At just 17 years old, Malala Yousafzai has inspired people around the world with her passion and determination to make sure girls everywhere can get an education…..We were awe-struck by her courage and filled with hope knowing this is only the beginning of her extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place.
(The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2014)
President Barrack Obama’s White House released this statement after Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in 2014. This statement reflected the global recognition that Malala had received for her work to support girls’ education. The President and the First Lady talked about how Malala had become an inspiration for actors ranging from international leaders to activists on the ground all over the world. Her courage, bravery, and work to support girls’ education made her a role model for girls all over the world.
(Re)Telling Malala’s Story: Media’s Image of Malala as a Global Icon
This image of Malala, as a global icon of girls’ education and empowerment, stands in stark opposition to the Western mainstream perceptions about Muslim women.
“This image of Malala, as a global icon of girls’ education and empowerment, stands in stark opposition to the Western mainstream perceptions about Muslim women.”Muslim women are viewed as oppressed victims of their families, communities, and religion. Feminist scholars like Lila Abu-Lughod, Saba Mahmood, Joan Scott, and others have shown how the concept of Muslim women as victims of their own culture have long been the primary lens for the Western media, policymakers, and public to understand and engage with Muslim societies. In the aftermath of September 11, the images of burqa-clad Muslim women are increasingly used by the Western media to project the problems of the “Muslim world” (Watt, 2012). Muslim youth as “ticking time bombs” who will sooner or later fall prey to radicalized extremism is a common sentiment in Western policymaking discourses. Feared as a future threat to global security, international investments in Muslim girls have starkly increased (Skalli, 2015). For example, currently USAID is providing $70 million to empower adolescent girls in Pakistan.
“Does Malala’s visual and intellectual presence on the global stage as an empowered young Muslim woman challenge the stereotypes about Muslim women and Islam?”
In her autobiography, I Am Malala (Yousafzai & Lamb, 2013), as well as in her public speeches, Malala has proudly declared Islam and her Muslim heritage as the sources of inspiration for her activism. Her choice of Pakistani attire and covered head further reflects her connections with her culture. Does Malala’s visual and intellectual presence on the global stage as an empowered young Muslim woman challenge the stereotypes about Muslim women and Islam? This question drove my interest in exploring how Malala, as a global icon of girls’ education and empowerment, was presented in Western contexts. More specifically, I was interested in examining if and how US media had engaged with the identities of Muslim women, Muslim societies, and Islam while telling Malala’s story. In contemporary times, media is shown to be one of the most important educational resources not only for the general public but also for donors and policymakers.
In order to examine how American media had constructed and mobilized Malala’s image as a global icon, I focused on The New York Times (NYT) and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), two newspapers with notable distribution and large readership. A 2013 report by the The Alliance for Audited Media has cited WSJ as the most widely-distributed newspaper throughout the U.S. with NYT trailing closely behind. With the help of graduate students, I collected, coded, and analyzed Malala’s coverage in these two newspapers from the time of the Taliban’s attack on her in October 9, 2012 to May 2014 when she became a Nobel Laureate.
Media Projections of Malala’s Family, Society, & Islam. Three Main Findings
The findings of this project (see Khurshid & Guerrero, 2016 and Khurshid & Pitts, 2017) highlighted three main themes. First, contrary to Malala’s acknowledgment of Islam as one of the primary factors which fueled her decision to become an activist, her religion has surprisingly remained largely absent from the NYT as well as WSJ’s coverage of Malala. Although minimal references to Islam did appear in several articles published by both newspapers, these references were often off-handedly mentioned to explain the ideologies and actions of militant groups like the Taliban. Little discourse was offered to challenge the hinted link between Muslim extremism and Islamic values, nor was Malala’s public criticism of the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam brought forward as a counter-story.
“Contrary to Malala’s acknowledgment of Islam as one of the primary factors which fueled her decision to become an activist, her religion has surprisingly remained largely absent from the NYT as well as WSJ’s coverage of Malala.”
Second, both news sources cast the Pakistani society as being complicit in perpetuating the religious extremism that had targeted Malala and had suppressed other Pakistani women. This coverage mobilized Malala as a girl whose vulnerability reflected the status of Muslim girls as well as the failures of the Pakistani state and society to protect these girls. It merged the images of gun-toting Islamist militants with the hostile Pakistani culture as co-conspirators to dismantle young girls’ wishes to receive an education. In this media discourse, Malala’s agency becomes intelligible only in contrast to Pakistan’s assumed reluctance to challenge radical extremism.
Finally, the findings reveal how Malala’s family remained largely absent from the NYT and WSJ’s coverage of Malala. Whereas these media sources approached Pakistani society as being hostile towards Malala, her family was presented as having a limited role or being largely absent as Malala asserted her role as an activist. Malala’s family was shown as neither opposing her not being the driving force for her. They were shown as tagging along as Malala took on her journey of becoming the global icon of girls’ education and empowerment. This projected image of her family playing a marginal role, however, is in contrast to the way Malala described her family, and especially her father, as the inspiration and the most important sources of support for her in I Am Malala.
