A Reply to: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex

Editors’ note: We published Assed Baig’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.

A Reply to: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex

by Meriam Sabih

I want to give my message to Pakhtoons, to educate their sons and daughters. Not just school, work on them so they treat every human being well…Teach them tolerance. Teach them how to tolerate the ideas of others and how to live in coexistence with others.”– Malala Yousafzai

In a Pakistani interview, long before she became a household name outspoken Malala shared her dreams of becoming a politician, gave advice on foreign policy (yes, including drones), and thanked the Pakistani Army for their successful operation in Swat. Malala was a force to be reckoned with long before the Taliban shot her in the head for speaking up for the education of girls. And despite their best efforts to silence her, she is an even greater force now.

malala(2)Assed Baig in his article, “Malala and the White Saviour Complex” failed to understand the universality of Malala’s message and did not give her the credit that she deserves. This is not the story of “the weak native girl being saved by the white man,” it is the story of the bravest girl in the world. A girl with a voice so powerful that she had to be eliminated. The West did not offer Malala protection when she was receiving daily death threats nor did a knight in shining armour rescue her when she stood face to face with the Taliban. She endured these threats alone. Without the tactical support of the world’s largest armies let alone a bulletproof vest or a bodyguard. Baig argues that although her message is true and profound it has been “hijacked by the West.” Therefore this coverage must be scorned and vilified. His very masculinity as a brown man and worldview (in which the West must remain the enemy), are brought into question when Malala receives a warm welcome by the international community. How can the West be the enemy and then do any real good? He cannot fathom doctors, activists, institutions, and politicians around the world engaged in humanitarian work unrelated to a larger racist narrative.

More troubling, he cannot fathom Malala being a true inspiration to the WestAs she spoke from the podium of the United Nations inspiring millions with her words — others such as Baig felt a sense of shame that a native girl stood on a world stage “unveiling” herself as the poster child for a narrative which “dishonors the brown man.”

Does Baig realize he is identifying every brown man with the Taliban? At the UN, Malala demanded the strongest leaders in the world “…to change their strategic policies in favour of peace and prosperity,” as she averred the urgency to protect the rights of women and children. Since being attacked, she has not hesitated a single day in speaking out against the Taliban. In her meeting with President Obama, Malala reiterated the concerns back home about drone attacks. One wonders, if a Muslim man had made such a fearless litany of demands to both world leaders and terrorists alike would Baig have referred to him as a “tool for the West”? or celebrated him as a hero?

Remnants of Baig’s distrust eerily reminded me of the rambling letter Taliban Commander Adnan Rashid wrote to Malala explaining that every perceived Western good must have within it a sinister plot, a suspicion so deep and twisted that he justifies the killing of polio workers and education activists. He offered Malala a safe return to Pakistan only if she agreed to study the Quran at a Madrassa and reject a western education. He too, accused Malala of being easily swayed and “using her tongue at the behest of others” depriving her of her own agency and ideas.

Similarly, Baig’s argument seeks to confine Malala and place restrictions lest she become tainted with Western exposure, sympathy, or indoctrination. Though it was the Pakistani military who cleared Swat from the hands of the Taliban and the Pakistani military doctors who removed the bullet from Malala’s head, Baig continues in making even her medical treatment in England a means of shame for the native brown man. Such divisive attitudes will only succeed to perpetuate a cycle of hate, cynicism, and distrust. There seems to be no room in such a world-view for reconciliation, redemption, or working together with “the white man” for common goals.

Furthermore it is a sexist narrative. Vilifying coverage of Malala’s message is another attempt to silence her. Comparing her to victims of violence who were not specifically targeted for their fierce activism (literally called out by name and shot in the head for only that reason alone) doesn’t make sense, even though their deaths are tragic and wrong. Extremists have intentionally killed far more people in Pakistan than any drone. They have deliberately destroyed countless Pakistani schools and vow to continue doing so. And, on the note of comparison, just how many schools have the Taliban built?

1072280_276796479127986_1729040150_oAs Malala Yousafzai stood on the world’s stage, she paid homage to her culture, her religion, her heroes, and her dreams. She stood fearlessly; wrapped in the honour of her country and in the shade of her parent’s love. Her eloquent voice aligned with those of countless other girls whom she spoke for and imagining them all standing before her, gave her peace. Far from needing a saviour she embodied a remarkable image of Muslim female leadership and power — she was the saviour — the likes of that of Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, her ideal, and another woman attacked and killed by the Taliban. Her message remains that we must join hands with all people from all walks of life who support education, and that includes Gordon Brown. It echoes the highest ideals of her heroes who taught mercy, unity, forgiveness, and reconciliation with even one’s staunchest foes, and also called for non-violence.

