Malala Yousafzai is the toast of the day.    There was a strong campaign to have her receive the Nobel Peace Prize this year, she has been featured on Jon Stewart, and had a private audience with President Obama.  The White House tabbed this meeting to mark their “photo of the day.”

Malala meeting at the White House with President Obama and family.

Malala meeting at the White House with President Obama and family. from White House.

“President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughter Malia meet with Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago, in the Oval Office, Oct. 11, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)”

At the same time, there are also many who are writing pieces critical of her, or concerned about the way in which she can be appropriated by the West.   A New York Times article asked the question many are asking:  “Is Malala Yousafzai a heroine or Western stooge?”

In light of these competing projects, we need some careful analysis.

Let us begin by admitting that the very anxiety over what Malala is doing and should or should not be doing  smacks of a patriarchal nature.   This is a bold and courageous young woman who has stood up to misogynist bullies, been the victim of an assassination plot by getting shot in the face, and again risen above that to continue with her calling to promote the cause of girls’ education.  No amount of analysis or concern—even righteous concern—should take away her agency, her will, and her resistance.   To negate her agency, even by would be allies, is yet another attempt to negate her humanity.  I write my own words mindful of the above.

Here are five points to help us keep a healthy perspective on Malala the person and Malala the phenomenon.

1)    Malala is indeed remarkable.

It is all but impossible not to come away with a deep sense of awe of the grace, dignity, intelligence, and composure of this young woman who has been in the public spotlight since she was 11 years old.   And lest we forget:  she was shot in the face by the Taliban simply because she insisted on the right of girls to receive education.

If we have a few critiques, let us be clear that they are not of her, but rather of the way she might be used by Western powers to advance their colonial agendas.

Malala’s interview with Jon Stewart gave a beautiful indication of the strength of her conviction.    Her comments about how she wanted to respond to those who would come to kill her is a great testimony to her courage, and profound commitment to nonviolence in a way that is actually quite reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s teachings:

Malala meeting with Jon Stewart

Malala meeting with Jon Stewart from the Daily Show

I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’  But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’

2)    Malala is remarkable.  She is not, however, exceptional.

Malala is remarkable, but we must resist the urge to make her exceptional.  There is a long legacy to the exceptionalizing narrative when it comes to Muslims, and it works like this:   “The majority of folks ‘over there’ are either monsters or victims.   Every now and then, there is an isolated solitary hero that stands against that.   That hero supports ‘our’ values.”  That tendency to view the lone solitary hero(ine) of the Muslim masses, the need to have the solitary exceptional Muslim is part of the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” game.  And we are done playing these games.

Those of us who have spent years of our life living in and studying Muslim majority societies know that no one has a monopoly on goodness, truth, and beauty, or ugliness, evil, and cruelty.    These are human tendencies that percolate inside each and every single one of us.  And Muslim societies, like all societies, are filled with courageous people and communities who stand for what is just and beautiful.   Malala is a remarkable young woman, but she is neither an exception nor (in that sense) exceptional.   She is simply a beautiful personification of that courage and compassion.  But there are thousands of other courageous women and men in these societies who are going about living the poetry of their day-to-day lives, resisting evil, and striving for good.

3)    Malala’s inspiration is based on her own society.

It is well-known that Malala is struggling against the pathetic misogyny of the Taliban.  It should be well-known that the Taliban’s patriarchy actually violates the very teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, who stated unambiguously that the quest for knowledge was a responsibility for every man and every woman.    Malala is struggling against the patriarchal and misogynist tendencies of Muslim societies, that much is true.    But it also important to point out that her courage, her compassion, her conviction also arises out of the same society.   In short, it is her family, her community, and her faith that give rise her remarkable (though not exceptional) strength and beauty of character.

4)    Malala is not “ours” to adopt.

It is not often that I disagree with Jon Stewart.   He is quite possibly my favorite cultural critic, and my favorite comedian. That he can do both and weave them together is a testimony to his genius.

But I have to confess a profound discomfort with Stewart’s somewhat adorable comment to Malala “I want to adopt you.”  Yes, we understand the urge, and I don’t think Stewart’s comments were in any way malicious or intended as anything other than a spur of the moment adoration.   However, and this is an important point, Malala does not need to be adopted.  Nor is she available for adoption.   Her comments came right after she talked about how it has been the love and adoration of her own father that has given her wings to accomplish what she has.   She already has a father, she has a family.  And that family is as much a story of Pakistan, a story of Muslim societies, as the stories of the Taliban.

