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Photo Source: AFP-Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 179, 20 July 2021

The "I-am-not-Malala" narrative



Three reasons why Pakistan loves to hate a young Nobel laurate

Criticism against Malala and her work is not new and stems from deep-rooted sexism, ignorance and anti-West sentiments.

Apoorva Sudhakar

The feature of a 23-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the British Vogue has caught the attention of Pakistan. A Nobel laureate, admired across the world for her advocacy of girls' education since she was shot by the Taliban in 2012, has mostly received hate from her home country. 

The anti-Malala criticism: Not a new phenemenon in Pakistan
On 13 July, Geo News reported that the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) - which has over 200,000 schools under it - had released a documentary titled "I am not Malala Day." The APPSF President said, "We mark this day, 12 July, as a black day and in our schools we are teaching our students to shun the ideology of Malala;" 

12 July also marks Malala's birthday. The backlash draws from her remarks on marriage in the British Vogue interview wherein she said, "I still don't understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can't it just be a partnership?" To this, the APPSF opined that she was propagating Western values and maintained that marriage is a Sunnah and "partnership is adultery" which is a sin in Islam. Further, he claimed that no Pakistani will "want their children to follow in the footsteps of Malala, even if she keeps on winning accolades and awards." ("All Pakistan Private Schools Federation launches anti-Malala documentary," Geo News, 13 July 2021)

Prior to this, on 12 July, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) raided the Oxford University Press office and confiscated textbooks for printing her picture in a list of key personalities, which included Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Major Aziz Bhatti Shaheed, and the like. However, the PCTB officials reasoned that the textbook had not obtained the No-Objection Certificate (NOC). (Imran Gabol, "Grade 7 book seized in Punjab for printing Malala's picture," Dawn, 13 July 2021)

However, the criticism against Malala is not new; the backlash started within a year of the Taliban's attack on her (2012), when she delivered a speech at the UN on her 16th birthday in 2013. She is viewed as a "Western agent" who allegedly wants to shame Pakistan. In 2013, the APPSF members were barred from buying her book titled "I am Malala" on claims that it contained "anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam content." At the time, the APPSF President said the book, written by Christina Lamb, showed that "Malala has nexus with Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin, and also has alignment with Salman Rushdie's ideological club." Some of her critics also deny Malala's views and maintain that she was lying about the Taliban campaign in Pakistan, terming it an American agenda. There are similar "conspiracy theories" afloat in Pakistan, including that Malala's father had planned all of it - from campaigning for education to ordering the Taliban to target her. ("Pakistani schools network observes anti-Malala day," Dawn, 10 November 2014) ("Despite Nobel win, Malala hated by many at home," Dawn, 15 October 2014)

The above criticisms and disbelief in Malala are characterised by the following three issues.

1. The deep-rooted sexism
An opinion explains, "rather than embracing female survivors of hideous, politically motivated violence, Pakistanis prefer them to shut up and go away, not to use their ordeals as a platform to campaign for justice." An averseness towards a "liberal" discourse among women has been on the rise over the past few years; take the example of the Aurat March launched in 2018, which has been under attack from the conservative circles. The cause has been criticized by many and similar to Malala's advocacy, has been seen as "western mores corrupting" Pakistani women. These arguments also hold that there are several other victims of the Taliban; then, why should Malala receive the attention and not them? ("Aurat March of Pakistan: The decoding of Mera Jism Meri Marzi or My Body, My Choice," Gulf News, 5 March 2020) 

Apart from the above, Malala has also been scrutinised for her personal choices, including her choice of clothing; in 2017, when she was seen sporting jeans and heels, she was met with hate online. This stems from a necessity among men to control a woman; be it her education, career or body. This is because, "Pakistanis are prone to using women as easy political targets to vent cultural anxiety" and an independent woman is seen as a threat to the country's integrity. (Zoya Rehman, "Relax, Malala's jeans aren't an assault on your national identity," Dawn, 23 October 2017)

2. Denial and ignorance of what Malala stands for
An opinion says the criticism crops up because Pakistanis do not know what to stand for and hence, are susceptible to conspiracy theories and confuse themselves about what is right and wrong. For example, a common man is unlikely to know about the Malala Fund, which pushes girls' right to education and operates in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Turkey, Lebanon, India, and Brazil - or her #booksnotbullet campaign. It is, therefore, easier to believe the conspiracies mentioned above and propagate that Malala stands for anti-Islamic values even though the reality contradicts these claims. For example, Malala's statements like the following are often ignored: "...Muslim girls or Pashtun girls or Pakistani girls, when we follow our traditional dress, we're considered to be oppressed, or voiceless, or living under patriarchy. I want to tell everyone that you can have your own voice within your culture, and you can have equality in your culture" (Sirin Kale, "I Know The Power A Young Girl Carries In Her Heart": The Extraordinary Life Of Malala," British Vogue, 1 June 2021)

Further, accepting Malala's claims would mean accepting the failure of the political leadership; therefore, politicians have also indirectly fuelled the anti-Malala narratives, for example, through victim-blaming in several instances. Take the example of Prime Minister Imran Khan's statement linking rape to obscenity. Though said in a different context, the logic stays the same, wherein the argument holds that "people deserve what happens to them." Amongst the commoners, it is, therefore, easier to argue that if Malala and her father had not been so adamant about her education, she could have avoided being shot. Therefore, by promoting such views, the critics conveniently ignore "gaffes of their head of government." (Bina Shah, "The Malala backlash," Dawn, 16 July 2013) (Shahrukh Nawaz Raja, "Why do we hate Malala?," The News International, 9 July 2021) (Dr Bela Nawaz/Dr Sana Hussain, "Women empowerment and victim blaming," The Express Tribune, 15 July 2021)

3. The anti-West sentiment
Malala has been a star in the West since 2012 or prior to that when she was blogging for the BBC as an 11-year-old. By spreading awareness about the Taliban campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and later Pakistan, Malala has drawn significant attention to problems of militancy in the country. However, Pakistanis have viewed the West with suspicion for decades and therefore, Malala's popularity feeds into their anti-West emotion.

Further, the representation of Pakistan is sensitive wherein Malala has been attempting to address the militancy plaguing parts of Pakistan for ages. Whether a Pakistani wins prestigious international accolades does not matter, "if that honour is obtained by putting forward a 'negative' view" of Pakistan. (Syed Kamran Hashmi, "Why is Malala so controversial?," Daily Times, 30 July 2015)

This sentiment was evident when Pakistanis refused to acknowledge the achievements of Dr Abdul Salam, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy or the like. 

Malala as an individual vs Malala as an idea 

First, the above factors reflect that the criticism is targeted at Malala as an individual and what Malala stands for is lost in the noisy debate. It is understandable that people desire a positive image of their country at the global level; however, without acknowledging and addressing the problem, it is impossible to paint the desired image. What Malala's cause highlights - lack of access to education for girls, gender gaps in education in Pakistan - is a reality.

Second, Malala had received support and was treated as a braveheart for the first few months after she was shot; however, the short-lived mass admiration shows that personalities are acceptable to the public as long as they stay within an imaginary line; once the person's story becomes are a threat to the image of the country, there are consistent efforts to bring them down. 

Note: Parts of this PR Insight was published as a short note on the PR Evening Briefs here.


Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As part of her research for Pakistan Reader, she studies issues relating to environment, gender, minorities and ethnic movements in Pakistan.

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