On a fateful day in October 2012, an unhinged Taliban gunman boarded a bus full of schoolgirls in Swat Valley, Pakistan and demanded to know which one was Malala, threatening to shoot everyone on the bus if they didn’t comply. Once identified, he discharged his weapon once, shooting the 15-year-old girl in the head and gravely injuring, but not killing her.
What followed in the subsequent months is something I never really saw coming. A marked divide erupted in Pakistan on the topic of Malala Yousafzai, this teenager from the Swat Valley town of Mingora. There were people who adored her, sympathized with her, and then there was a counter-culture of people who seemed to despise her. As a Pakistani individual who places herself firmly and unapologetically on the side of Team Malala, it always flummoxed me to discover some of the vitriol against this 15-year-old. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the frigid feeling in the pit of my stomach the first time I heard an acquaintance critique Malala. So I had to ask myself, why? Why so much hate? And is the criticism justified? This required me to wade into the depths of the World Wide Web, compile a list of the most commonly quoted reasons for disliking Malala Yousafzai and tackle them head-on. Join me down the rabbit hole, folks.
First, some background information because it’s imperative to understand the context of the situation. When the Taliban gained control of Swat Valley in 2004, Malala recounted that it was on the platform of promising a more efficient form of governance and a better life, using the name of Islam as a prop to garner an emotional response from a population who held a firm belief in their faith. This façade began to slip by 2007 with the onset of increasingly Draconian punishments. Acts of terror such as bombing schools, calculated to consolidate power by instilling fear, increased in frequency. One particular Ramadan saw the intentional decimation of generators that facilitated the provision of electricity and water. The Taliban banned any woman, young or old, from attending school, or university, or even going to the local marketplace. Public spaces were no longer open to the women of Mingora. Malala claimed that this escalating extremism is what spurred her to speak out to media outlets like BBC, at the tender age of 11, about her determination to get the education that she was now being denied.
So why all the hate? Below, we parse through a few statements made over the years by those most critical of Malala and her rise to fame:
1) There were other girls injured on that bus too. Don’t they deserve protection? It seems suspicious that this one girl, Malala Yousafzai, was launched to worldwide fame, and relocated to the United Kingdom.
Now this is a lofty one. It’s also the first, and most commonly quoted reason for ‘Malala-hate.’ A lot of this might be based on sensitivity owing to the widespread belief in Pakistan that Western interference is what aggravated militancy in Pakistan in the first place. That’s a loaded conversation for a different day because the crux of the matter is that Malala didn’t just pop into existence one fine day. She hadn’t been planted or recruited. She had been continuously speaking out against the Taliban since the age of 11, and even if we hadn’t been paying attention to her from the start, the Taliban had. We need to stop acting like she started existing the day she was shot. She had been campaigning for her beliefs long before that incident. And yes, there were other girls on that bus. Two of them, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, were also injured and courageously spoke out in the immediate aftermath about what transpired that day. I can’t even imagine the strength it would have taken to come to terms with an experience as horrific as having a gun aimed at you. That is a separate matter entirely. The matter at hand is that a deranged group of men had decided that Malala was the one they had to target on account of her vocal defiance. No one else’s name was on their hitlist. Just Malala Yousafzai. This is something they have stated, loud and proud. Make no mistake, Malala was not shot arbitrarily to send a message. This was not a random act of terrorism. This was a targeted assassination attempt against a girl who dared to speak out against injustice and a misogynistic rule of law. They wanted to eliminate someone who they saw as a serious threat to their dominant power structure. As a result, Malala and her family relocated to England in a justified act of self-preservation and there is not a single thing wrong with that.
Sure, on the surface, having something like this happen in Pakistan may not depict the nation in the most flattering light, but make no mistake, the second we allow someone to deny anyone access to public spaces, or an education, we have a serious problem. I cannot emphasize that enough! The fact that this happened in Pakistan is wholly arbitrary. The issue Malala is fighting for is global, thus this goes far beyond nationalism or patriotism. If anything, the fact that something as heinous as a teenager being shot for voicing her opinions happened on Pakistani soil should be a political and moral call to arms for Pakistanis everywhere. As far as I’m concerned, we should be elevating her as a symbol of the stubborn resilience of the Pakistani spirit. Despite threat after threat, Malala defiantly spoke out for what is right. She stood stout in the face of a toxic ideology that demanded she yield to a misogynistic worldview and she spoke out because no good can come of denying anyone an education, or the right to have agency over their own lives.
2) What has she actually done to deserve all this attention? She hasn’t done anything special.
Once again, this comes down to the fact that Malala had been bringing media attention to the brutal conditions in the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley for several years. She had been bringing global attention to the fact that the right to an education was snatched from every girl under the Taliban’s tyrannical regime. Perhaps her motives at the time weren’t on a global scale. She was just an 11-year-old girl who wanted what was taken from her, but little did she know, she was shining a spotlight on a serious issue that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A lack of education is at the source of almost every problem that exists so denying that Malala has done anything special is like saying the whole issue of denying someone an education is a non-issue that doesn’t deserve the light of day because it simply isn’t a real problem. Can we really say that? That girls being denied an education, an equal chance at independence and empowerment, isn’t an issue? Can we? Because let me just say, if this is such a non-issue, why did the Taliban think it was worth putting a bullet in a 15-year-old’s skull?
Malala has done something special. Every ounce of positive media attention to this very serious topic is a win. Malala brought a serious issue to the forefront and that should be celebrated, not looked upon with suspicion.
