by Assed Baig

When Malala Yusufzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen simply because she wanted to gain an education it sent shockwaves around the world.

mlala smaller.jpg-The Western media took up the issue, Western politicians and the public spoke out and soon she found herself in the UK. The way in which the West reacted made me question the reasons and motives behind why Malala’s case was taken up and not so many others.

There is no justifying the brutal actions of the Taliban or the denial of the universal right to education, however there is a deeper more historic narrative that is taking place here.

This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.

The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, “see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives.”

The truth is that there are hundreds and thousands of other Malalas. They come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places in the world. Many are victims of the West, but we conveniently forget about those as Western journalists and politicians fall over themselves to appease their white-middle class guilt also known as the white man’s burden.

Gordon Brown stood at the UN and spoke words in support for Malala, yet he is the very same Gordon Brown that voted for the war in Iraq that not only robbed people of their education but of their lives. The same journalists that failed to question or report on the Western wars in an intelligible manner now sing the praises of the West as they back Malala and her campaign without putting it in context of the war in Afghanistan and the destabalisation of the region thanks in large part to the Western occupation of Afghanistan.

Malala’s message is true, it is profound, it is something the world needs to take note of; education is a right of every child, but Malala has been used as a tool by the West. It allows countries like Britain to hide their sins in Afghanistan and Iraq. It allows journalists to report a feel good story whilst they neglect so many others, like the American drone strikes that terrorise men, women and children in Pakistan’s border regions. US drones ‘causing mental trauma’ in Pakistan (Aljazeera)

The current narrative continues the demonization of the non-white Muslim man. Painting him as a savage, someone beyond negotiating with, beyond engaging with, the only way to deal with this kind of savage is to wage war, occupy and use drones against them. NATO is bombing to save girls like Malala is the message here.

You have to understand the Arab mind,” Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. “The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.

New York Times, December 7, 2003.

This racist, dehumanizing and imperialist understanding of the Eastern world is more than rampant in the West and its armed forces: It’s ingrained. This type of thinking has been applied to Central and South Asia as well. ~ Mehreen Kasana

Historically the West has always used women to justify the actions of war mongering men. It is in the imagery, it is in art, in education, it is even prevalent in Western human rights organisations, Amnesty International’s poster campaign coinciding with the NATO summit in New York encouraged NATO to ‘keep the progress going!’ in Afghanistan.

Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz were also shot along with Malala, the media and politicians seem to have forgotten about them. Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi – how many of the Western politicians and journalists know about this name? She was the 14-year-old girl gang raped by five US soldiers, then her and her family, including her six-year-old sister were murdered. There are no days named after her, no mentions of her at the UN, and we don’t see Gordon Brown pledging his name to her cause.

Family members describe Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi as tall for her age, skinny, but not eye-catchingly beautiful. As one of her uncles put it, “She was an ordinary girl.” So perhaps it was sheer proximity that made the 15-year-old so tantalizing. Her house was less than 1,000 ft. from a U.S. military checkpoint just outside the Iraqi town of Mahmudiyah, and soldiers manning the gate started stopping by just to look at her. A Soldier’s Shame

I support Malala, I support the right to education for all, I just cannot stand the hypocrisy of Western politicians and media as they pick and choose, congratulating themselves for something that they have caused. Malala is the good native, she does not criticise the West, she does not talk about the drone strikes, she is the perfect candidate for the white man to relieve his burden and save the native.

The Western savior complex has hijacked Malala’s message. The West has killed more girls than the Taliban have. The West has denied more girls an education via their missiles than the Taliban has by their bullets. The West has done more against education around the world than extremists could ever dream of. So, please, spare us the self-righteous and self-congratulatory message that is nothing more than propaganda that tells us that the West drops bombs to save girls like Malala.

An edit of this article was first published on the Huffington Post website

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

Assed Baig is a print and broadcast journalist based in London.  He has reported from around the world, including Somalia, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.  He is currently working as a freelancer and directing documentaries.  He has previously worked for the BBC in the Midlands as a reporter and is well acquainted with stories relating to the Muslim community.  Assed has lived and studied in Syria and Mauritania.  He contributes to the New Statesman, Vice, Huffington Post as well as other outlets.