Our words can change the whole world because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness…” Malala Yousafzia

Malala’s dreams have not been hijacked; she has been given the largest global platform in order for her to amplify her voice. Why should that disgust us? Shouldn’t it make us proud? It is not just the West, but also the East that lauded her with praise. Pakistan’s former President has awarded her the highest national award in Pakistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has named her the Education Envoy for the country. If Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for Global education is presently ‘using’ Malala, it is certainly not to spearhead another war, but to grant free primary education to all children — a campaign that Malala along with other Muslim Nations fully supports.

You must not treat others with cruelty or that harshly, you must fight others but through peace, dialogue, and education…Going to school is not only about learning different subjects…you learn about equality. It teaches students how to live together with others, how to accept each other’s language, and each other’s traditions, and each other’s religion. It also teaches us justice and respect.” Malala to Jon Stewart

By denigrating Malala’s profound message as “western propaganda”, Baig and those like him are doing far more to try and rob Malala’s dreams before they even come to fruition, simply because it’s not the kind of “so-called propaganda” they would like highlighted.  Yet the irony of such sensationalism is that had the media largely ignored Malala’s story, Baig would be outraged that the image of a courageous Muslim fighting terrorism instead of promoting it, is not deemed news worthy. And had she succumbed to her wounds, the media frenzy around her would not have amounted to some sinister plot to use her as a “tool.”

Yes, there are hundreds and thousands of girls like Malala who struggle, who are robbed of an education, who are silenced, and whom Malala now speaks for. But as fate has it, there is only one Malala Yousafzai – the captivating activist, just as there was one Hellen Keller, one Gandhi, and one Martin Luther King. The world needs heroes because of their innate leadership qualities, electrifying charm, and resolute unshakable commitment to their dreams that make them stand apart from every crowd and inspire us all to higher ideals. Even the Taliban could see that Malala is no ordinary girl, but is intensely special, and that’s why they still want her dead.

1392037_718898924790629_893662406_nThose who want to paint Malala as an easily influenced “tool” and not as a strong young Muslim woman driving an inspirational campaign have failed to really listen to her message. They failed to know who Malala is and to know the message she has always stood for. We face a grave danger to our own advancement as a society if we label brave female activists who use an international platform as ‘tools’ or ‘traitors’ hurling an attack on the native man’s honour. Shouldn’t we instead rally to their causes as their biggest supporters as opposed to being cynical of their fame, and even join in applauding them when the world takes notice of our own heroes? Whose side are we on?

Meriam Sabih has a BA is English and Psychology from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She blogs at Meriam Sabih. She has also been featured on popular Pakistani blog site Pak Tea House. Find Meriam Sabih on Twitter @meriamsabih

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16 replies

  1. Meriam- I am not a “brown man” and some of your words seem personally directed at the author Assad Baig, which is a shame and undermines your credibility as a critic of his writing. The UN being the mouthpiece of the US politics of today further drives home that Colonnialism is alive and well in different guises today. Knowledge and propaganda machinery proves that today. However your article clarifies a lot that I did not know about Malala. There are a couple of things I need to take away from both articles. Baig throws into the arena the fact that however we see the “Whites” as – we can expect justice in the end because of the way things work in the West. Those soldiers were convicted. Secondly I believe in the wider message that Malala carries – and that is education for all and equality for women/girls etc. It is also true that the subtext hijacked by the media machinery is that “oh look- poor muslim girl shot by these Islamic extremists and look who has to save her” The idea certifies wrongly that Islam is the problem rather than the actual people who practise the faith. That is the stereotype that Baig’s article challenges – it’s a shame you failed to see that and your reaction seems quite vitriolic and naive. Malala has become a propaganda tool and her age is both her strength and her achilles heel. Let’s remember she has amazing courage which now has to be matched by comprehensive knowledge – for which only time will tell. I am glad that the White Saviour has championed her cause because no Brown Saviour has come forward.

