordinary girl, but is intensely special, and that’s why they still want her dead.
Those who want to paint Malala as an easily influenced “tool” and not as a strong young Muslim woman driving an inspirational campaign have failed to really listen to her message. They failed to know who Malala is and to know the message she has always stood for. We face a grave danger to our own advancement as a society if we label brave female activists who use an international platform as ‘tools’ or ‘traitors’ hurling an attack on the native man’s honor. Shouldn’t we instead rally to their causes as their biggest supporters as opposed to being cynical of their fame, and even join in applauding them when the world takes notice of our own heroes? Whose side are we on?
Meriam Sabih has a BA is English and Psychology from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.