He specialises in international current affairs as well as UK domestic politics.  His expertise lies in the relationship between the West and Islam, radicalisation and conflict.   His recent exclusive uncovered Burmese military rape camps. Tweet him @AssedBaig

The Mahmudiyah killings was the gang-rape and killing of 14-year-old Iraqi girl Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi by United States Army soldiers on March 12, 2006, and the murder of her family, in a house to the southwest of Yusufiyah, a village to the west of the town of Al-Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Charged with the crimes were five U.S. Army soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment consisting of (I) SGT Paul E. Cortez, (II) SPC James P. Barker, (III) PFC Jesse V. Spielman, (IV) PFC Brian L. Howard, and (V) PFC Steven D. Green, whom the U.S. Army discharged before the crime’s discovery.

Hamza al-Janabi was raped and murdered after her family consisting of her 34-year-old mother Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin, 45-year-old father Qasim Hamza Raheem, and six-year-old sister Hadeel Qasim Hamza were killed.[1] Spielman and Green have been convicted and three others have pleaded guilty.

A Reply to: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex ‘Silencing Malala Yousafzai and “the Brown Man’s Honor Complex”

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45 thoughts on “Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex

  1. Actually, Malala talks about drone strikes a LOT. After meeting with Obama, she made a statement that “I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said in the statement. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”


  2. “You have to understand the Arab mind ….. only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face”. I served in the British army in the early nineties, and this mentality was prevalent and simply accepted.
    The Arabs I have met/known since all have impeccable manners, are kind and modest. But most noticeable is their impeccable manners.


  3. really no execution for the evil monster Rapist of Abeer? the poor iraqi girl? oh I forgot they are white so it is excused, I am being sarcastic.


  4. A Reply to: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex ‘Silencing Malala Yousafzai and “the Brown Man’s Honor Complex”.’ (

    Editors note: We published Assed Biag’s article Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex with our additional quotes on October 8th 2013, since then it has had over 30,000 views. This level of attention deserved a reply and the opportunity to give a platform to opposing views especially by women. This article was first published in Pak Tea House entitled ‘Silencing Malala Yousafzai and “the Brown Man’s Honor Complex”.’ We publish it today with our edits and the writer’s permission


  5. Baig’s entire intent is to undermine the message of Malala. I’ve read her hate mail and he is just saying it in a nicer way. Malala may have gained the world’s ear but it is the people NOT THEIR GOVERNMENTS that put her there. People from every race and religion embraced her. The people that didn’t get center stage get some voice through Malala where they would never have a voice at all. Don’t you see, this is not about the whites saving the poor brown girl, but about this magnificent spirit saving us.


  6. Does every support to having a voice heard be automatically critised? Why immediately blaming advocates who receive political support a ‘white savior complex’ and that all is manipulated? Whether it is a ‘white saviour complex’ or not; I’m glad that some people support human rights advocates and put up resources to support their advocacy. Please support their voices and stop undermining them. I appreciate your point on hypocrisy, although I’m sure the support she received is genuine. I appreciate also that other human rights advocates deserve full attention and support which they don’t receive as it does not fit some people’s political agenda. Nevertheless, let’s not always see what is wrong in everything and let’s appreciate those who stand up and those who support the ones standing up for human rights.
    Finally, I would add that white people do not have the monopoly of hypocrisis and using a cause for their own benefits…


    1. Nathalie, Baig says several times that he supports Malala and her cause. The article is a criticism of the appropriation of her story by the western media to serve one of the great western meta-narratives: the image of ourselves as civilizers of the savage black & brown global south. This can happen without journalistic intent, because that story, the white savior image, is inside our minds already and just needs watering and feeding to keep it strong.


    2. Because it is manipulated. Everyone knows that Malala is the figure head for Gordon Brown’s global UN led A4e for profit charter schools project. And that should have been obvious the day you read about her father being a mogul of for-profit schools in pakistan.

      She herself still cries and wants to go to school according to her father, who has her whisked around the world for his business ventures.


      1. “Whites may not have the monopoly of hypocrisy, but they do have the monopoly of the media and of wars. Not to mention they have enslaved, destroyed and killed the most.”

        This is ahistorical nonsense.

        There has been plenty of killing to go around. As for Slavery all the Eurasian civilisations as well as African ones practised Slavery and forced labour on a large scale. The most persitent slave society and the one that actually did most of the actual enslaving in Africa was Islamic, (Europeans in the Atlantic salve trade were largely opportunstic Buyers of Slaves that had already been captured by the Slave kingdoms of West Africa). European – or more specifically British and english speaking civilisation was the first in history to voluntarily end slavery, and to then take up arms to end the slave trade, and subsequently abolish slavery (US civil War).

