The Blog

Defending Malala Yousafzai

The commentators who imply that her actions somehow play into a "white men saving brown women" narrative are sorely mistaken. Their remarks also attempt to deprive Malala of her own agency (whether this was intentional or not).

You have just woken up in hospital, weeks after being shot in the head. Your time and usefulness on this planet is far from over; you are spurred on by the multiple wall-hangings bedecked with sparkly white cards, the boxes of miniature teddies, and most importantly, your faith and family. You are receiving world-class treatment, thousands of miles away from your own home. The entire world cares, even those who don't normally pay attention to this sort of thing. For as far as teenagers go, you are something of a rarity.

Article on BBC Urdu at the age of 11? No problem. Nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize at 13? A cinch. Harbouring no hatred for the terrorists who attempted to silence you and your friends with bullets? You've done it. Feted by luminaries the world over, including Angelina Jolie and Gordon Brown? Yes. Delivering a magnificent speech at the UN on your 16th birthday? Executed with the grace, integrity and class that your detractors so clearly lack.

Your message is breathtaking in its simplicity, and its ability to unite people of all classes, creeds and backgrounds. "One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world." You transcend political and religious divides by focusing on the fundamentals: equality of opportunity, the right to live in peace, and human dignity. (Basic human dignity, so often batted away like an irksome grasshopper on a hot Summer's evening, in environments spanning girls' schools in Lahore to care homes in Lancashire). "Giving a voice to the voiceless" is the kind of terminology that we read in NGO manuals all the time, but you truly make it spring off the page and resonate with ordinary people.

You are Malala Yousafzai, and we, your countless supporters, will not let you down.

We have no truck with the bile of the masses, who spit words like "conspiracy," "white saviour" "staged shooting" and "CIA agent" in mainstream newspaper blogs - if they have a mouthpiece. The individuals who don't have an official mouthpiece propagate their bitterness through Facebook groups. Not just any Facebook groups, but the sort that teem with misogynistic troglodytes. The criticism is ostensibly about how Malala's message has been used by "the West" for their own "nefarious" ends, but much of it is actually rooted in jealousy that a plucky teenager - a girl at that - has achieved more coverage and goodwill in her short life than her critics ever will. For while the critics continue to blame some nebulous "other" for their problems, Malala takes ownership of the issues that plague her own community. She does all of these things without a trace of negative energy; this is what makes her so special.

The commentators who imply that her actions somehow play into a "white men saving brown women" narrative are sorely mistaken. Their remarks also attempt to deprive Malala of her own agency (whether this was intentional or not). Firstly, it was the Pakistani government who arranged for Malala to be flown to the UK for medical treatment. Secondly, as Malala said herself in her speech to the UN: "There was a time when women activists asked men to stand up for their rights. But this time, we will do it by ourselves." Thirdly, their analysis ignores the problems that existed in the region before military invasions occurred, as well as the sectarian violence that never stops. Finally, this is not about white vs brown, or us vs them, but the universal issue of education for all.

Another criticism that is often leveled at Malala is the fact that she didn't mention drone strikes in her UN speech, and received greater publicity than drone strike victims. Adnan Rasheed, senior commander for the Taliban in Pakistan, wrote to her in an open letter: "If you were shot by Americans in a drone attack, would the world have ever heard updates on your medical status? Would you be called 'daughter of the nation'? Would the media make a fuss about you?"

Where to start with this? If someone sincerely believes that an activist who is motivated by the values of peace and social justice would tacitly condone such strikes, then all I can say is, "Stop the planet; I want to get off." It goes without saying that activists can conduct advocacy for a range of different issues, at different times. Malala may be an outstanding activist but even she can't be expected to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict/the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma/the massacre of the Kurds/*insert human rights violation here* all at once. The most effective campaigners focus on one overarching issue, with a peripheral involvement in related ones. While we're on the subject of whataboutery, why is it that most of her critics are strangely silent about the thousands of Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and other minorities who have been persecuted in Pakistan over the last few years?

The time has come to genuinely appreciate our humanitarian heroes, such as Malala, Mukhtaran Mai and Abdul-Sattar Edhi, rather than denigrating their achievements with misplaced cynicism. Instead of being jealous of the global recognition these icons have received, the critics need to get off their backsides and do something constructive for humanity. The sooner the better.