The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Pakistan, Malala is seen as an overexposed poster child of the West

Placeholder while article actions load

SIALKOT, Pakistan — To the rest of the world, Malala Yousafzai is a hero, but to many if not most of our fellow Pakistanis, she is the West’s poster child, and someone who is getting far too much attention.

You’d think that being shot by the Taliban for speaking out for the right of all girls to go to school would make her as celebrated here as in New York, where on her 16th birthday last week, she spoke at the U.N. Youth Assembly. “Malala Day,” they called it.

But there are no such days here, and it is so disheartening to see this girl who has so much passion for Pakistan being treated so harshly in the country she loves. Over and over, we hear speeches that begin, “I support Malala and the right to education for all, but…”

This but disgusts me.

Nearly 66 years after independence from the British, we still haven’t managed to decolonize ourselves, and so still have an angry, defensive attitude toward the West. Which is why, the moment the West applauded Malala, we forgot all she’d done for us and focused only on the West’s hypocrisy.

Yes, it is hypocritical of the West, especially the United States, to celebrate one girl when they are directly responsible for depriving millions of girls of basic human rights in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan.

How so? Much of the American public sees civilian victims of drone strikes and other military intervention as collateral damage. And yes, there is something of the white savior’s complex in the way the Western media have reported Malala’s story; by glorifying her, they also use her as an excuse to justify drone strikes and aggression against Taliban.

Still, there are two major problems with this whole defensive approach. First, it puts the entire blame for the Taliban’s hostility on the West. It is very convenient to say that they are a product of U.S. policies in the 1980s, but the fact is that although the funding was mostly American, the Taliban were supported by Saudi Arabia and trained by the Pakistani army.

The Pakistani state supported them at its own peril. When the Taliban infection became contagious and incurable, we covertly agreed with the United States on drone strikes.

The even bigger problem I have with our defensiveness over Malala’s high profile in the United States is that people take it too far, to the extent that they see her as a helpless pawn– which is especially ironic because that’s exactly what they blame the West for.

They question why Malala’s friends, Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, who were shot along with Malala, are not celebrated in the same way. What we forget is that Malala’s achievement was not being shot, or even for surviving the attack. She is celebrated for her passion for education — a cause she has been advocating since the age of eleven.

She is rightly celebrated for daring to stand up for her rights and unyieldingly doing so even after an assassination attempt. Malala is not merely the West’s tool, whose aim is to promote drone strikes. She has her own independent identity as a young, fearless, indigenous activist whom we ourselves thwart when we focus too much on her shooting and not enough on the reason behind it.

This summer, on break from the college I attend in the United States, I’m back in Pakistan and working in an underserved public high school for girls. The passion and eagerness to learn that shines in their eyes has convinced me that they are all Malalas, who don’t need to be saved by anyone.

The eagerness to serve them, and Pakistan, is what Malala and I have in common. When people belittle her, they undermine every girl who aspires to a quality education. Yes, we are all Malala — and we are sick of whining victimhood.