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  2. Has the author of this article read Said’s Orientalism? I highly suggest she does… In keeping with the Star Wars fever gripping the nation I would say the Orientalism is strong in this one

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  3. Very interesting, and as a Pakistani I have extreme intense feelings on this fiasco of Western hypocrisy in name of saving little girls from Pakistan from the brown native cruel men of Islam. Baig did not identify all brown men from SOuth Asia or for that matter my turbulent Pkaistan,this unfair act has been done by the WEST, USA, UK and so on who need to drop drones and bombs on Pakistan with excuses of trying to save little brown helpless meek Pakistani women.
    I have the greatest pride in being a Pakistani, even if the WESTERN or global community thinks we are shit, we should be nuked, cut off from development aid, we are terrorists etc etc. It is a shame that anti-drone activist Nabila when voiced her concerns to the WESTERN world, she was snubbed royally by Congressmen in White House, UK, France and all the amazing countries that say they are for the peace and love. Hilariously, anti drone activist Pakistani, Karim Khan whose family members died in a drone strike ( the news in WESTERN media on that drone strike must have been like we killed so and so AL QAEDA militants, etc etc) was kidnapped in Islamabad before his speech at the European Parliament, a speech where he wants to explain how counter-productive drone strategy has become, a bone of contention and its fueling anti-West sentiment that most of moderate Pakistan wish to undo because not all WESTERNERS are enemies and against Pakistan, it is rumored that he was kidnapped on special instructions of some very special people sitting in the WEST that are in cahoots of the corrupt rulers of Pakistan. However post release a shaken Karim has been to the EU event. It is a piece of joke that Germany, France and other countries showed solidarity on his speech. All countries engaged in wars even as we speak.
    As for the message of Malala, that is pure inspiration and hope for basic education rights for all within Pakistan, has been hijacked by west, we should be expecting more droning, bombing to homeland Pkaistan in the western quest of amazing model of bring peace, democracy and love.
    Yes, I agree with Maureen, she is being used by the western media to push forward the white savior agenda and she’s also using this media attention for pushing her agenda.

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  4. Having just read the article to which this is a response, I can’t say I agree with all of the points made, but I fail utterly to see how this piece refutes any of them.

    And while I can’t personally claim to know one way or the other, have you considered the possibility that this whole affair is a stage-managed media event, carefully crafted so that any criticism would be met with just this kind of response, to be hungrily devoured by the majority of westerners who are more than eager to root for a brave little girl with the courage to stand up against the enemies of truth, justice, and the Amerikan way?

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  5. Tinfoilturban, thanks for reading and offering feedback! I think her narrative is being “repurposed” by those projecting their own fears or agendas onto her campaign of education, tolerance, and non-violence. I don’t see her movement as “war propaganda” but a very crucial movement for education spearheaded by a native Pakistani girl. She is not as much a “weak victim being saved by the white man” as she is a leader or saviour herself. There were never any drone strikes in Swat, and it was not any foreign forces but the Pakistani Army which successfully recaptured Swat from the hands of terrorists on its own. Furthermore, Malala does not become “tainted” due to her Western exposure, when she is speaking out against terrorism, wars, poverty, and so on at the podium of the UN. Honor and shame do play a role in how some see brave female activists tackling what some may deem “uncomfortable issues” that they feel are bringing shame unto Pakistani society when they are highlighting ills that have to be addressed (as even some of the comments above express!)

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  6. Women who have helped change our world; Malala is amongst the luminaries like Jean d’Arc, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank, Mary McLeod Bethune, Helen Keller, Aung San Suu Kyi, Harriet Tubman. No women have stood up against the tyranny of ‘Talibanization’ in today’s age as she did. Taliban philosophy of intense horror based on crutches of ‘Ignorance’ was the ultimate fatality and has been knocked down when ‘Malala’ stood up for the first time. What 1000 drones and 100,000 army could not do to ‘eradicate moral equivalence’ of terror she did it single-handedly with non-violent resistance to unbridled terror.

    There is no worst a coward and a hypocrite than someone who despite of being subject of continuous violence and abuse, never gathers the courage and the fortitude to rebel! Rebellion against injustice and abuse is the biggest human virtue. In a society run by ‘double speak’ benign, tamed zoo lions and obedient lams being led to their slaughter houses Malala rebelled, and this is her most unpardonable and unforgivable crime in eyes of a decadent backward mullahiac infested society.

    To destroy this mind set of enslavement once for all, we the free people of the world need to set the motion free that will create million more Malalas, this is what they fear the most, the power of independent learning accorded to the ‘subjugated half’ who will be armed with pen, book and wisdom. An educated mother is the best guarantee for a lasting sustainable peace in the world, the odds improve drastically.

