Who is Malala Yousafzai?

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A Heroic Advocate or A Traitorous Puppet?


Inspirational, courageous, heroic, advocate.

Here are written accolades of adoration showered upon Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager campaigning for the education and empowerment of girls. Since her rise to fame in 2012 Malala has ventured across the world stage speaking at prestigious forums such as Harvard University, the oval office and even the UN headquarters. Politicians and celebrities have voiced their support for the young advocate, some even joining her crusade including ex British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She has become the symbol for one of the world’s most imperative goals: Education. In her own powerful words, “One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.”

But who would apply these less savoury terms to the young champion?

Traitor, puppet, blasphemer, pawn.

With adulation comes hostility as Yousafzai has attracted scorn as well as support. Critics from both the Eastern and Western hemispheres have disliked and outright condemned the young fighter’s actions, making Yousafzai both an exemplary and controversial figure on the frontlines of culture, politics and religion. But how much of it is true? Taking away the media hype and speculation we ask the same question the Taliban militant asked before fatally shooting the girl.

Who is Malala?

Malala is not just another generic celebrity with fans and critics, what she stands for is so relevant and so debated in the 21st Century that discussions surrounding her cannot be entirely dismissed. It must first be acknowledged that any famous figure either dead or alive will endure both love and hate from the public. Once you step onto a public stage you are dissected and scrutinised by a ruthless audience of journalists, bloggers, analysts and of course, the general public. Even the most beloved global figures have received their share of criticism, Nelson Mandela for instance, a worldwide icon of peace has repeatedly been denounced as a terrorist and communist in his lifetime. So perhaps Malala is fair game to this, she is undergoing the same polarised reactions that any famous person would.

Malala’s biggest denunciation is her perceived loyalty to the much maligned West. Drone attacks for example conducted by the US equate to, in Pakistan’s eyes, a wide attack on the entire country. Columnist Cyril Almeida explains:

“It’s about what she’s come to embody, the idea that militancy and the war on Taliban is an externally imposed war on Pakistan. The fact she is being feted globally and in the very capitals of countries regarded by conspiracy-minded people as hostile to Pakistan and Muslims — that is seen as evidence there must be something going on.”

So has Malala completely ignored this issue? The teenager did actually address drone attacks with President Barack Obama in their much publicised meeting, stating,

“The first thing is that, it is true that when there’s a drone attack the terrorists are killed. But 500 and 5,000 more people rise against it and more terrorism occurs, and more bomb blasts occur. I think the best way to fight against terrorism is to do it through a peaceful way, not through war.”

When asked about Obama’s response she said his reply was “pretty political”. This shows the need to remember that Malala is an advocate, not a politician, at least not yet. Whilst she cannot change world policies she can perhaps begin a dialogue on such controversial issues which we can all contribute to and, perhaps, someday change.

Indeed the country of Pakistan seems to be split on its opinion of Malala, whilst some of her countrymen such as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have lauded the teenager as “the pride of Pakistan”, many have labelled her a CIA operative, traitor of the West and even claim her shooting was all part of a conspiracy. It is puzzling to see her fellow citizens turn against her but this may be part of a pattern with Pakistan and its history of achievers. The first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize for Physics was Pakistan born Abdul Salam who pioneered ground breaking work in particle theory. However Salam was born into the Muslim minority group of Ahmedi’s who were heavily discriminated against and not considered real Muslims according to Pakistani law. After Salam’s death his grave stone was vandalised, where the inscription “First Muslim Nobel Laureate” was erased by orders of a local Pakistani magistrate. It seems that in both cases the winners of international acclaim are judged based on who they are connected to rather than what they have fought so hard to achieve.

We then come to the cultural and religious debate Malala has sparked where critics argue that Western powers are using her story as an opportunity to introduce more secular system in Pakistan. Leading women’s rights campaigner Humaira Awais Shadid argues as much, claiming, “The West wants to gain from Malala’s real story, an agenda that suits them or the policies they want.” In her memoir, Devotion and Defiance, Shahid argues that Pakistani women do want more education, independence and freedom from violence but that does not mean rejecting the positive influence their religion has had in their lives.

However Malala proudly wears her headscarf in public and has stated she believes Muslim women’s lives can be improved within a religious environment. Even before addressing the UN in her 2013 speech she began with “In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful”.

But what about the other Malalas around the world who are still fighting for their education and their lives yet receive no publicity? Have we forgotten about the two other girls who were also injured in the shooting, why have their names and stories been pushed to side to make way for Malala’s? Now this is not necessarily Malala’s fault but it does raise a valid point about the fight for her goal and that is simply this.


The need to separate the individual from the fame.

The young advocate launched the ‘Malala Fund’ which aims to educate disadvantaged children around the world. Though an effective start, fellow Nobel peace prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has rescued and educated approximately 100,000 child labourers in India as well as aiding 83,000 children from 144 countries. Malala needs more time until she can make such a scale of a difference. How much responsibility can be put onto the shoulders of a 17 year old girl? We need to separate Malala from the hype and adulation and refocus our sights on the girls and boys around the world who are still in need of our help.

Maybe the real question is what are we doing about the fight for education?


For more information on the Malala fund and how you can donate, visit www.malala.org

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