These are not Pakistani girls. I chose them to illustrate this post about a Pakistani girl because they are Muslims.
Malala Yousafzai has earned far more than the West’s adoration. She has earned its serious attention. Specifically, she has earned for her culture and religion more than a self-serving Western focus on the girls of our enemies, one that removes Malala from her culture by making her its miraculous, inexplicable counterpoint, rather than its legitimate representative.
Malala isn’t the first hero whose achievement is diminished by this extreme exceptionalism. While the transcendent scope of her sheer courage may justifiably remain beyond our full grasp, the source of her self-esteem should not. The sub-text informing our dazzled praise eliminates any need Malala might ever have for damnation:
“Where did this girl COME from?
Where did a FATHER like hers COME from?”
We are stupefied when the answer begin and ends in Islamic Pakistan, and nowhere else. Evidently, here is a culture with all the ingredients necessary to produce a girl whose sense of self-worth makes Western claims of gender equity look like a puppet show. High in the ancient Swat Valley, in Pakistan’s Northwestern Province, where the first Buddhist Kingdoms are believed to have developed over 2,000 years ago: this is where we find Malala.
We find her in her culture, in her town, and with her family, specifically her father – who, rather than seen as a heretic by his fellow citizens, is regarded throughout the region as a hero.
“This is no elitist Karachi family with cousins in London,” journalist and filmmaker Adam Ellick, who documented the Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley told Time Magazine in October. “They are lower-middle-class peasants. They are villagers. Their relatives all live within a short walk.”
Amnesty International Pakistan researcher Mustafa Qadri stressed the point, “Ziauddin Yousafzai is a deeply religious man, in the best sense of the term. I remember him constantly talking about his Islam and that it tells him to get his daughter educated and to make sure that women get the same rights as men. Her father is very brave, very eloquent, as is Malala.”
Ellick confirmed ,” This is a story about a father and a daughter, more than a story about a girl…I can’t imagine being his child and not fully taking on everything he says…not having what he believes in become what I am going to believe in.”
But we are unable to see Malala in this context, because it makes the fact of her impossible for us. And so we make Malala her own context, an oppositional and miraculous representation of the West who has flowered via some kind of transcontinental osmosis, right under the noses of the Taliban – by which we mean Muslims.
In doing so, we become her enemies, not her champions. With the West’s irrepressible combination of ignorance, confidence, and aggression. we reduce Malala’s Islam, her ancient land, and its complex history to a larger than life individual who serves us as an agent of her own destruction.
She has repeatedly presented herself as representative, but we have made it impossible for her to be anything but an exception. The unfortunate result has been a diminishing of the girls for whom we had thought to claim center stage. That’s not a message they should get.
What if she’s right? Let us meet the girls with whom Malala clustered and talked, rode the bus and played, all the while mastering the great girl art of pouring out their hearts. Let us pay attention to the spiritual beliefs that sustain them.
Maybe we will discover a tradition of egalitarianism – an Eastern, Islamic thread, not a message dropped from a plane by Christian missionaries. Maybe this tradition reflects an ancient belief in the equality of all souls, even, as in the West, gender roles informed the political life of the broader culture. Maybe we will learn more than we want to know about the history of Islam and girls.
Maybe we will finally realize that the Taliban are the modern ones. They prove that cultures can indeed be driven mad by the trauma of constant rupture. When you are poor and the universe has been tipped on its head, you are vulnerable to reducing tradition to simplistic levels. That’s how you control the terms of resistance. I can guarantee – and I mean guarantee – that were it not for colonialism’s evil ravages, and the subsequent cultural, social, and economic degradation and inequity that has been visited upon the East ever since, the Taliban would never have evolved.
The East will deal with the Taliban. Islam will deal with the Taliban. What assistance we owe should be determined entirely by those who struggle daily in the villages of the East.
But U.S. imperialism? It will only feed the Taliban. Our endless occupation of their very lives and our evil drones will send enraged boys rushing to join its ranks, providing us with the excuse we need to reduce them to rubble.
The highest honor we can pay Malala is to respect her religion, her culture, and her history, and to demand the freedom of her people from the unbearable yoke of American oppression.
Black Panther Party Rally, U.S.A, 1970