Becoming Human: Malala Yousafzai and the Politics of Representation

by Carlo Ceglia

Malala. It is enough to say her first name. How did this 21-year-old Pakistani girl – the youngest, as well as the only female Pakistani, to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2014) – become one of those very few people to be known just by their first name? What about her story is so special that made the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown say, ‘We should think of her as everyone’s daughter’ or made the UN launch the Malala Day on the 12thJuly 2013, Malala’s 16th birthday as well as her first public speech after the almost-deadly Taliban attack nearly a year before? In other words, as many Pakistanis wonder to this day, ‘Why Malala?’ and not, for instance, the child victims of US drone strikes in Waziristan and around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Is she, as some have said, ‘a potential tool of political propaganda to be utilised by war advocates’? There is a widespread sentiment in Pakistan, cutting across a variety of social classes, that ‘she is now being used — rather, misused — in the West by portraying a wrong image of Pakistan as a violent and anti-women society’.


The focus of this post is, quoting Gillian Whitlock’s epigraph in Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit (2007), ‘not on the reality of the Other [Malala and the political/social unrest in the Swat region] but on the circumstances of its construction and the “we” who play and are played by this language game’. I analyse a range of representations, mainly her literary account I Am Malala: The Girl of Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) and the discursive articulations of her story in the major Western English (read: American and British) media.  I will show that some of the concerns felt in Pakistan cannot be completely disregarded under the ‘conspiracy theories’ label: Malala seems to fit, even if in much nuanced ways, the rhetoric of the old colonialist trope ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak 1988:92), especially through the reframing of Western feminism discourse of individual self-empowerment and human rights activism. In this way, the narrative still perpetuates the stereotypical idea of oppressed Muslim women in need of rescue, fighting oppressing Muslim men and suffocating ‘traditional’ cultural practices (Abu-Lughod 2002). The effect is connected to ‘a politics of piety’ that legitimizes and recognizes only certain types of suffering as a call for action and where ‘instead of a face-to-face engagement of compassion to relieve the suffering of the Other, the suffering is generalized, decontextualized, and mapped onto a mass of people.’ Malala represents not just a girl from the Swat valley, but symbolises the entirety of victimised Muslim female – regardless of  their place, age, social contexts, and personal histories – inasmuch as the totality of Muslim men are re-inscribed in the long-standing banner of illiterate, oppressive and hateful individuals.

Malala has been given continuous media coverage since at least 2012, when she was shot by the Taliban (October 9) while returning home from school. Ashish Thomas and Narain Shukul’s analysis of the main American, British and Pakistani English print and alternative media (2015) shows that there are three moments around which the coverage of Malala has been most intense: (1) when she was shot and then moved to England for the recovery, (2) the subsequent period where she rose as a brand name, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and published her autobiography, and (3) when she won the Nobel Peace Prize and became fully acknowledged as a human rights advocate working around the world (through, but not only, the Malala Fund). Thomas and Shukul describe this coverage as falling under three categories: positive reports, that see Malala ‘as an activist, a victim of terrorism, and as a role model’ and are sympathetic towards her cause; negative reports, that are ‘critical towards Malala’s cause, gender and action’ and consider her a tool in the hands of Western powers that want to impose their hegemony on the Pakistani state; and neutral reports, which are “simply interpretative without having any ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ elements” (ibid.:228).