Malala is already rooted in a community, even as she is struggling to reform that community.    One can only adopt someone who is an orphan, without family, without communtiy.   None of these are true for Malala.   The extent to which she will be able to transform her own society will remain linked to the extent to which she remains grounded in her own community (while perhaps networking with international voices of resistance, human rights, etc.)

5)    Malala has to stand against both the violence of the Muslim extremists like Taliban and the violence of the American Empire.  

Malala reported that she had the following comments to President Obama about the American policy of drones:

“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”

Words like authenticity are overused.   Yet if one is going to be a genuine Muslim reformer, and not one manufactured by or promoted by Western powers, it is vital to have and maintain a holistic sense of justice in which one speaks simultaneously against both abuses of Muslim extremists and Western colonial powers.    As for Malala, it means simultaneously to speak against the misogynist policies of the Taliban AND the violence inflicted on the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan by American drones.   It takes a bold person to speak that type of truth to power, especially when the power is the charismatic power of the Office of the President of the United States.

Yes, the Taliban are vile, misogynist, and violent group that has practiced gender apartheid in Afghanistan and has killed thousands of people who disagree with their bigoted ideology.

And yes, it is easier for us to focus on the evil of the Taliban than to confront the evil of “our” own policies.   We have to speak against the evil of the Taliban, and we have to recognize that we too—as in the United States of America—are responsible for a great evil over there.  We too have used drones to kill thousands of civilians in these countries, including hundreds and hundreds of children.

Here are the numbers from the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the cost of drone attacks in Malala’s own Pakistan:

 Total reported killed: 2,548 – 3,549
Civilians reported killed: 411 – 890
Children reported killed: 168 – 197

These are the hundreds of civilian casualties that we as Americans have killed in Pakistan alone.  To these, we have to add the dead in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Iraq, the dead from sanctions in Iran, and elsewhere.

Would we know Malala Yousafzai if she was one of the hundreds of children killed by American drones?

Would we know Malala Yousafzai if she was one of the hundreds of children killed by American drones? from social media

At that level, it is worth asking the tough question: if Malala had been killed or injured by an American drone, would she be celebrated?  If she been injured by an American drone, would she be meeting with President Obama and featured on Jon Stewart?   If the answer to that question is a no—and let us be honest about the fact that we do not feature victims of American violence—then we have to confront the betrayal of our own silence.

In short, all of us, including the millions of people inspired by the example of Malala, have to move forward by insisting on a holistic sense of justice where we speak simultaneously against injustice here and injustice there, connecting the sanctity of life here to sanctity of life there.

The way for Malala is the same way for all of us:  to stand against brutality anywhere and everywhere, whether it is state-sponsored violence or terrorism violence.    A better future for all of us depends on this stance for a holistic sense of justice.








  1. Excellent critical observations.

    Malala is not an exception. Muslims are not exceptions. They don’t need to be adopted, they don’t need foreign powers in their lands or constantly mingling in their politics. We should look behind the logic of adoption and domination. We should work on the culture of imperialism that the US inherits, and the widespread stereotypical representations of others that justify and perpetuate the violent international politics of the US.

  2. Can I just go ahead and disagree with one point in your otherwise great article.

    She really is exceptional. Not among *Muslims* or among *women* or among *girls* or the *occupied* or or or.. She is just purely an exceptional human. And I really refuse to believe there are many other people who at her age and in her circumstances would be able to behave as she did and with the grace she has shown.

    • As someone who has been called out for being “exceptional,” I want to clarify what that can mean to an ‘othered’ person.

      It was during the course of a college class on Special Education and Exceptionality (often used to mean both special needs and gifted/talented). The professor kept giving doom and gloom speaches about minorities, those born into poverty, those in large families, those in rural areas…and I am all of these things. A product of generational poverty, eldest of 10, born to an interracial couple in a poor orcharding community.

      I finally stood up and angrily pointed out that I was all of these things he spoke so bitterly of, and I was there. In a highly ranked school, sitting in his classroom, with a merit scholarship and a scholarship I’d won in an essay and interview competetion that took no financial need into account or race into account, that I’d beat out the salutorians and validictorians of my high school class for, and every one of my 9 siblings was just as capable as I was.

