Why we feel the way we feel about Malala Yousafzai

Why we feel the way we feel about Malala Yousafzai

She is symbolic of our deepest hopes but also our greatest failures, and that's troubling for Pakistanis.
25 Apr, 2023

On Women’s Day this year, I sat down with a copy of Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism. It looked like a promising read that I hoped would address questions about feminism that I had had in mind for a long time. As I was reading, I wondered if the book would explain why we feel how we feel about Malala Yousafzai. There was no mention of her so far, so I turned to the index and looked for something under M. The first entry was Martin, Tess. But surely it would be under Y, I told myself. The only entry in Y was Yemen. I sighed.

Malala Yousafzai is conspicuous in her absence in Against White Feminism, considering how well the grounds were laid for explaining why the youngest Nobel laureate, a global celebrity and children’s books’ icon, has elicited responses so varied and disproportionate from her own country-people. Ever since Malala was flown to the United Kingdom for surgery after she was shot by the Taliban in 2012, she has only gone up. And yet, a lot of Pakistanis have been loath to give her credit for her remarkable ascent.

For a young girl growing up in early 2000s Swat, Malala was bold, brave, and inspiringly outspoken. What subsequently made many people uneasy was not that Malala was not what she was made out to be, or that she was not one of our own — she was both — it was the enormous interest that the world showed in her; the endless fascination, borderline fixation, that practically made her the face of Pakistan.

When I couldn’t find Malala in Against White Feminism, I entered her name, along with Rafia Zakaria’s, in the Google search bar. The top result was an article in The Baffler titled ‘Free Malala’. In this article, Zakaria writes, “[Malala’s] scars remind everyone [in Pakistan] of their shameful inability to protect a young girl who spoke out for girls’ rights to education.”

This is true. In many ways, Malala represents our failings as a state and as a society. Her person holds a mirror to so many of the wrong decisions we have taken, stuck with, and suffered for — decisions premised on the assumption that the state was greater than the sum of its parts and that the parts could be compromised in what, by some definitions, was the service of the state. In a way, she has eternalised the image of Pakistan from a time when an existential threat effectively crept into our land. It is not a pretty image and we are more likely to be ashamed of it, not least because this threat is still not over and may well be creeping back in.

But this is not the end-all and be-all of it. The insecurity Pakistanis feel when they see Malala dazzling in the spotlight in her new world comes from a more deep-seated cynicism of the West. Malala is a Pakistani woman who was a hero in her own country, but whom the West turned into a global sensation. And though, as a people, we outdo ourselves every day in demonstrations of hatred and bigotry, I believe — with respect to a young girl who stood tall in the face of a threat we have lost, and continue to lose, so much to — our hearts were never in the wrong place.

Prior to Malala’s earliest appearances on our TV screens, she was already writing a diary for BBC Urdu, capturing what life was like under the Pakistani brand of Taliban that had taken control of the Swat Valley. Initially anonymous through an agreement with the BBC, it was Malala’s father who subsequently decided to go public with his daughter at a local press club event. This was no short of heroic on the part of both father and daughter, but the story that they were getting out into the world, though human and poignant, again reeked of embarrassment for Pakistan. As much as anyone would find this Pakistani schoolgirl’s diary impressive for its literary and political value, they would find the circumstances it was chronicling deplorable — a nuclear power, home at that time to over 180 million people, losing its writ in the north-west of the country to a force whose presence should in no way have been a surprise.

One cannot blame the international media for covering stories just because they are embarrassing for us, and one can certainly not blame those who are reporting them from the field at great peril to their own lives. But if the romance of Western media giants like the BBC with causes or individuals in our country triggers our apprehensions, it is not without reason.

There are countless examples of supra-narratives around issues of the developing world that take their shape in the West and, with the force of a juggernaut, swallow the original, smaller narratives that they were borne out of. In every example, the people to whom the cause belongs, lose their voice in and ownership of the dominant narrative. This loss of ownership initially breeds passive disenchantment with and, subsequently, active hostility toward the individual championing the cause — as in the case of Malala.

But was there ever a comprehensive attempt on our part to build a narrative around Malala or the countless others who were affected by militancy in Pakistan, then and now? For a country that cannot agree on where the problem lies or what the solution is, it is very hard to build narratives. It is, by extension, out of the question to compete in a war of narratives with a world that is very clear about its own interests, and sees in these narratives an opportunity to turn discourses into doctrines, justifying so many of the excesses that have wreaked, and sometimes nurtured, havoc in this part of the world.

Malala, at every level, represents one or the other failure of the country she hails from. She is then understandably, though not justifiably, at the receiving end of our collective projections of shame and guilt — and, perhaps, a tacit sense of loss. “Pakistan is in Malala’s past,” writes Zakaria in The Baffler, and it is all too clear given the activist’s current profile. Pakistan no longer has exclusive, or even special, claim to Malala’s attention. And it is no longer central to the person that she is today — unless it is to explain the circumstances that led to a bullet piercing through her head in 2012.