The Representation/Appropriation of Malala Yousafzai and Subaltern Issues

Firasat Jabeen
Clemson University


Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani female education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was shot in the head by a Pakistani Taliban gunman on October 9, 2012. While this incident nearly killed her, Yousafzai rose to prominence afterward because of her persistence in defying the Taliban’s oppression for female education. Malala’s struggle is undeniably noble, and she has been successful in voicing her concerns on national and international levels.

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani female education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was shot in the head by a Pakistani Taliban gunman on October 9, 2012. While this incident nearly killed her, Yousafzai rose to prominence afterward because of her persistence in defying the Taliban’s oppression for female education. Malala’s struggle is undeniably noble, and she has been successful in voicing her concerns on national and international levels. Nevertheless, a number of scholars (Ali 2012; Baig 2013; Hazir 2012; Safi 2013) blame the Western media, particularly the US media, for appropriating her story in order to advance the US political and imperial agendas. Driven by these concerns, my presentation analyzes the representation of Malala Yousafzai by a US newspaper—The New York Times, specifically—with a particular focus on the Times documentary titled Class Dismissed in Swat Valley: The Death of Female Education. NYT correspondent Adam B. Ellick made this documentary in the summer of 2009, almost three years before Yousafzai’s shooting incident. Through a rhetorical analysis of this documentary, I argue that the NYT’s coverage on Malala, which is overly obsessed with the portrayal of the Taliban as the enemy, does not give a holistic picture of female subalterns.

Although Yousafzai had already started to become prominent as early as 2009 because she wrote a blog for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Urdu, Ellick’s documentary also contributed towards her fame. As a matter of fact, this documentary made a significant contribution in introducing Malala as a prodigy raising her voice against the torment that the Taliban inflicted on the people of Swat, her hometown and a northwestern city in Pakistan. In this context, my presentation elucidates two main arguments: (i) the NYT’s representation of Malala bears the signs of her appropriation, which suggests that the coverage is aligned with US political interests, and (ii) the fragmentary coverage is biased; thus, it raises the questions of female subaltern issues in Pakistan. By the increase of subaltern issues, I mean that females appropriated by the West are a pretext for advancing their imperial agendas rather than taking concrete measures to explicate complex power structures and devising ways to empower these women.

The overall delineation of Ellick’s documentary shows the brutalities of the Taliban in Swat and the prevailing feelings of fear and uncertainty through the eyes of an eleven-year old Malala and her father, Ziaudin Yousafzai. Earlier, Ellick had an idea to film a documentary on Swat that showed the atrocities of the Taliban; however, according to Malala in her memoir (2013) (which Yousafzai co-authored with Christina Lamb), Ellick noticed Yousafzai’s passion for education and her sadness over the idea of not resuming school because of the Taliban, and so he decided to focus on Malala as a lens through which he could show the Taliban’s wrongdoings in his documentary (p. 159). This is also evident from Ellick’s own views published in the NYT a year after Yousafzai’s shooting incident. In “Documenting a Pakistani Girl’s Transformation” Ellick mentioned that he was awed by the news of the Taliban opposing schools for girls in the Swat Valley and thought that the coverage of this news by Pakistani media was not “aggressive” enough. This suggests that Ellick undertook the making of his documentary to unveil the savagery of the Taliban in a “more aggressive” way. The overall depiction of this documentary further endorses this argument.

One cannot stress enough that Malala Yousafzai is a brave girl who, despite the oppression of the Taliban, wasn’t discouraged in her quest for education. But the fact remains that Ellick’s documentary played a significant role in making her popular. Conceding this fact, in “Documenting a Pakistani Girl’s Transformation” Ellick wrote that “[his] reporting [documentary] certainly heightened the family’s status, and sparked their appetite for recognition.” Ellick further argues that the broadcast of his documentary drastically changed the family’s life— “donations poured in, awards arrived, dignitaries visited” (“Documenting a Pakistani Girl’s Transformation”). Even Ziaudin Yousafzai received a free trip to the USA by the American Embassy. A careful analysis of this documentary and its comparison with the newspaper’s coverage of the same personality in the following months reveals that the NYT extensively focused on presenting the Taliban as a problem in Pakistan. In this case, the appropriation of Malala Yousafzai’s image raises the issue of objectivity and impartiality in the journalistic practices of the NYT. I shall return to this argument shortly. Let me first show you some glimpses from Ellick’s documentary; these quotes were transcribed from clips from the documentary:

Text 1: In Swat, Pakistan, schools for girls are under assault by the Taliban (00:46-00:52). His [Zia-u-din Yousafzai’s] 11-year-old daughter, Malala faces the end of her education (05:07-05:14).[Malala speaks] In the world, girls are going to schools freely. And there is no fear. But in Swat, when we go to our school, we are very afraid of Taliban. He will kill us. He will throw acid on our face. And he can do anything (10:00-10:22).

These clips (transcribed in paper as Text 1) reveal that the documentary essentially focuses on the Taliban as an emerging problem in Pakistan, especially within the context of female education. The documentary focuses on this problem through the case study of Malala Yousafzai. In order to emphasize his argument, Ellick has incorporated Yousafzai’s views too. Moreover, Ellick repeatedly asserted Malala’s sufferings and her determination to fight against the Taliban’s atrocities. Consider another clip of the documentary:

Text 2: [Malala speaking] They [the Taliban] cannot stop me, I will get my education, if it is in home, school or any place. This is our request to all the world that save our schools, save our world, save our Pakistan, save our Swat (13:45-14:00).

Along with these narrations, there is a detailed coverage of the Taliban’s wrongdoings in Swat, which includes gunfire, missiles, mutilated corpses, public flogging, people protesting on roads against the situation of insecurity in their area, and people migrating from Swat as a result of an ongoing military operation.

An intriguing part of this documentary is when Ellick manifests the efforts of the US government to eradicate these problems in Swat. A clip in this documentary shows that Richard Holbrooke, an American diplomat and President Obama’s top official in the region, meets with Malala Yousafzai when she is on her way back to Swat after Pakistan army’s successful operation to curb the Taliban in Swat. Before I proceed with my argument on Malala’s appropriation, I would like you to see that selected clip from the documentary:

Text 3: [Malala speaking] I’ll request you all, and respected ambassador, I will request you that if you can help us in our education—so please help us (24:53-25:02).

In response to Malala Yousafzai’s plea, Holbrooke says that:

Text 4: We’ve pledged well over a billion dollars for economic aid; we’re working with your government on the electrical problem, but your country faces a lot of problems, as you all know (25:05-25:15).

Here, the portrayal of Malala Yousafzai and the American ambassador’s assurance of helping her country reminds us of the “White Savior Complex,” whereby the NYT’s specific portrayal is not only representing and “saving” brown women, but we also see the ‘re-presentation’ of Gayatri Spivak’s sentence that she crafted about 30 years ago, i.e., “White men are saving brown women from brown men” (92). In other words, once again, we are back to the situation where white people are using brown women for advancing their imperial missions of civilization. I can explain this situation better with the help of an example about the NYT’s coverage of Malala Yousafzai after the shooting incident.

After the shooting attack on Malala by a Taliban gunman, the NYT, like other newspapers, had extensive coverage of her. The NYT editorialized Malala several times; famous columnist Nicholas Kristof, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, and Adam B. Ellick all contributed op-eds. Besides covering the news of Yousafzai’s recovery in the UK, her doctors’ views on her surgery, and protests in Pakistan in the support of Malala, the NYT had a considerable coverage of Yousafzai’s first public appearance after the shooting incident at the United Nations in New York where she addressed a Youth Assembly on her sixteenth birthday in July 2013. However, the NYT offered no coverage of Malala Yousafzai’s second visit to United Nations in September in the same year where she addressed the Global Education First initiative. Arguing against the War on Terror, in this address Malala pleaded to fight terrorism through education. In order to elucidate my point, I would like you to see this clip from her address:

Text 5: [Malala speaking] Instead of sending tanks, send pens; instead of sending soldiers, send teachers; instead of sending guns, send pens. Fight terrorism through education. And let me remind you once again that one book, one pen, and one teacher can change the world (“Send Books, not Guns, Malala Pleads at UN,” 00:16-00:41).