    ‘Duniya main Qateel us sa munafiq nahi koi,
    Jo zulm tu sehta ha baghawat nahi karta’

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  7. Biggest supporter of Malalaa Gorden Brown he is the one who casted his vote in British Parliement even delivered a strong speech to start war in Iraq. War was imposed in Iraq and education were snatched from the people and thousand of innocent people were killed. These are the champion of human rights of women who have killed thousand of people. their heads are filled by the lust to play with the respect of women. And Malala is being used these champions of human rights of women who are involved in killing of innocent girls and women in Iraq war, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Burma and in the whole world there are lot of incidents of their barbaric acts.

    Rigtly Malala is exposed by Orya Maqbool Jan, visit following link:

    http://www.aajfm.com/orya-maqbool-jan-expose-real-face-malala/

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  8. Meriam, thank you so much for writing. I defended Baig’s piece against some people who I thought had misunderstood it, but I think your response is fantastic, and I learned a lot from it. You show how Malala has empowered herself in this situation and has shaped it to her ends. I especially appreciate the insight you’ve given me into how honour and shame come to be gendered and victim-blaming structures, especially in the shadow of colonialism and its poison.

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  9. Waqas, firstly thanks so much for reading and offering feedback! 🙂 I think the message you want the world to make note of, is really the same one that Malala is spreading: that Islam has nothing to do with the behavior of people like the Taliban. Instead of what you think is “shame”, she is bringing pride to Pakistan by inspiring so many around the world with her courage and outstanding leadership. You keep saying what they are doing is “right” (similar to what Assed Baig mentioned in his piece) and that it is even “greatly needed” and “profound” BUT….it is bringing you shame. Well, as I explained above – women don’t bring shame unto society by being remarkable social activists, they bring honor and change where change is needed. And that’s something we should welcome, as these are “native heroes.” Shunning their voices because it makes us uncomfortable would be a great injustice to the causes they represent and to their own heroism. I think what you said also speaks of a denial that I have seen from others as well. It is a feeling that it is simply “someone else’s problem in Pakistan” because there are others that are not facing this problem. In essence, it’s not an issue some are willing to own or want to highlight. Well the statistics don’t lie that Pakistan is the second highest number of children who are out of school, most of them girls. Yes whereas there are many girls in school and many things to point out that are going right (and we should highlight them) what about those who are not as visible or as you say in rural areas(most of Pakistan)? They are just as Pakistani as you and deserve an education. Standing up for what is right, doesn’t make one’s country look weak, but doing nothing would! Being ashamed and brushing things under the rug would. Taking a strong stance, supporting Malala’s cause, and applauding coverage of her message makes her stronger and shows that something is being done by Pakistanis themselves to tackle these issues. And yes people are truly inspired by her – not because they are looking down on others, but because she sparks in us a universal appeal to higher ideals! 🙂

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  10. Malala,(noble peace prize nominee) and Sharmin Ubaid Chinoy(Oscar nominee and winner) both have gathered quite and influence, and although on their part, they both speak for the right thing, education and women rights respectively, but the thing is if you try to look at the bigger picture, they both are doing nothing but portraying a bitter image of Pakistan and Islam in general. Ok, i do agree there are education and women rights issues in rural areas of Pakistan; but why just highlight the negative side on such mass level??? why not show the good side too??? i think you know it yourself that almost every girl who belongs to lower middle or middle or upper class gets education upto atleast school level 12th grade in Pakistan and many more are working professionals with jobs on an equal level as men.. and have equal seat distribution in professional universities, and are free to do anything they want. and no where in Islam it is said that women should be denied education and rights.

    I ll say again, Sharmin ubaid chinoy, filled hatred in hearts on a global level against pakistani muslims, no one highlighted those who are good(and most of them actually are!) its a very small minority who do this acid burning stuff.. and guess what, every society has has such psychopaths, it s not just pakistan,! But thanks to her, now the whole world sees pakistanis as mindless lunatics as she showed in her film. and thus she was used to spread this hatred.

    The same is happening with Malala, she is portraying an image of pakistan as if no girl here goes to school ever.. and kids are denied basic education and Islamist talibans are agianst education. Dude!! Taliban might be against education and all but then they have absolutely nothing related to Islam or Pakistan. If they were such great muslims they would never deny education and rights to women which Islam strongly protects. Again She is just being used as a pawn to fill hatred on a global level against Islam and Pakistan.

    And thats all. I am not saying these girls are doing wrong on their personal level, they are doing good, but in the Game of world politics. They are being used towards a specific goal and direction only.