        And the idiocy of refering to “whites” in a catch-all moral judgement of history – as if there is nothing to distinguish Nazi’s from those who fought to end their rule should really not need pointing out.


        1. Johan you just demonstrated what is known as “white privilege”. It’s easy to speak your mind and defend your honor when you can walk away turning your head to the fact that you don’t have to live in a racist world daily.
          We want to be seen as individuals versus a group mentality. Yet, we turn around and categorize individuals into groups by race or culture.
          It’s a privilege to walk away, to not want to be grouped by those we detest. We’d rather be judged by others as we truly are, demand our dignity as oyr right while so many from various cultures are placed under the unfair burden of living with that judgement every day.


    3. Nathalie I completely agree with you. I think that picking up her story was mainly because this poor girl was shot in the head and *survived*. That’s an amazing story for any journalist to pick up. And I believe too the motives for her story are innocent, and it gained popularity because I think it is inherent in other humans to empathize and strive for a positive message and desire to see good in that area of the world. And in terms of hypocrisy, yes, it happens in all societies. Can some of these women go to the police for help? Could it be that sometimes oppression is worse than murder? In war there are casualties, and horrible things happen. The west should acknowledge their own atrocities more. But to say that this was a white savior complex is overdoing it in my opinion. I’m happy that at least someone is trying to make a positive change, and I hope that change can happen from within their own countries more often instead.


  7. How often in history do we see such incursions. It makes great war propaganda: capitalize on Malala’s ‘plight’ as a springboard for moral support in a conflict against the Taliban. The aim> demoralize the opposition to the point that the casualties from the opposition side are met with a mere shrug of the shoulders.


  8. Wow, there are a lot of comments and interesting discussions taking place. I will get around to replying to comments, discussion etc soon. I am working on some tight deadlines, so please bear with me and keep the comments coming!


  9. I think the reason Malala was selected by the west is a little more basic than what is presented here. She speaks wonderful English. She is precocious and articulate. Her father is an activist and welcoming of the exposure. Not to mention prior to being shot she was already advocating the same things via her blog and the short documentary on her. She ALREADY had a footprint in Western media. What was a blurb on the back pages now became front page news.

    And while Malala certainly shouldn’t be used as ‘cover’ for intervention or drone strikes, her message is powerful, poignant and worth hearing. She is using the West as a vehicle to spread her message as much as the West is using her to put a pretty face on an ugly chapter of history.

    That’s the world we live in.


  10. Kate how do you know Malala’s story is an authentic story and it’s not staged to fool people like you who only see the good in that cause but not the purpose behind it, Assed is right there is more crimes being committed by the western saviors compared to the savage Taliban but how much of media attention does it get nothing at all .. stop walking in someone’s shoes if you don’t know how to wear them .. what do you know about the culture, society and geography of where her story took birth .. can you even pin point it on the map, you are taking the situation from western point of view and cherry pick the point that you think serves humanity, in according to your particular understanding of what human needs are, I can’t understand some people like you could be so ignorant, you think it is more important to educate them thn keeping them alive, this mentality and attitude that Assed was talking about your a good example of it, your just playing your part as a white savior .. I hope you put some of your efforts in spreading the message of children dying in Africa because of famine next summer or the number children dying in Afghanistan this winter because of the weather conditions .. what can you do to save them so they might be able to get the education that everyone has a right for?
    Let’s play the role of the white savior and go save some black children and become a real hero, your rational explanations has 0 value to a society that gives half a shit about it .. you go explain to them how you killed 100s of them to educate a few, this is walking in their shoes, those who have seen there children die will never get over it and your ignorant attitude will only further demonize them to the edge .. so the best thing is not to scratch a surface that you have no real idea about…
    and by the way .. this malala reminds me of that Naira Al Sabah girl .. lol finally someone could break her record in global act…


  11. Zanna, I like and appreciate your points. I can see absolutely why the Western mindset is so comfortable with the symbolism of Malala for all the reasons given by Baig. These are points worth making and her use as a propaganda tool is worth stating. But what I’m saying is that symbols mean different things to different people. As a British Pakistani brought up in the UK I too must have a white saviour complex somewhere! But from the reportage on Malala that I have seen on BBC’s Newsnight I have learnt about the two other girls left behind in Pakistan who were involved in the same attack as Malala but now live under armed guard and I have also learnt about the influence of Malala’s father and the emphasis on education in her upbringing from the recent BBC interview with Mishal Hussain. Now may be it is because I have a dual identity that I take these things from this coverage…but could it also be that there are people who are completely white who watching the same coverage as me and Baig also see the same things as me and Baig? Am I still missing the point?


