A lot of folks have asked my opinion recently on Malala Yousefzai and her advocacy for the cause of girl’s education in Pakistan. I come to my opinion purely as a consumer of mainly Atlantic-centric media (or Anglophone media from the perspective of writers in Europe and America), and as an activist.
With that said, I think the lauding of Malala and the recent granting of ‘Malal Day’ at the U.N. is indicative of a particular worldview that has become quite problematical for people who neither support an imperialist nor an Islamo-centric world view. I should be careful to qualify here that I do not see the two as equivalent in terms of the power they yield, but rather that neither has the political acumen nor the interests of ordinary people at heart.
Whilst I do not agree with those folks who I would describe as conspiracy theorists, putting forward the idea that Malala is an agent of the CIA. I do, however, believe based on her public statements, that even at her tender age she promotes a certain vision of the multiple issues at play in Pakistan that is politically useful for those in power in the US, Europe and at the UN. Her desire to advocate for the education of girls in Pakistan is undoubtedly an aim worth supporting, but it does not mean that we cannot have a critical understanding of what she presents and promotes.
It is for this reason that the recent letter written by a Taleban commander, Adnan Rasheed, is of particular importance. My impression from watching news and reading articles is that the letter presents some uncomfortable points of view, and has thus mainly been down played by Malala and the public relations firm that represents her.
Firstly, it is interesting to note that Adnan admits that it was the Taleban who are responsible for shooting Malala and 14 other girls on a bus in Pakistan. This has put to bed critics who claimed that other groups, not the Pakistani Taleban, were responsible. Yet where Malala claims the reason for this attack has to do with her education advocacy, Adnan’s letter puts forward another claim. He writes that girls’ education is long a part of the history of Islamic civilization, and therefore is not contrary to the particular political aims of the Taleban (this of course is questionable). It was, however, Malala’s-in his words- “smear campaign” against the Taleban that provoked the attack on her. Now again for those who might jump on me here, I do not think anyone agrees that a legitimate response to the pronouncements of a young girls can include assassination attempts. The difference of opinion about why Malala was targeted reveals a narrative that is more complex than the story is usually presented to us.
I will not go too far into the politics of present day Pakistan, especially those transpiring in its north-west provinces (sometimes referred to as the ‘tribal areas’), but to say that it is often reported that the Taleban blows up schools, especially girls schools, because they do not wish girls to be educated. However, as Adnan writes, and other media sources reveal, this is not the entirety of the story. It seems to me, rather, that schools are used by both the Pakistani Taleban and the Pakistani army as places to store supplies, plan attacks, etc. Is it convenient for the Pakistani Taleban that some of these schools are also for girls and they can essentially kill two birds with one stone? I would say yes. But I do not think that the campaign in these areas necessarily focuses on bombing girls schools for the sake of it, but like many tactics in a protracted conflict, it is a part of a larger strategy. I do not think the Pakistani government is involved in the Swat region out of some sort of feminist mission, and thus it is necessary to examine these things in further detail.
So if we take for example the perspective of the Pakistani Taleban that Malala was in fact engaged in assisting the Pakistani military in a propaganda war against the Talebs, it puts her claims that she was targeted merely for promoting education for girls into a more complex light.
On another level, we have to remember that this is an area of the world that has been highly politicized and that there are wars being fought on several battlefields at once. The conflict in the Swat Valley of Pakistan is related, though not the same as, the battle in neighbouring Afghanistan. And like Afghanistan there are local, regional, and international stake holders that play their roles in the conflict. Part of the complexity is that in a world where things are so globalized the actions and events on all three of these different levels can affect each other sometimes simultaneously. Just as the situation where the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Qur’an brought about riots in cities across Afghanistan, so can the speeches of a 16-year-old girl have reverberations around the world.
Where the rhetoric used by Adnan Rasheed in his letter to Malala comes across to many Atlantic-centric people as anti-Jewish and promoting a Islamo-totalizing view of our collective future. So too, do the words Malala used in her speech at the UN come across as political to many in the Islamic world. The best examples I can give are her using the words Taleban and terrorist interchangeably throughout her speech. I think we have become so used to the media equating the Taleban with terrorism that we almost forget that this framing comes off as pejorative both to the Talebs and to those who see the Taleban as fighting on their behalves. If Malala is a representative of Pakistan, her equating the Taleb fighters as terrorist sends a certain signal to them about the government’s willingness to negotiate with them and the concerns and communities that give rise to their existence.
Malala specifically calls Pakistan a democratic country, though the military that was helped through her pronouncements against the government acts with impunity, especially in the so-called ‘tribal areas’ where Malala is from. According to many international reports, Pakistan’s penal code and specifically its laws against blasphemy have been used to target both women and minorities. Other issues such as the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and broad human rights abuses and exploitation of communities in Baluchistan in addition to the ‘counter-terrorism’ policies of the government paint a disparaging picture for the prospect of meaningful democracy – and it is precisely these sorts of human rights issues and abuses that give rise to groups such as the Taleban. Where religious ideology and political aims meet in transnational militia groups like the Taleban we call it ‘terrorism’. When these are well funded and under the cover of the authority of a state we call it ‘freedom’.
These are precisely the reasons I believe that it is imperative for activists and concerned people of the world to examine the narratives that are placed in front of them for consumption. There is definitely room to feel a sense of pride for a young person who experienced great hardship and tragedy in her aims at advocating for girls education in Pakistan. But that story was just too simple.
As a long time activist on issues to do with the Middle East, I have had to learn to be quite critical of my epistemic framework or at least the one I was socialized with growing up as an American entering my formative intellectual years at the same time as the US began its ‘Global War on Terror’ (what we activists call the Global War OF Terror). The worldview that is presented us in media, especially media that has proven itself to be uncritical of power time and again (see this very good talk on the subject of the media and the Iraq war by acclaimed Egyptian journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous). We need to question people when they use terms like ‘terrorist’, ‘warlord’, ‘Taleban’ and even ‘women’s rights advocate’. We have to remember that there are powerful systems in place, political and economic, that rely on certain narratives that are ultimately self serving, keeping elites in power at the expense of ordinary people. We need to understand that all over the world people have different and varying world views based on their experiences, needs and desires and whilst we all seem to want ‘peace’, ‘education’ and ‘democracy’ the differentiations of power and histories of oppression leave us with very different abilities to achieve these goals.
Malala and many before have taught that the pen is mightier than the sword. I am beginning to believe that is quite true – but not in the way that she meant it. I think that the narratives that are put forward to hide certain kinds of violence, like that of the state or transnational capitalism, have become extremely powerful tools in the fight to silence the poor and working class people of this world. I think we need to wake up to that reality and fight against it as harshly and single-mindedly as we do in our struggles to promote the rights and education of women and girls.
I think Adnan Rasheed’s best points were made when he asked, “If you were shot [by] Americans in a drone attack, would [the] world have ever heard updates on your medical status? … Would you [have been] called to UN? Would a Malala day be announced?”
Would we have the courage to ask such questions to those who hold real power?