      He looked at me evenly and told me I was an “exception.”

      It is hard to express just how much of a slap in the face it is to have my extended family, my community, anyone I look like or who would understand my stories without long explanations, dismissed, and myself pointed out as an “exception.” Although priorities often varied in my poor community, I knew that many in my extended family, and even my own parents, were brilliant, capable people with some amazing talents who simply hadn’t had access to higher education and support for seeking it. If you can fix a truck when you’re barely literate and get it to purr, if you can learn a whole other language without any kind of support beyond the television (or beyond simply being around your husband’s family), when you can successfully graft beautiful, healthy fruit trees that produce well, you are not DOOMED. You are not stupid, you are not someone the system could have never served.

      • Exceptionally (no pun intended) well said, thank you. …and something for all of us to remember. It is too easy to unwittingly fall into arrogance when trying to understand who or what is “exceptional”.

        Sam Glaize

      • Thank you, Lia, for your comments. They are a great reminder that level of education does not equal level of intelligence or capability. And level of intelligence does not equal wisdom. I would question your professor’s definitions of success and fulfillment.

    • I totally agree with you on the point that she is exceptional. I come from the same province and have been in her hometown for years. For economically and politically marginalized ordinary Pashtun people it is well nigh impossible to stand against the Taliban or the unwavering exploiting policies of Pakistan’s majority. But she did that and she was silenced to the best they could, missing by millimeters. She comes from a people constantly fed with anti-west propaganda and disinformation, the creators of which are the stooges who make it possible for thieves both in America and Pakistan to siphon off well meant funds donated by individuals and organizations in US and elsewhere.

      I won’t be able to make you imagine the state of mind of our people at this point in time. There is a complete dislocation of sensibility as the religious, military , political and socialite propagandists shoot their version of state of existence on the common man’s mind through the mass as well as social media.

  3. I, too, feel that Malala *is* exceptional. And I take opposition to your general point. Why is it that you have trouble accepting her path as her own? Why do you insist she take up other causes (even though I agree with those causes)?

    The world should celebrate this exceptional young woman, not ask more of her. And to your view….other exceptionsal Muslims can stand up for the other issues of today.

      • That’s kind of a weak reason… like saying, water can make things wet.

        If you’re going to point out a motivation, then I would point to the statement in the interview where Jon mentioned “nothing feels better, than making you laugh,” as that would stick better with his “adopt” statement, which made her laugh.

    • I agree. This excellent piece is weakened by makingtoo much of Stewart’s sweet attempt to speak to her as just a girl; one he confessed he was especially happy to see laugh at his jokes.

  4. James Souttar

    “Malala is already rooted in a community, even as she is struggling to reform that community.”

    Actually, she has re-rooted with her family in Birmingham, England, where she now goes to school. And trying to reconstruct Malala as an ‘all Muslim heroine’ ignores the fact that she has been campaigning for a British model of education that she was brought up with. The article seems to unnecessarily polarize the issues here: it’s not about ‘West versus Islam’, Malala’s campaign is about an individual’s right to choose against the demands of ideologues who feel entitled to dictate others’ choices, and to murder those who don’t go along with them (even if they are children).

    • It feels like your comment is doing exactly the polarising that you’re suggesting Omar is doing? I don’t think that saying that her values come from whatever in her schooling and upbringing derived from her Pakistani, Islamic and regional heritage is to exclude or devalue the parts of it that derived from a Western/British model. To suggest that the two are opposed or even discrete is exactly the kind of arguments that the Islamic extremists and the War on Terror depend on.

  5. I was just surprised when I read your comparison to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not that this isn’t accurate, but it seems to be an example of appropriation.

    Gandhi seems like the obvious comparison, with their more similar biographical and geographical stories.

    The concern I see with calling Malala, or MLK, or Gandhi, “exceptional” is this belief that no one else could or would be so brave, committed to non-violence, etc. We hold these people up on pedestals and do not hold ourselves to the same standard, the exceptional ones have some magic, some divine power, some extraordinary fortitude.

    Hundreds and thousands of individuals had the courage in the US Civil Rights Movement, the South African Civil Rights Movements, the campaign for Indian Independence. Yes these movements had spokespeople and leaders, but one lonely man protesting does very little to create change. Hundreds died rather than lift arms against their tyrants. Thousands march. If you think it is “exceptional” for a human to chose love over hate, then I hope that you meet thousands of people who believe differently that they may change your mind.