    1. = ) Agree with all you say really and I only wish those aspects of the story that make it more interesting and inspiring to British Pakistani people and Muslims globally were given more importance. Some of the reportage has indeed been more useful, and I think it’s great to celebrate Malala and her recovery. Also, the hangover & legacy of colonialization and the White Saviour Complex are inside people like me (and maybe even you too haha) and we can’t magically think outside them and prevent them adding connotations to every news item we see. The best we can do is use tools like the one Baig gives us here to start to dismantle them. I am glad both of Baig’s article, and of your remarks about the positive aspects of the coverage. I honestly think his criticism and your approval are not exclusive, but separate valid analyses – maybe you should write your own article!


  12. As Helen Taylor pointed out (among her other great insights), Baig strongly acknowledges Malala’s positive story and message. It’s so incredibly obvious that she’s a positive figure saying something incredibly obviously right that it’s ridiculous to demand more than a sentence to that effect. Some of the attacks on Baig’s piece here are starting to remind me of Muslims being interviewed on the news and being constantly asked to condemn some supposed ‘Islamist’ act or extremist before anything else, and thus being derailed before even starting to speak. The fact that critiquing the presentation and appropriation of Malala’s story causes us to flare up into point-missing defensiveness only convinces me that Baig & Taylor are correct: our colonised minds get upset when its sustaining myths (I for one have a White Saviour Complex of my own to fight) are destabilised.


  13. The biggest culprit for the state of education in Pakistan is Saudi Arabia (who fund thousands of madrassahs throughout Pakistan that spread their myopic version of Islam) and the Pakistani government that has allowed a vacuum to form in the state provision of education enabling madrassahs to spring up in their hundreds of thousands. The writer I think is right to point out that the West is also culpable, after all who is Saudi Arabia’s biggest backer? Why does arguably the most barbaric country in the Islamic world receive sacrosanct status in US foreign policy? I also agree that the subliminal messages that Malala’s story sends out may be supportive of the status quo and possibly even racist. However the doctor who cared for Malala is a UK Pakistani dr and the community she lives amongst is a strong British Pakistani community. Pakistani parents wanting an education for their children are arguably most receptive to Malala’s symbolic status. This article underplays the fact that symbols by their nature are simplistic and reduce complex geo political power play to a single, simple story, in this case Malala’s, which is also the story of a strong, defiant, young Pakistani woman who with the help of her Pakistani head teacher father is a champion of education.


    1. Respectfully acknowledging your points about Saudi Arabia (I know nothing of Pakistan’s school system), isn’t the article (which I think is spot on) about the fact that symbols simplify? You have said what needs to be heard: Malala and her father are Pakistani champions of education. That is not what is emphasised and not what is heard in the news now hastily cobbled together out of what government and corporate PRs push at the press. What white people read in Malala is the subtext made explicit by Baig. I think you make a good point that the story may be more important to Pakistani people, and why is it so important what US/European white people think? But it’s precisely the centring of whiteness that Baig is criticising no?




  15. I agree and disagree with parts of the article. But I ask, as a South Asian Muslim living in North America : If it wasn’t going to be the UK or US, or any other “anglo” country that provided these services to Malala, then who would? Did Saudi offer a lending hand? Surely they have the same caliber of physicians there as the UK. What about Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan – any other non-anglo country? I think the answer is no. Yes, anglo imperialism has caused certain evils in the world. But it’s not like the “victim” countries support or help each other anyway. Muslim countries don’t look out for each other unless there is a political and / or economical driver leading them to that decision (Saudi and Egypt comes to mind most recently). Not a single country stands up for people like Malala. Yes, I agree that we have been portrayed, and continue to be, as tribal neanderthals that require the white man’s intervention to modernize ourselves into the 21st century. But it’s ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for both sides and the reality is, the Muslim world does not care about its own people (at least the governments) or for any victims of violent acts. If they can’t make a buck, they won’t intervene. Hence, a perfect platform for the savior to swoop in and cash in on the credit for saving us. We do it to ourselves.