Malala as a Victim/Agent: Perpetuating Negative Stereotypes
This analysis reveals how this media discourse further perpetuated, instead of problematizing, the negative stereotypes about Muslim women, Muslim societies, and Islam. In this discourse, Malala emerged as having a dual character as an agent as well as a victim. Malala’s agency was portrayed as an individual trait embodying Western values and as something that worked against her unmodern community and religion. Malala’s victimhood, on the other hand, represented the suppression of all the girls in her society.
“In [media discourses], Malala emerged as having a dual character as an agent as well as a victim.”
Particularly intriguing in this media narrative is the absence of Malala’s family and especially of her father given their crucial role in her life. Malala as an empowered Muslim woman is made intelligible as an individual who stands apart from her family, community, and society. Her vulnerability, on the other hand, embodies a continued failure of her nation to make the choice to support girls like Malala. This image is continually mobilized to position Malala as a global icon while also blurring the distinctions between extremist groups like the Taliban and the general Pakistani society and Islam.
In a global context marred by the fears of religious extremism, this research shows the need to examine how the colonial, postcolonial, and development theories’ imaginations of the “Muslim world” have shaped the lens often used to define Muslim women as victims of their own culture. This stereotypical image of Muslim women and Islam has enabled a wide range of punitive and racialized policies and practices targeting Muslims in Western countries. For example, the burkini, viewed as an embodiment of “Islamic” culture, was banned from French beaches. Ironically, the burkini was viewed as a representation of Islamic patriarchy and not as legitimate expression of a choice made by the women wearing it. The discourse that equated burkini with lack of rights was readily available and acceptable in the French context. It is, thus, no surprise that Malala becomes a global icon of girls’ education and empowerment as an entity that exists in separation, if not in opposition, to her family, community, and Islam.
“The discourse that equated burkini with lack of rights was readily available and acceptable in the French context.”
Challenges for Researchers and Activists: The Case of Educated Rural, Low-Income Pakistani Muslim Women
This analysis complicates the research and media projects that aim to document the stories of Muslim women and men in order to increase awareness about Islam and Muslim societies. Whereas these efforts are highly valuable in a global context where Muslims are increasingly cast as the “other,” it is also important to equip target audiences with tools to critically engage with these stories. For example, my ethnographic research with educated and professional Muslim women from rural and low-income communities in Pakistan reveals how these women define empowerment as their ability to access power within the institutions of family and community, and not merely as an expression of free will or choice. These women participants, who are one of the first and very few women in their communities to have received education, approach access to education and employment as well as choosing a husband as their “Islamic” rights.
“…my ethnographic research with educated and professional Muslim women from rural and low-income communities in Pakistan reveals how these women define empowerment as their ability to access power within the institutions of family and community, and not merely as an expression of free will or choice.”
They have faced opposition from their communities for violating the cultural norms of public mobility to access education and the labor market. However, they do not see much use in practicing the right to choose a husband even when they acknowledge it as a right given to them by Islam. For them, education and labor market participation had helped them become productive members of their families and communities. Choosing a husband, on the other hand, did not bestow any valuable opportunities to them. In this case, the participants did not see the need to change the practice of arranged marriages, marriages arranged by the parents and families. In other words, empowerment for these women meant an ability to assess how practicing certain rights, and not others, could bring them more prestige and opportunities within their families and communities.
The women participants’ attachment to their families, community, and Islam is not a result of lack of awareness about their rights. Although their lives looked distinct from the lives of the majority of other women in their villages, the participants felt supported by their families and communities. They saw themselves as empowered and confident women who were living a life of their own choice, and took pride in their jobs as teachers at schools supported by an international development organization. They believed that these opportunities were made possible by their families, mostly by their fathers, who sent them to school at a time when it was not common for girls to receive education in their rural and low-income communities with very low literacy rates. Their families responded to the opposition from the community by arguing that Islam had made it compulsory for both men and women to receive education. It was again the participants’ families, and especially their fathers, who supported them to become one of the first women in their communities to have paid jobs outside of the home. Grounded in this background, it makes sense for these women to continue to explore ways to access power within the institutions that had supported them to take on new roles and identities.
“…the participants felt supported by their families and communities. They saw themselves as empowered and confident women who were living a life of their own choice, and took pride in their jobs as teachers at schools supported by an international development organization.”
As the discussion above portrays, the concept and practice of gender empowerment as something grounded in a particular socioeconomic, cultural, religious, and national context, becomes unintelligible in global narratives that define empowerment for Muslim women as a process that has to happen in opposition of their culture, religion, and families. However, the lived experiences of actors from different contexts, just like Malala’s story, have the potential to initiate a dialogue about the diversity and context-specific, rather than global, nature of “Muslim” experience. This focus on diverse lived experiences can also help to critically examine the lenses available to us to engage with these stories. The researchers and activists, thus, need to not only capture and highlight these stories but also enable audience to learn about the meaning making processes these stories.
 Alliance for Audited Media (2013). Top 25 U.S. newspapers for March 2013. http://auditedmedia.com/news/research-and-data/top-25-us-newspapers-for-march-2013.aspx. Accessed 13 May 2014.