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    • Dear wqrsl.

      The idea that these two women are putting forth a bad image of Pakistan couldn’t be further from the truth.

      Ms. Chinoy brought forward a beastly act that has been going unpunished in our society in the name of honour. Yes, its done by a minority of whom you call psychopaths, but the act itself affects not just the victim but their families, relatives and friends. One such act can easily destroy lives and affect numerous others on a very large scale. The fact that it was shown at a world stage only served to shame our own society into action. It was not meant to shame Pakistan (our politicians are doing a much better job of that!). It was meant to shame people like you and me into stopping these “psychopaths” because apparently there are a lot of them. Everyday there is atleast one article of a reported acid throwing incident in the newspapers. No one knows how many go unreported. That my friend is thousands a year being affected by this act of a “small minority” of “psychopaths”. The scars of these acts last a lifetime.

      Speaking of “psychopaths”… the Taliban. They go up to a 16 year old girl, call her out by name and shoot her in the head. I think that would be enough to bring the most shame to and “fill minds with hatred” for Pakistan since we accept these wonderful psychopaths as the “Pakistani” Taliban. The world would respect us more if we would stop calling these animals Pakistani and Taliban and call them what they really are…. terrorists, murderers, kidnappers and traitors to the country who can neither be called Pakistani or Taliban. That word has been misappropriated by these murderers and our country needs to take back both the word and meaning of Taliban as well as the identity of being a Pakistani.

      I don’t know if you have lived outside Pakistan but believe me we are not looked upon by the world as the animals that you might think we are. We are students, professionals and successfull business men and women across the world and are respected in the societies we live in. Judging us by the comments of small vocal (usually the same) group of people on news site spouting hatred about Pakistan should not be the barometer to judge the international perception of our country. They don’t look upon us in disgust because these things happen in our country. They feel that way when we don’t do anything about it and come up with excuses that this was done by the “agents of US, Israel and India”, our favourite boogeymen,

      Please have a bit more pride in being a Pakistani and rather then blaming the ones bringing forth the injustices happeing in our country, try to be the force for good so that these things stop happening in our country, A bit of support for these two courageous women would go a long way in showing the world that we do care about the crap that goes on around us and we will do something about it.

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  11. This is good response but I don’t feel the original article denied her bravery and message. My problem with the western media’s portrayal of her is the fact that they are selective with their report of her message. Unless you read the speeches word for word you will never get the full picture. She is being used by the western media to push forward the white saviour agenda, perhaps she is also using them.

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    • Thanks Maureen, I’m glad you enjoyed the response! Though I respectfully disagree, I do think Baig’s article denied her bravery and message. When you say someone’s message has been hijacked, then it is no longer theirs. Hijacking strips one of agency and power. Assed is saying her message is “polluted” and no longer deserves the same respect and attention. Not only that, but that her message is actually promoting a sinister plot by the West. Such an alarming accusation would warrant a hault to this “propaganda”, don’t you think? When you say “save us the propaganda” and vilify her coverage it can be seen as stealing the microphone out of her hand and silencing her. That is not the case, Malala is a leader and she has been for some time! She has wisdom and eloquence that few have at a very young age. A big part of her very message is working together with the West, that is why she is the biggest threat to the Taliban mindset which thrives on division. That is why she was singled out and remains one of the biggest threats to the Taliban. Malala knows very well that tolerance and unity (which is a good education seeks to promote) have the power to kill extremism, which is such a huge problem in Pakistan. But she speaks not just of extremism and terrorism, but also using tolerance and unity in ending poverty and wars. I’m curious to know what exactly are you referring to in her speeches you find alarming, as I have read them word for word?

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      • How does acknowledging that global power structures have a tendency to redefine and repurpose subaltern narratives constitute a denial of ‘agency’.

        What does ‘agency’ have to do with anything?

        In one paragraph you accuse him of ‘identifying every brown man with the Taliban’ then, in the next, you identify his objections with the Taliban.

        If there are some eery echoes going on, they are in the Pakistani nationalism and the implication that this is about some primitive honour culture.

        Malala has agency, of course she does, but the problematic repurposing of her narrative and its use by those at odds with her aims has nothing to do with her bravery.

        Her message isn’t about ‘inspiration’, regardless of how inspiring you may take her as being. It is ultimately a message with political connotations, and the privileging of certain aspects of her message, and elements of her story, is not about honour and should not be decontextualised.

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