Global education champion, Malala Yousafzai stipulated this week that she is not a "puppet of the West," and was indeed, a proud Pakistani girl. It needs no introduction that Yousafzai became an international icon for the struggle millions of girls face around the world to access education after she herself was shot in the head by the Taliban. But Malala clarifying her loyalty to her homeland, Pakistan was a well-timed move mainly because the big fat pink elephant in the room is the astounding silence coming from her Pakistani countrymen and countrywomen. "Even if its people hate me," Malala said in an interview to the New York Times, "I will still love it."
One could say that the South-Asian reaction to Malala has more to do with our love of conspiracy theories, and our history than resentment towards what this young girl has come to represent. While the rest of the world views Yousafzai as a champion, Pakistanis for the most part suspect Yousafzai of being a CIA agent out to humiliate their country. As the New York Times describes it, the reaction from people in Pakistan "stems from sensitivity at Western hectoring, a confused narrative about the Taliban and a sense of resentment or downright jealousy."
Personally, I am glad that it was Malala herself that acknowledged her native critics because these days, especially in the West, saying anything bad about this young woman is enough to well, get you shot in the head. But the conversation about what the other half thinks about Yousafzai is needed and warranted, yet difficult to have simply because of the incredible status level this young girl has reached.
In many ways in the West, she has become nothing less than an untouchable icon, beyond the point of criticism or cynicism. The latter is what Pakistanis, and much of the rest of the region view her with because well, we kind of have the right to. CIA spies come in all shapes and sizes in Pakistan, always have and still do. That is just a fact, and the American agency does have a history of using its personnel to gather information clandestinely in the country, even having civil society workers operate undercover for them.
Does all the accolade being thrown Yousafzai's way shed Pakistan in a negative light, as a country that shoots young girls who want to go to school? Yes, of course. It definitely does. And are there people in Malala's violence-stricken village in SWAT who can only dream of being airlifted out of their own living hell, and given the fast-track through British immigration, for themselves and their families? Yes, of course. And does Malala also embody a narrative that makes South Asians confront our colonial past, with the West once again glaring at the East with judging eyes of how backward and uncivilized we apparently are? Yes and yes.
But why such a wide gap in how the world loves Malala? The point that it comes to is a basic cultural difference, and that is why I think the international opinion of Yousafzai is so split -- Americans love a good story almost as much as South Asians love a good conspiracy. American journalist, Max Fisher describes in his Washington Post article how the West's response to Malala is actually quite self-indulgent:
The young woman's power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the Western fawning over Malala has become... 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 [Americans] 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.
I think this passage captures where I stand on the Malala story best. I admire and respect her journey: It's incredible and so inspiring. It is. But this level of Western applause, this tendency to over-celebrate anybody from the East is all too familiar, truth be told, and makes me uncomfortable. It also makes it clearer than ever that Yousufzai polarizes her global audience.
The undeniable however, is that the special characteristic about Malala, love her or hate her, is that you cannot ignore her story is real. Her plight is real. The Taliban are real, and girls do have to fight to go to school. By surviving an attempted assassination by the Taliban, Malala refused to be a victim, and took the fight for girls education global.
But romanticizing Mala's story is not how we resolve what she stands for. If we really want to do her, and her cause justice, let us not only invest in idol-worshipping Yousafzai, but invest in the millions of girls that may remain nameless to us, so that they can go to school.
Though they might not be having tea with Queen Elizabeth or chatting with the Obamas, they also want an education. They are all Malala's, too.