Indignation Without Reflection: Malala and the Western Imagination

Today’s post is from Prof. Saba Fatima, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.  Her research interests include Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory; virtue ethics; social and political within prescriptive Islam; and Non-ideal theory.  (More about Prof. Fatima’s research and teaching can be found at  Here, she considers the ways in which the narrative surrounding 2014 Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafza is often oversimplified, and has become a means of reifying an image of the Pakistani Other in the western imagination.

It is a proud moment for Pakistan to win its only second Nobel Prize (the first one was in 1979 to Mohammad Abdus Salam in the field of Physics.)  And while Pakistanis are very happy about the honor and the positive media coverage, some are a little wary of the narrative surrounding the award.

Very few dispute the circumstances through which Malala and her family persevered.  Her will to survive made her into a ray of hope for countless advocates for basic human rights.  She was constantly threatened in her village prior to the shooting but continued her message.  She was unrelenting in advocating for the rights of girls to educate themselves.  With her father’s support, she was vocal against the barbarism of the Taliban that were destroying the beautiful Swat Valley.  After she was shot, she neither became silent nor did she forget her country.  Despite this trauma, she became more determined and firm in her cause and went on to rally unprecedented support for education initiatives from world leaders.

Malala has often attributed her courage to the confidence her father has in her.  Her father, in turn, grounds his convictions in his faith, Islam.  As Insiders, indigenous to the region, both Malala and her father are critical of Taliban’s stance on women’s rights.  This authentic insider status has given further legitimacy to her determination to take a stand in face of constant threats.

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Pictured here: Malala in the UK with her father


However, some Pakistanis are wary of this recognition, precisely because it fits neatly into a Western narrative of backward Muslim countries. Yet again, the West rescues and honors brown women who defy their barbaric cultures. This is not to say that Malala is a stooge of the West (as some lunatic conspiracy theorist claim.)  In fact, her agency is on full display and her strength shines through her character.  Indeed she ought to be a source of pride for the country.

The wariness stems from the lack of outrage at death of young girls caused by acts in which the West is complicit in, such as drone strikes, and a simultaneous embrace of those girls that highlight Pakistan’s regression on women’s rights.  For people in the west, indignation comes much easier at the oppression of women/girls’ rights by the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern regions, however, there is a glaring absence of any reflection (and a definite absence of outrage) on our complicity in these very same girls’ death by drones.

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Pictured here: Nabila, daughter of Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani primary school teacher who appeared on Capitol Hill to testify about drone attacks on her village that killed her grandmother.  Her testimony is not characterized as courageous in the face of the United States’ attacks on her region.  Only 5 representatives showed up to the hearing.


Indeed there are certain realities within which Americans are more comfortable, realities unchallenged by our own privileged socio-military location.  So for example, our genuine concern crops up to recognize the senseless deaths of NGO women health workers – it is yet another reminder of Taliban’s denial of women’s basic human rights, – but simultaneously, we comfortably sidestep the narratives of the other.  Pathans and Punjabis in Pakistan have become suspicious of health workers ever since a Pakistani doctor was convicted and imprisoned for knowingly collecting DNA samples for the CIA, under the pre-text of providing polio-vaccinations.  This was a scheme to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden by comparing DNA of the locals with the members of the Bin Laden family.  Having used a health program to further our war on terrorism, the American government sabotaged the efforts of Pakistani health workers who risk their lives to save others. Pakistan is now the only country in Asia, where polio has made a comeback.  Our unwillingness as Americans to recognize the harm we cause through our foreign policy, makes our recognition of courageous girls like Malala appear empty.

Pakistan has many dedicated and hardworking philanthropists who draw their inspiration from their religion and culture, one such figure being Abdul Sattar Edhi.  In the past six decades, he has opened countless shelters for women and children, provides job training programs for women and orphans, has drop off points for unwanted babies, runs free ambulance service in a city where the government is not very efficient, and delivers countless other services.  However, his story, and stories of many other courageous and inspiring Pakistanis is not recognized by the West.  This only emboldens claims by some that such stories are not acknowledged because they don’t purport the west’s imperialist agenda, justifying America’s violent presence there.

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Pictured here:Abdul Sattar Edhi at one of his schools for girls.

Malala has faced unimaginable difficulties from a young age and her relentless crusade for education is truly inspirational and a source of pride for Pakistan.  We hope Pakistan has many more Malalas, Nabilas, and Edhis.  But at the very least, as Americans, we ought to pause and think about our complicity and recognize the toll of our violent and unchecked intrusion on the lives of countless Nabilas.

3 thoughts on “Indignation Without Reflection: Malala and the Western Imagination

  1. Me, I think these are two sides of the coin of the War on Terror. We (the West) look at the side which shows the the cost of others’ actions. We (the West) would much prefer not to look at the cost of our own actions. Perhaps this is because we see ourselves in a just war. But of course, a just war is not only about causus bellae (the reason we fight) but also about our conduct in war. And perhaps that conduct is justified as well. But we will never know if we have eyes to see but look away.

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