    1. I don’t think the “Muslim world” don’t care for its people. It’s more like the governments of Muslim countries. I have seen lots of muslims support those who live in countries affected by war. I’ve heard lots of speeches coming from muslims condemning the acts of war being done to their brothers and sisters. The problem is the lack of government support.


  16. I think Kate has misinterpreted the author’s intent here and not fully understood the symbolism in the term ‘white man’. The author is clearly pointing to the fact that it was representatives of the old colonial power i.e. the UK who moved Malala to a top class hospital where she could be treated. Given the proximity of her native Pakistan to India or even somewhere like Saudi Arabia or the UAE, it would have been far more sensible to move her to one of those places to ensure high quality medical care. But she was flown round the world to the ex-colonial masters who are ‘symbolically’ demonstrating that only in the civilised west is she able to be taken care of properly.
    The message here is barely subliminal; whit- western powers good, nasty brown-eastern powers bad.
    There is also the hypocrisy in granting her and her family any rights to stay in the UK, where, daily, asylum seekers with similar backgrounds are refused entry or denied asylum. Their storied may be equally harrowing but they do not have the profile Malala had, even before the attempt on her life. They therefore become the great mass of unwanted ‘foreigners’ allegedly trying to destroy our way of life and take advantage of our social welfare provisions.
    Living in the UK the anti-Muslim hysteria is palpable. We never hear the word Muslim without ‘extremist’ being tagged on to the end of it. Yet the 30-year war in Northern Ireland, where bombs were set off all over that province as well as in London, Manchester and other UK cities, was never reported as being the work of Christian extremists. Yet there were fundamentally two sides; Catholics and Protestants – both Christian, both waging a civil war which killed and maimed thousands.
    The author clearly acknowledged the significance of Malala’s struggle. He states “Malala’s message is true, it is profound, it is something the world needs to take note of; education is a right of every child.”
    That does not mean that she is not being used by the west as a propaganda tool for its own ends.
    We do need to highlight more of these cases but there are countries in the west where attitudes to women are just as entrenched as they are in the East. There are also a great many eastern men, including those of the Muslim faith who do not hold negative views of women – Malala’s father being one and they deserve a higher profile too.


  17. I appreciate the point you’re trying to make, and I think you’re right to an extent, but boy, do I disagree.

    I see no white saviour in this story. The only “saviour” I see is a Pakistani girl. She is the hero of her own story. She is the one who fought all the odds and survived and is continuing her fight. I’ve not once read about any “white men” who saved her, as you claim. All I read about is Malala’s fight, against the Taliban, for her right to education.

    Of course there are lots of other girls and women fighting for their rights as well. But why does that make Malala’s story less special? Malala is the one who has addressed the UN and is using her publicity, I think, for the greater good.

    Should journalists, regardless of their race, not report on this story? It’s a tale of a girl fighting against the odds and coming out on top; who doesn’t love a story like that?

    I also don’t see how “sins are being hidden.” As an American, I’m just as critical of my government’s policies, both national and international, now as I was before hearing about Malala. In fact, I don’t even see the correlation between Malala and my government, or Britain’s government.

    Malala is an amazing girl, who happens to be from Pakistan, who is bravely fighting against oppression, and I find that inspiring. That’s the story that I’ve seen reported.

    I agree with some of your points in the last couple of paragraphs; there are stories that been forgotten, lost, not picked up by the traditional media, and they should. But Malala’s story is an important story to have been picked up. And of course the West has done terrible things that shouldn’t be ignored, that the media should be reporting on, and I applaud you for addressing some of those issues, but should that take away from the importance of Malala’s message, as you seem to imply? I don’t think so.


    1. Kate, when you say, “In fact, I don’t even see the correlation between Malala and my government, or Britain’s government,” you seem to overlook the fact that, among other things, drone attacks in Waziristan and surrounding regions that almost always kill innocent civilians, including women, children and the elderly, have created great resentment against the US and its allies. That resentment has fed into strengthening the Taliban’s hand in those areas. By seemingly not caring about those civilian casualties, the US has become an unwitting recruiting tool for the Taliban, which is something we have seen before in other areas. In other words, yes, there is very definitely a correlation. The Talbian carries out these attacks because they have been empowered by the West’s negligent attitudes.


      1. It was an effort by the Govt of Pakistan to send her to UK urgently. Malala is right that death did not want her to die. UK has helped her to recover. Further more it was God Almighty.


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