Malala Day pic

In the early coverage (October 2012-January 2013), seven out of ten The New York Times headlines used the phrase ‘girl shot by Taliban’ and did not mention Malala’s name in any of headlines. The same pattern is identifiable in the BBC editorials and blog posts of the period. All this suggests how ‘media presentations liberally provide background information about the atrocities committed by the Pakistani Taliban’ (ibid.:231), stressing what Assed Baig has called the ‘white saviour complex’ where an innocent brown girl – shot by Muslim savages – waits to be saved by the white man, perpetuating ‘a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalized’. February 2013-September 2014 sees the development of the so-called ‘Brand Malala’, through the launching of the Malala Day, the Nobel Peace Prize nomination, a visit to the White House and the publication of her autobiography. These events produce, in most Western media presentations, ‘dominant civic frames with the sub frames of terrorism finding lesser ground as compared to peace and education. Here, we see how the media helps build the ‘Brand Malala’ as a construct seen through the eyes of a dominant political hegemony’. The third phase (October 2014-January 2015),furthers the decontextualizing and depoliticising process to make Malala a global political icon that fights against all sorts of child exploitation, from the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Syrian child refugees’ crisis. As Thomas and Shukul conclude, ‘western media’s initial narrative of terrorism and Taliban makes a departure from conflict to a civic frame capitalizing on the potentiality of Malala as a political commodity’ (Ashish Thomas & Narain Shukul 2016: 237).


The turning point in this departure, I would suggest, happened at the time of the publication of Malala’s autobiography I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) – co-written with the British journalist Christina Lamb – which interestingly, but not surprisingly, also marks the beginning of a much more widespread movement in Pakistan against her (see Almeida 2013, or the ban of the book by the Pakistani Private School Associations). Her autobiography can be included in the circuit that Whitlock, in her discussion of the plenty of ‘veiled bestsellers’ that came out after 9/11, calls ‘soft weapons’: this kind of life narratives can personalize and give voice to the stories of those usually unheard and unseen; but, on the other hand, can also be easily appropriated as a form of propaganda, considered as ‘a careful manipulation of opinion and emotion in the public sphere and a management of information in the engineering of consent’ (Whitlock 2007:3). Whitlock defines as a key feature of these autobiographies the fact that they are in transit: they are ‘on the move in unpredictable passages across cultures, vital to the imaginative work of modern subjectivity and struggles for a place to speak in the public sphere’ (ibid.:4). They are commodities that travel in specific and contemporary ways in the global market so that they are ‘constantly caught up in circuits of self-construction, where Islam is objectified as the obverse of Euro-American societies that self-identify as “the West” […] “The West” can only be defined relationally. It is not a geographic location but a locus of symbolic and grounded power relations emanating from the United States and Europe’ (ibid.:7). Subsequently, life narratives such as Malala’s autobiography tell us as much about how we, in the West, engage with the Other through such cross-cultural encounters as they express in which ways we identify and shape ourselves in relation to it. Said differently, I would go so far as to say that most of these life narratives express more about how the West negotiates and images itself through these encounters, rather than depict ‘the reality of the Other’ itself.

Malala’s autobiography can be conceptualized as a ‘public pedagogy of affect’, that is to say is one of all those sets of cultural expressions which are not part of formal schooling contexts, but nonetheless ‘do the educative work of teaching us about how to feel and think about Muslim women and girls’ (Khoja-Moolji 2015:541). The very first paragraph of the book reads:

When I was born, people in our village commiserated with my mother and nobody congratulated my father. I arrived at dawn as the last star blinked out. We Pashtuns see this as an auspicious sign. My father didn’t have any money for the hospital or for a midwife so a neighbour helped at my birth. My parents’ first child was stillborn but I popped out kicking and screaming. I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children. (Yousafzai 2014:9)

The reader is engaged, from the very beginning, with replicating a very familiar script about oppressed Muslim girls locked up in cultural and/or religious traditions, which becomes the common framework throughout the whole narrative. In addition to that, a number of themes are present in the text that can be easily traced in other life narratives of this kind too: the question of honour, arranged marriages, jihad, sharia law, 9/11, veiling and purdah, flogging and the banning of music and television (the last two connected to the Taliban takeover in the region). Particularly when it comes to the horrors committed by the Taliban, both towards women and those men who dared to stand in their way, the descriptions acquire much more intensity and details (for example, see Chapter 12 “The Bloody Square”). Following Khoja-Moolji’s reading (2015:546-549), these illustrations tend to divert attention ‘from understanding the intersectional causes of violence against women and instead point toward religion and culture as the primary sources of abuse’. In this way, she concludes, the structural arrangement of Yousafzai and Lamb’s book reiterate the binary opposition of modern/tradition and oppressed/free and, at the same time, articulate a whole range of desires – through Malala’s and his father’s voice – that ‘map onto that which might be familiar to Western feminist audiences’. Hence, in its architecture, I Am Malala seems not to produce any newknowledge about Muslim collectivities, either female or male, but rather reinstates already-made assumptions and ‘truths’ about them that are easy to consume for a Western audience.