    • Actually the great nonviolent leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is a better comparison, because he was (1) Pukhtun and (2) started his career in education (for which he was first thrown in jail by the British). The only problem is that relatively few readers will have heard of him, including Muslim readers.

      There is no doubt in my mind that men and women like Khan are exceptional. That is why Khan was given the honorific Bacha Khan.

  6. Professor Safi, thank for your thoughtful piece. May I suggest next time you interview some local specialists to supplement your own analysis? Some examples would be teachers at the Bacha Khan Educational Foundation School in Peshawar, the film maker and girl’s rights activist Samar Minallah Khan, and a Pukhtun development professional such as Shandana Humayun Khan. I have really missed seeing their ideas in the discussions taking place this last couple of months. And let’s face it, they are among the real experts in these issues.

  7. Alcofribas Nasier

    First, we’re all aware that Jon Stewart was busting a joke about adoption. Right? After what he clearly reflected as a very moving and authentic statement from a young guest. There is nothing in here I want to disagree with, besides the piety with which the author schools us in what is and what is not exceptional. Or what can be adopted or appropriated. Understanding begins as a sort of adoption or appropriation — this essay is perfectly aware of that in the way it tries to make familiar ideas that might be new and not obvious to American readers. I will agree with the notion of a holistic sense of justice for everybody. But to be truly holistic that sense cannot be arbitrated by this author.

  8. Nawied Jabarkhyl

    I’m quite concerned that someone who has “spent years… living in and studying Muslim majority societies” can classify the Taliban as purely “evil”. It’s very ignorant to classify the “Islamic” world as one homogenous group, with similar preferences and beliefs.

    Related to that, to think that the people of North-West Pakistan and large parts of Afghanistan think of the Taliban as evil, shows a great lack of awareness and cultural understanding.

    Ironically, you seem to have bought into the Western-constructed view of the Taliban, despite spending large parts of this article trying to highlight the need to avoid Western constructs.

    On a seperate note, I like Malala, think it’s just cynical human nature that’s leading people to find ways of discredit her motives.

  9. Dear Profesor Safi,

    And thanks for this piece on Malala!

    Please see my response to Baig’s post : Silencing Malala Yousafzai and “the Brown Man’s Honor Complex” –

    Also, I disagree with one point (though understand what you meant). There are lots of courageous Pakistani activists and leaders, BUT Malala is certainly exceptional in her bravery and resolve!!!

    Meriam Sabih

  10. Malala is certainly exceptional. She speaks with a better vocabulary and more eloquence, in a foreign language then most adult native English speakers. She has also written a book. seriously! She is 16.

  11. Professor Safi,

    Thank you for this article. I would like to call everyone’s attention to another woman in Pakistan who is doing much for girls’ education: Humaira Bachal:
    An inspiring video, and an article describing her work.

  12. I disagree that Jon Stewart was offering to actually adopt Malala. His heartfelt sentiment… coming after being rendered speechless my her stunningly mature wisdom… was symbolic. Malala is a daughter of the world now, as much as she is her father’s daughter. She has been taken into the hearts of people all over the world. Mr,. Stewart was merely verbalizing the deep affection many of us have for this remarkable young woman. As with many others, I would adopt her instantly. But what that really means is that she would make me supremely proud to be her father. I hold her father in the highest respect for what he has given to the world in his daughter.

  13. America is powerful and rich, and as Americans we want our own way. We propagate wars for oil or power or ideology. Our government is corrupt and ineffectual. In our society, we have children killing other children and a whole host of uncivilized behavior. On a social and governmental level we have many, many failures. Our institutions (civil and religious) speak out against all of the horrors in our midst, seemingly to no avail.

    Fortunately for us, if we do speak out, no institution is going to track us down and shoot us in the face. If they did, they would be tracked down and brought to justice. If our govt. did not act, our people and our institutions would act. Sadly, there is little anyone can do to stop the killing of Muslims in Muslim lands. Perhaps if Muslim institutions, Muslim leaders, Muslim congregants… started to regularly and habitually speak out against Muslim on Muslim and Muslim on infidel violence, they might find the peace they claim their religion represents. If they do speak out, they may well suffer Malala’s fate. But she did speak out, and that is why she was shot. And that is why she is exceptional. Malala’s small voice was heard, but the silence of the Muslim community is deafening.

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