Muslim women have captured the American cultural imagination in a major way since 9/11. But, despite the wide diversity in Muslim women’s lives, and beliefs, we seem fixated on a specific type of story. Our preferred story goes like this: Muslim woman is severely oppressed by men in the thrall of a backward and barbaric religion. Muslim woman dreams of adopting Western culture/being saved by Westerners. If you want an idea of the kind of story I’m talking about, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s narrative about her own life pretty much fits the bill.
Malala’s story has potential to challenge the narrative Americans seem so enamored with. Yes, she appeals to us partly because of similarities between her narrative and the classic one–the girl shot by the radical Taliban, fighting for her right to go to school. But, if we listen to her own understanding of justice, it resists two imperialist impulses that are common in Western discussions of Muslim women.
First, Malala denies that Islam is the cause of her oppression. She says “The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us…..I’m still following my own culture, Pashtun culture….Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty..” On her Daily Show interview, which I highly recommend watching if you want to be called out of your cynicism for a moment, she describes the Taliban as abusers of her religion. So, no matter how hard folks like Sam Harris fight to make her fit their “all Muslim feminists hate Islam” narrative, Malala’s actual words suggest that she sees her support for women’s rights as compatible with her faith.
Second, Malala asks us to treat war in general, and U.S. military action in particular, as causes of women’s oppression. Where the typical narrative says that it’s only backward others who cause women’s suffering, Malala urged President Obama to stop drone strikes because they were killing children and “fueling terrorism” and “resentment among the Pakistani people.” Only 5 congress members attended the testimony of a Pakistani girl named Nabila who told of drone strikes killing her grandmother. We have a choice in discussing Malala whether to erase her attempt to draw attention to the same issue.
So Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize does not just offer an opportunity to celebrate an incredibly brave and eloquent girl standing up for the very worthy cause of educating women and girls. It also has the potential to bring into the popular imaginary the possibility of a feminism that does not position the West as savior. But unlocking that potential means actually listening to Malala, not just turning her into the symbol we want her to be.