One of the strongest and most influential figures in Malala’s life, which emerges clearly in the book as well as in all the other narratives dealing with her persona, is her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. He is credited with playing the leading role in shaping her as an individual and, consequently, as a political activist in the Swat valley. He is presented as a very passionate man, a hard-working, socially committed person who believes in equality between male and female (he opened a school for girls in Mingora, the city where they were living in the region) and shares everything with his wife – something which, we are said, is not very common among the men of the region. And yet, Ziauddin remains a figure in the shadow: he always appears, in the book and elsewhere, as a lonely fighter against the injustice of the Taliban, supporting a non-violent campaign for girls’ rights in a region infested by poverty, illiteracy, and cultural/religious backwardness. The autobiography does not provide us with a more nuanced picture of the region’s political and social background to better position Ziauddin’s complex networks of activities and political interests or Malala’s years of social training guided by her father. In short, the account tends to flatten out the region’s historical intricacies in favour of an easy-made narrative of ‘us (Ziauddin/Malala and their ‘Western’ inclinations) against them (Taliban/Pakistani state)’. For instance, it is mentioned nowhere that, in Swat, was active a branch of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) – a worldwide Marxist organization – that had been running for a few years a National Marxist Youth School Summer camp in Swat to which Malala and her father took part. Reading the school’s reports(see Kamyana 2012) reveals the kind of commitment and politics close to the organization, which had an extremely critical and insightful understanding of the region’s political situation (especially in relation to the rise of extremism and the role that both the Pakistani government – under dictators like Musharraf – and foreign powers – mainly Bush and the other US administrations – played in determining the destiny of the region). As Afzal-Khan points out, it is here that Malala ‘is beginning to realize the nexus of capitalism, religious fundamentalism, and imperialism which works to keep the people down. Yet, this is NOT the Malala we meet when we read her memoir, because of the normative framework of “individual voicing as empowerment” she was made to fit into by her co-author and publisher’ (Afzal-Khan 2015:165).

The ‘individual voicing as empowerment’ seems quite a useful concept to try and answer the question posed at the beginning of this post and that is troubling most Pakistanis: ‘Why Malala?’. In reviewing Malala’s autobiography for The Guardian, Fatima Bhutto writes:

‘She is young and the forces around her are strong and often sinister when it comes to their designs on the global south. There is a reason we know Malala’s story but not that of Noor Aziz, eight years old when killed by a drone strike in Pakistan; Zayda Ali Mohammed Nasser, dead at seven from a drone strike in Yemen; or Abeer Qassim Hamza al Janabi, the 14-year-old girl raped and set on fire by US troops in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. “I wasn’t thinking these people were humans,” one of the soldiers involved, Steven Green, said of his Iraqi victims. It will always be more convenient for the west to paint itself as more righteous, more civilised, than the people they occupy and kill.’

Thus, Malala’s story is inextricably caught up in a wider human rights discourse – supposedly promoting universal values, but always UN-centred – that has become the dominant vocabulary of human dignity and empowerment. Yet, as Bhutto notes, this vocabulary is not readily applied to any human being, but only to those subjects/objects that are produced in and through such discourses in such a way that are considered to be fully human, so that ‘the politics of human rights advocacy’ is strictly connected to ‘the constitution of the (non)(sub)(in)human and the process of dehumanization’ (Khoja-Moolji 2017:379-380). In other words, what makes Malala’s suffering distinctively human, in comparison to, for instance, the 14-year-old girl Abeer? As Butler asks, ‘what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?’


