Monday, July 15, 2013

I Am Not Malala

The story of Malala Yousafzai is one the world public knows well (or, at least, should) and there is not a soul who hears it that is not moved by her courage. Having been a long-time reader on the issues of girls' education in the tribal provinces of Afghanistan and Pakistan, thanks to such dedicated titans as Greg Mortensen, I found myself elated that the atrocities being committed against these innocent women were being given the attention that they deserved. The issue of the Taliban and its primitive attitude towards women is a blight on a rich culture that needs to be addressed with a permanent solution. Their actions are, to put them at their mildest, crimes against humanity. 

Because of this, the rallying spirit of Ms. Yousafzai was a beacon to all who identified with this secular endeavor. When she strode to the stage at the United Nations, her words conjured fire in the hearts of all who listened.

"So here I stand. I speak not for myself, but [so] those without voice can be heard. . . . They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed." 

But behind all of this well-deserved admiration and recognition, there was something painfully distracting. Everywhere, there were the banners for the support campaign called "I Am Malala" -- profile pictures on Twitter were symbolically blindfolded with the words; during the presentation of the Reflections of Hope Award, thirty-three women stood in a line, holding signs that advertised the same slogan; a music video for a song with the same title debuted on YouTube and racked up several thousand views. All around, young women were taking a stand and identifying -- empathizing -- with the struggle of Ms. Yousafzai, and thereby the struggle of all young Middle Eastern women. 

Let me clear the air immediately and say that this campaign is a brilliant campaign -- its heart is in the right place, so to speak. I support its cause and its patrons. This group and all groups like it are the backbone of the movement, along with educators, donors, and human rights activists, that has made a tangible difference in the shadow that the Taliban has cast in Western Pakistan. That being said -- the phrase "I Am Malala" is rather the most misleading, disingenuous piece of sloganeering I have yet read, especially when considering the people who don it so vibrantly. 

In order to put things in perspective, realize that the moment one says that "I Am Malala", it means that they identify with the issues that Malala and her comrades faced -- or rather are facing. It means that one has the slightest notion of how it must feel to live in a culture where the feminine personality is cloaked as heavily as the feminine anatomy; where the issue of education is a life-or-death arena in classrooms pock-marked with the shrapnel-blasts of previous assaults; where women literally sit atop rubble and count the missing among them. This unworthy description is merely a flash of the horror. 

Then, if you will, imagine the specific struggle of Ms. Yousafzai herself -- the bone-crunching chill of being shot in the head at close range; the agonizing recovery process and the terror that must have set in when her fame in the world had vulcanized her infamy with the Taliban. Picture how it must feel to know that a great number of women for whom she is fighting are now, because of her notoriety, infinitely more scared of attending school, fearing that the press and attention caused by Ms. Yousafzai will increase Taliban attacks. (I am inclined to agree with them.) Her incredible amount of courage is directly proportionate to the likely threat her life now faces because of her actions. The Taliban now has a public face that is challenging their rule in the tribal areas -- an icon like Ms. Yousafzai is one that they would wish to crush immediately. Even living in England, her life is in peril. Ask Salman Rushdie. 

And now, analyze yourselves, white women in secular America, for whom education is free, well-supplied, vast in criteria and broad in option; who have, from the moment you are born, the capability, resource, and power to do anything in the entire world that you wish; who not only attend twelve years of schooling for free but do so in secure zones, with administrations built specifically for your safety; who can sit in the same room with members of the male species and not fear divine or mortal retribution for the act; who can wear whatever you like; who can read without fear of death. I ask you with all due humility, my friends: are you Malala? 

The support for this amazing young woman and her cause is essential. We all are obligated to lend our voices and our means to alleviating the scar of religious malice and bigotry in all parts of the world where it exists. The "I Am Malala" campaign is attempting to do this very thing. But the parallel message that it evokes through its title is a contemptible lie, and boosts a false kind of altruism, an ersatz call-to-arms that is much more comforting to those who sound it than those who hear it. I will continue to boast the goodness of this campaign and everything it has accomplished, but let's please not allow the women's rights groups of America to actually believe that they are martyrs of the same cause, that they bear the scars of Bajaur and Khyber, Waziristan or the Wakhan Corridor. That effrontery and insult to the true victims needs to stop. You are not Malala any more than you are Bibi Aisha or Meena Keshwar Kamal.

Continue the solidarity; erase the facade. We will be of better help without it. 

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