3) If Malala isn’t just trying to gain fame by ingratiating herself to a Western discourse of bashing Pakistan, why doesn’t she support girls in other Muslim countries like Syria? Why not speak out on the Rohingya genocide?
To counter this argument, I’m going to quote straight from the Malala Fund website: “Malala Fund’s key initiative — the Gulmakai Network — supports the work of education champions in developing countries and speeds up progress towards girls’ secondary education around the world.” Currently, the website presents specific details of the Malala Fund’s support for work being done in Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. To quote Malala directly from her appearance on a 2013 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:
“…I want people to support us in this cause and through Malala Foundation we want to work for education of girls in the developing countries, especially in Syria now. They are suffering, they are homeless now. We want to help children in Afghanistan because they have been suffering from terrorism for decades. We want to help the children of India as well because they are victims of child labor, so I think issues and problems are enormous, but the solution is one and it is simple, that is education.”
Malala has been speaking out all along. Perhaps some of us just haven’t been listening closely enough.
4) She’s just being dramatic.
This is an opinion I’m not entirely sure how to take seriously. This young woman was shot in the head for speaking out against the status quo. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis. Shot in the head just for speaking out against a power structure that she saw as unjust, damaging, and cruel. It literally doesn’t get more dramatic than that, and in spite of this horrific experience, she refused to back down, and used the attention garnered by this cowardly act to bring light to an issue she is passionate about.
5) If she’s really so brave, Malala would have stayed in Pakistan to continue her education there. Instead, she finished off her higher education in England, and is currently enrolled in an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford. A picture of privilege. She claims she loves her country and her religion, but look at her donning Western clothing instead of her traditional salwar kameez. She’s seamlessly adopting a Western narrative, and she has gained more personally than anything else.
First and foremost, let’s not forgot that Malala left her homeland because the Taliban vowed to attempt another assassination. Agreeably, there’s no denying that Malala Yousafzai has gone from strength to strength. Enrolling in a degree at the prestigious University of Oxford, as she currently has, might have seemed like a distant dream to her at one point. Tell me this though, is there something wrong with taking advantage of wonderful opportunities when they are presented to you? Would we fault anyone else for doing exactly what Malala did? Somehow, I don’t think so. A girl who fought for her right to an education ended up at one of the top universities in the world despite taking a bullet to the head for her convictions. If that isn’t an ideological defeat for the deranged men who attempted to put a stop to her vision, I don’t know what is. Sure, she’s gained a significant amount personally as far as her education is concerned, but as far as I can see, Malala Yousafzai has channeled the attention of her worldwide following to the plight of millions of girls globally and as a result, it’s hardly a stretch to believe that the cause she has chosen to dedicate her life to will benefit from any knowledge she gains from her higher education.
As far as her choice of clothing is concerned, anyone who can’t see the blatant sexism in policing a woman’s clothes has completely missed the point of what Malala is fighting for. Choosing your own clothing is autonomy at its very basic. Clothes don’t define your character and they most certainly don’t define your loyalties. Malala has proven, beyond any doubt, that her loyalties remain to ensuring every girl gets access to 12 years of education globally, a basic human right that is denied to approximately 130 million girls worldwide.
So, why do I believe that this culture of hating Malala is toxic? Why do I believe we lose out when this type of thinking prevails or is instilled in people? Simply because a lot of these arguments are based on toxic ideologies that get in the way of the greater good. The policing Malala’s choice of clothes and the opportunities she has been afforded inhibit our ability to see the good she is inspiring. Now, I’m no spring chicken. I know that I can’t change everyone’s mind and my intention isn’t to stand on my little soap box, preaching myself hoarse. My goal here isn’t to insist that everyone should magically start liking Malala. My goal is to kickstart a healthy debate, to encourage critical thinking where ‘Malala-hate’ is concerned.
Malala has always been publicly vocal about how proud she is to be from Pakistan. And if that’s not enough, if the Western accolades still seem distasteful, separate them from what Malala has taken a stand for since the age of 11, a full four years before she was shot.
So you don’t like Malala? You think she’s pandering to the West? You think she became the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate when she didn’t earn it? You think she isn’t deserving of all this attention, that she lucked out, that people are making a bigger deal of her than necessary? Fine. Don’t support her? Fine. Go right ahead. Don’t support the girl. But why not support the cause? What she is speaking out for, what she stands for is a real issue, one that robs populations of their autonomy for generations to come. Some believe that Malala was a hero when she represented a progressive side of Pakistani society but that when she was relocated to the United Kingdom for recovery, she was taken as an individual rather than as a product of her Pakistani roots, or as a representative for her country. But Malala has always been publicly vocal about how proud she is to be from Pakistan. And if that’s not enough, if the Western accolades still seem distasteful, separate them from what Malala has taken a stand for since the age of 11, a full four years before she was shot.
The day the Taliban realized that a 15 year-old girl was a threat to their being is the day they told us exactly what we needed to know; that Malala wasn’t speaking up for the importance of Western influences, or anti-Pakistani sentiment. She was speaking up for autonomy. Independence. Empowerment. She was speaking up against the dangers of misogynistic worldviews. Those are the things at stake here, and if we lose sight of that just because a few people dislike Malala Yousafzai, then we play into the narrative of the heinous cowards who justified shooting a teenager, and they get one step closer to winning this particular ideological war.