This has, in many ways, been Malala’s week. Despite not having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala has dominated headlines, in ways that have prompted Max Fisher and Zeynep Tufekci to craft delicate, thoughtful responses that reflect on Western advocacy.
But she is but one courageous person. Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of such brave, courageous individuals. In fact, there is an abundance of them, especially in poor, authoritarian countries. If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala’s, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities. (That interview’s most telling moment was when Jon Stewart said “I want to adopt you” to her right after she repeatedly mentioned how great her own father was — such a striking sentiment in which our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore).”
“The young woman’s power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message. It’s a way of letting ourselves off the hook, convincing ourselves that it’s simple matter of good guys vs. bad guys, that we’re on the right side and that everything is okay.”
Tufekci and Fisher raise important points about Western advocacy, ‘slacktivism’, and feel-good narratives — and they are careful to acknowledge that this has little to do with Malala’s own incredible experiences and her equally incredible retelling of her story, and more with how ‘we’ ‘in the West’ have framed her story and what ‘we’ are taking away from it.
To which I ask: What is the appropriate response to Malala’s story? Why is being moved not part of it? The story is undeniably moving, and so is Malala herself — and the way in which she tells her story is disquieting and activating. In many ways, Malala does not let us think that “everything is okay” or that we “are on the right side,” as Fisher worries. This is, after all, the girl who thanked the US President and, in the next breath, pointed out that drones and US policy may be part of the problem — and that much of this policy can and should be reframed in terms of supporting education.
Malala is, indeed, but one person, as Tufekci points out. But she does not have to be more than that. She need not be the ‘universal victim’ or ‘universal survivor’; those are hefty labels to attach to her and, to the extent that we do, it should prompt us to reflect on what Kimberly Theidon has dubbed “the narrative obligations we impose on people in situations of armed conflict.” As I have seen in my own work with women and girls affected by conflict worldwide, there are many more Malala’s in the world. This does not take away from how special Malala is. Hers is, indeed, a story of overcoming and courage and it is a story that is accessible to us at present. If this story becomes the launching pad for us to reflect not only on Malala’s own life but on the challenges girls confront worldwide and the courage they exhibit in the face of those challenges, let’s. After all, Malala herself has made a point of not framing her narrative in terms of only herself and she has constantly recalled the experiences of girls in Pakistan who are not sitting across from Jon Stewart.
Tufekci and Fisher would likely say that the majority of us likely don’t reflect on those other girls and we, instead, bask in the warm glow of Malala and feel we have learned enough, done enough. There is a danger to that and it resembles the dangers of activism-from-the-couch: the activism of Facebook likes and tweets that doesn’t leave the digital sphere or the realm of our own homes. Which begs the question: If simply being moved is not enough, how should we be reacting to Malala’s story? What would be enough? Who determines “enoughness” and how do we know we have reached it? Who and how can we determine that we are having the appropriate response and reaction to her story?
A simple answer would be that even if we could not determine what is ‘enough’ in words, we have so much more to do as far as conflict assessments and gender analyses are concerned, that we know we are not ‘there’ yet. This has much more to do with us, than with Malala herself, as Tufekci and Fisher note. At the same time, it need not detract from Malala’s narrative. Being moved by her, in my eyes, ought not in itself be a source of guilt. And Malala may be “but one person,” as Tufekci writes, and she may frame her story in terms of many more girls out there, but let’s remember this is still her story. This is still her narrative, her life experience. She can make her own decisions on what obligations, if any, flow from that narrative and what she wishes for her call to action to be… and whether that call to action should involve us at all and, if so, in which capacity.
This is one of those situations in which the labels we typically attach to situations of armed conflict become insufficient. Malala was a victim of an attack. She is also a survivor of one. She is a symbol and an advocate and a 16-year-old girl and a storyteller. These descriptions could feel more or less true to her. She may pick different words to describe her life and her role in this world, and these words may change over time.
We, too, are caught between multiple roles. We are viewers. We bear witness to her narrative. We are spectators in some senses — moved spectators. If we wish to be advocates too, yes, we need to do more and we need to do so critically and thoughtfully and with attention to not distorting Malala’s story or using it for our own purposes. But, while we view, let’s also try to take Malala’s story for what it is — to listen to the texture she brings to it with as little cynicism as possible. I do wonder: Is it possible that we could be moved and inspired by Malala’s story without having those warm feelings represent our ignorance, co-option of her narrative, or attempt to taint her story? I’d like to think it is.