Thursday, October 17, 2013

Malala, the Muslim feminist


The world is getting to know Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl from Pakistan who has become a champion for girls' education and was a favorite in betting parlors to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On Oct. 8, 2012, Malala, then 15, was a student at one of the few girls' schools in the Swat Valley, in the country's north. On an otherwise uneventful afternoon, Malala, whose family had received threats from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for continuing her education, got into the Toyota van that transported the girls to and from school. Minutes later, it was accosted by Taliban gunmen; they asked for Yousafzai by name and shot her. Her skull was fractured, and she nearly died. Her book, "I Am Malala," is the story of that grim afternoon and all that came before and has come after.

For Muslim girls and women around the world, however, the story is more than just a tale of survival. In Malala's frank prose is proof that feminism, or the desire for equality through education and empowerment, is not the terrain of any one culture or faith. In the first few pages of the book, we are introduced to Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun heroine of old for whom Yousafzai was named. Malalai rallied Pashtun men to fight the invading British, venturing bravely onto the battlefield and dying under fire. Her namesake has done the same and survived. In later pages, we meet Gul Makai, another Pashtun heroine, who used the Quran to teach her elders that war is bad. It was under her name that Yousafzai wrote her first published work, the diary of a schoolgirl banned from school in a Swat controlled by the Taliban. In the legend, Gul Makai is able to convince her elders of the evils of conflict; she marries her love, a schoolmate. The legend of Malala, who no longer uses a pseudonym, has just begun.

Yousafzai's story reveals the everyday details of a battle that millions of Muslim girls around the world are fighting every day. It is a in which the threats of violent extremists must be borne with courage, even when they do not yield fame or notoriety; in which there are fathers, brothers and husbands who support women's struggle; in which faith strengthens resistance and culture undergirds identity. Their battles for emancipation have authentic vocabularies all their own that communicate paths for empowerment that at some times intersect and at others veer from the paths of their traditions. Their victories lie not in renunciation but in resistance and reclamation of faith, culture and public space.

Yousafzai is but one example of this ongoing fight. It is a contest that transcends Pakistan and the Muslim world and challenges Western ideas of feminism and its stereotypes and blind spots. The tradition of narratives that hold up the medieval backwardness of abandoned countries and pivot invasions on liberating their hapless women is a strong one, but it is built on the historical edifice of colonial subjugation. A Western feminism that asks Muslim women to leave their traditions at the door is fundamentally disempowering.

By Rafia Zakaria, Excerpt from

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