I Am Not Malala



Mistaken for ‘The Bravest Girl in the World,’ one writer shares her doubts that Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel win can bring about positive change in the Swat Valley.


By Abeer Yusuf


For the last year, we’ve been hearing a lot about this name: Malala.


In fact, so popular is the name that post-2012, if you type “Malala” into a Microsoft Word document, the word processor doesn’t create squiggly red lines underneath, which otherwise implies you must have typed a non-Anglicized name, and that by that extension, such a name must be a spelling mistake.


(My name’s Abeer, so I’ll always hold this grudge against spell-checking software).


I think Malala’s Nobel win is great. The fact that she is co-sharing it with another, both championing recognition for children’s rights and advocating for more, is fantastic. For a girl of 17, who has fearlessly defended her choices and clearly been punished for it, I commend her. It is not easy at 15 to stand up to your classroom bullies, let alone a network of people who have very defined views of what kind of education should or should not be encouraged. She has done excellent work in encouraging girls within her area to attend school and reap the benefits that so many of us in other parts of the world assume to be givens.


But my critique of Malala and her win begins with doubts that the prize will do what the young girl herself hopes her fame will bring—change in the regions where she grew up. For one, her spotlight and targeting by the Taliban may scare off other prospective schoolgirls who may have wanted to pursue an education. Malala, as she needed medical attention, was taken to Birmingham, England, where she now resides. She can’t return either, because the Taliban has issued a death warrant basically guaranteeing that they’ll get her by hook or by crook next time. How is someone who wants to create educational opportunities for girls in the Swat Valley going to achieve this if she can’t physically be there?


Jodi Kantor, in her New York Times article on Malala, looked at how young this prize winner is and expressed her own doubts—I agree; the Nobel for peace traditionally honours change already brought about through laureates’ efforts. Again, Malala is still a teenager, residing in England and not Pakistan—where education for all isn’t a radical concept or a far-off dream.


Her youth is often something we use to illustrate her remarkability as a young Gandhian. She’s had some major issues resettling in England, which she’s made very clear. Nobody is actually considering that she’s just a kid who’s upped and moved homes; no one can imagine what it’s like to uproot yourself from the only place you’ve known as home. If it’s hard for grown-up immigrants to do, imagine what it’s like for a 17-year-old!


What concerns me the most is what Malala’s name has come to mean politically. Let’s first make it clear that there are many more Malalas in Pakistan who’ve faced issues just as compelling and tragic. Nabila Rehman was in Washington D.C. last year to testify against drone killings—drone killings that took the life of her grandmother and other family members with little media fanfare to her name. Malala on the other hand, is now championed as the superlative “Bravest Girl in the World.”


Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi had to witness her entire family being murdered, then was gang raped, then killed by US troops in Iraq. Just so you know, her killer was not even given the death penalty, after being convicted. Steven Green eventually committed suicide earlier this year after being in prison for some time. Yet whenever Malala comes on screen, her narrative is trumped by words like, “Girl Who Miraculously Escaped The Taliban” or “The Girl Who Lived.” Why?


Clearly there’s an agenda that is at work here. Malala represents something dangerous. She gives the US the power to say, “Look, there are bad people out there and we need to protect people like Malala, girls like Malala who want to live their lives like us. We need to protect girls like Malala with our military—a couple hundred drone strikes every week. Of course we’ll miss our ‘target’ sometimes, but Malala will help us justify that.” By listening to the Western Malala narrative, we’re constantly re-learning and rearticulating that people like Malala need to be “saved,” that the Western occupation of those unruly lands—even if it isn’t said so explicitly—is necessary.


And that’s precisely the reason why there is so much ambivalence towards her fame and her glory in those unruly lands. It’s that many Pakistanis see through, or doubt what she can do, based on what she is being championed for. Don’t get me wrong, they’re really happy about this too. It’s great to have someone on a world stage and get to say that they’re from your country, but sometimes the side effects outweigh the positives of such a situation.


There’s another dangerous perception Malala brings with her—that every other brown Asian girl is Malala. Don’t believe me. Believe Mindy Kaling—she of The Office fame—who was at a party in New York recently where she was congratulated by an intoxicated man on winning the Nobel.


Of course Kaling is nice enough to laugh it off, but I’ve seen my Pakistani friends in Canada be asked incredibly thick questions about whether they face the same issues as Malala. Even the most learned of Western academics, who should know better, assume Malala’s story is somehow true of every single girl in Pakistan. It’s not. It’s frankly insulting that so many think one girl’s narrative is true for an entire subcontinent.