Here, Yousafzai’s message is clear, strong, and appealing. Contrary to the fact that various Pakistani newspapers—including Dawn and The Nation—as well as international newspapers—including The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, and The Independent—published Malala’s message, the NYT has yet to find the newsworthiness for the publication of this event. Yousafzai’s clarion call to fight terrorism through education, rather than a so called War on Terror, in this address is not aligned with the political interests of the US, and hence, to the interests of the NYT, whose journalism, according to Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, appears to be highly affected by the propaganda model. At any rate, for a newspaper that has a strong contribution in making Malala Yousafzai known to the world, skipping her coverage when she visited the United Nations in their own backyard, so to speak, is a perfect case in point to elucidate the argument of Malala’s appropriation.

My argument for Malala’s appropriation is not confined exclusively to coverage on this particular event. As a matter of fact, Yousafzai has raised her voice at multiple forums for defeating terrorism through education. The absence of her message in the coverage of this US newspaper is something I find troubling. While portraying the Taliban as an impending peril for Pakistan and for the world, too, the NYT’s coverage tends to disregard her powerful message. After discussing my argument on the appropriation of Malala Yousafzai, I will now talk about the fragmentary portrayal of Malala that raises the concerns of persistent female subaltern issues. To repeat, Ellick’s documentary and the subsequent coverage of Malala Yousafzai by the NYT reveals that this newspaper gives a great consideration to the Taliban as a significant problem. This portrayal, however, lacks a thorough consideration of the factors that have led to Talibanization in Pakistan.

The Taliban are a product of a specific mindset nurtured in Pakistan under the patronage of the US to defeat communist forces in Afghanistan. In order to quell them, it is important to root out the ideology of Talibanization. Fighting the Taliban without fighting Talibanization would be like mowing the grass and then waiting for it to regrow. Eradicating Talibanization, however, entails taking on the responsibility for past political endeavors. Here, this historical consideration for the formation of Talibanization mindset is something thoroughly absent in the coverage of Malala Yousafzai. Lila Abu-Lughod’s rhetorical question about saving Muslim women is quite pertinent here. While responding to the US media’s inclination for saving Afghan women during the 2001 Afghan war, Abu-Lughod asks: “[w]hy was knowing about the culture of the region—and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women—more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the United States’ role in this history” (31)? Although several Pakistani analysts, in the wake of the Malala shooting incident, have written about the development of Talibanization in Pakistan, such holistic handling of the issue is absent in the coverage by the NYT.

Moreover, the NYT’s Malala Yousafzai portrayal presents the Taliban as a significant problem that the world needs to deal with. In “Malala Has Won” Syed Fazl-e-Haider has argued that “Malala is the victim of Talibanization, the radical mindset spawned from a theocratic and obscurantist interpretation of Islam.” The US government’s obsession with the Taliban is also evident from the ongoing military drone strikes on Pakistani soil since 2004. Again, in “Malala Versus Extremism: Not Taliban, But Talibanization,” Fazl-e-Haider contends that any military effort against the Taliban, without working on Talibanization, would be fruitless (73). The heavy portrayal of the Taliban as enemies seems to be a reasonable and defensive justification for imperial and territorial encroachments. Speaking of the heavy portrayal of the Taliban as enemy and the appropriation of Malala Yousafzai by the NYT, this situation corroborates the proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In fact, in the case of Malala’s activism and the US imperial aspirations, both of them had a common enemy—the Taliban.

While the NYT’s coverage reveals that the US media tacitly used Malala and apparently gave her a platform through Ellick’s documentary to raise her voice and let the world know about her sufferings, the female subaltern issues in Pakistan still remain unheard, unseen, and untouched. Talibanization is a grave problem for a country that is already dealing with the issues of ongoing extremism, militancy, and insurgency. Without paying any heed to this grave problem, the situation of female subjugation unfortunately persists. This is not just one Malala; thousands of such girls have fallen victim to this ideology. The cause of Malala Yousafzai is great and her determination is exemplary. However, the specific coverage of her messages bears the traces of subalterns and marginal groups who struggle to have their voices heard. The Malala Yousafzai case presents a strongest available example of “epistemic violence”—as Spivak would argue—whereby foreign people tend to show the problems of subalterns as they would like to see them. Such biased or selective representations do not sufficiently address subaltern issues, as my paper argues through the example of Malala Yousafzai.


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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.


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