Human rights discourses, then – far from being an apolitical and ahistorical set of values always applicable to everyone and everywhere, no matter the specificities of space, location, time and culture – prescribe the ethical standards that define what is normativelyhuman, that is whose life is grievable and whose life is not. Malala’s story inhabits that space – enabled by contemporary human rights regimes and specifically constituted to suit her and other Muslim girls’ stories (to remain in the Pakistani context, for example, the case of Mukhtar Mai) – that Khoja-Moolji has termed the‘chain of vulnerability-suffering-empowerment’ (2017:383). The analysis put forward so far has shown how Malala has been constructed, in a wide range of media and to a certain extent less consciously in her autobiography, as a particular vulnerable subject (or it would be better to say, object) whose suffering is grafted, alternatively, onto the illiteracy and backwardness of the Taliban (read: the collectivities of Muslim men) or the Pakistani state. Nonetheless, Malala also expresses – and here comes the last link of the chain – a self-empowered subject, capable of standing up for what she considers her rights as a Muslim, as a girl and as a human being. However, as Khoja-Moolji points out (ibid.: 390), such a conceptualization of empowerment is narrow, because it produces an idea of self-empowerment as an ‘individualized act’ where there is no space for discussion or communication among the different parties, nor any space for an alternative (decolonising and pluralistic) paradigm to what it means to be human in different contexts; but position the subject – equipped with the language of Euro-centric human rights – in direct opposition to ‘local configurations of patriarchy, families, or communities’, re-proposing the ‘us vs them’ narrative. In short, she observes

‘Dominant public representations of victim-subjects such as Mukhtaran and Malala in and through archetypal frames of vulnerable women, threatening men, or a vulnerable/threatening state do little for the project of extending our understanding about others. Instead, they reify the binaries of human/monster and the contours of othered identities. What we are left with, then, are reductive story lines that produce stable, knowable third-world subjects.’ (ibid.: 391)

Therefore, Malala’s battle is appropriated, reconstructed and buttressed by Western feminist activists as well as human rights advocates as long as it portrays the West ‘as more righteous, more civilised, than the people they occupy and kill’. Malala’s life turns out to be valuable – and grievable – only when objectified once again, a tool in the hands of bigger players that empowers the already-powerful and leaves the voiceless in need of rescue.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to shed some light ‘on the circumstances of the construction of the Other’ (quoted in Whitlock 2007) – in the figure of Malala Yousafzai – in order to assess how this functional production of knowledge is carefully managed to bring forward a specific kind of understanding of the Other that responds to a pre-determined political agenda. Today, Malala is living in England and she has just started her studies at the University of Oxford. Despite all that she is been through, she is still terribly young and her story is beginning just now. The future will tell us if she will be able to exert a ‘degree of agency over her own “branding” as the individual Muslim Pakistani heroine’ (Afzal-Khan 2015:163) and will be able to break the chain.

Carlo Ceglia  is a current postgraduate student in the MA Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation, University of Sussex, UK. Prior to this, he earned a MA in South Asian Area Studies at SOAS, University of London.


Selected References:

Abu-Lughod, L., 2002. Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Other. American Anthropologist, 104(3), pp. 783-790.

Afzal-Khan, F., 2015. The Politics of Pity and the Individual Heroine Syndrome: Mukhtaran Mai and Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. Performing Islam, 4(2), pp. 151-170.

Almeida, C., 2013. Hating Malala. The Dawn.

Ashish Thomas, E. & Narain Shukul, R., 2015. Framing of Malala Yousafzai: A Comparative Analysis of News Coverage in Western and Pakistani Mainstream English Print and Alternative Media. Media Asia, 44(2-3), pp. 225-241.

Khoja-Moolji, S., 2015. Reading Malala – (De)(Re)Territorialization of Muslim Collectivities. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 35(5), pp. 539-556.

Khoja-Moolji, S., 2017. The Making of Humans and Their Others In and Through Transnational Human Rights Advocacy: Exploring the Cases of Mukhtar Mai and Malala Yousafzai. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(2), pp. 377-402.

Spivak, G. C., 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak?. In: C. Nelson & L. Grossberg, eds., 1988. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, pp. 271-313.

Whitlock, G., 2007. Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.

Yousafzai, M., 2014 [2013]. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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