In 2012, the world was shocked when 15-year old Malala Yusafzai was shot in the head in an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban. Yusafzai’s activism went global—she is the youngest Nobel prize nominee in history, and is currently discussing her memoir, I Am Malala, on America’s most prestigious outlets. Yusafzai is an astonishingly courageous person. However, there is a reason that we in the West hear from Yusafzai and not from other women around the Muslim world. Whose voice is amplified and whose is ignored supports a deeper narrative. As Arundhati Roy says, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” The fact that most Americans have heard of Malala Yusafzai but almost none have heard of Malalai Joya reveals the narratives that undergird Western imperialism in the Muslim world.
Yusafzai’s history as a women’s rights advocate is inspiring: she began blogging pseudonymously for BBC Urdu at the age of 11, describing life in the Swat Valley under the rule of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Following the attempt on her life, she was rushed to the UK for the surgery that saved her life. Journalist Assad Baig says that at this point, it became “a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. 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 institutionalized.”
Baig’s piece, “Malala Yusafzai and the White Savior Complex,” is one of the few pieces to look critically at how neatly Yusafzai’s story fits into the colonial narrative of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” It’s worth noting that this critical view was published on a blog on HuffingtonPost UK, rather than a mainstream American news outlet. Baig continues:
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.
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.
We in the West are hearing Yusafzai’s story because the story she tells is one that accommodates US imperial goals, rather than challenging them. If Yusafzai was agitating for both women’s education and an end to drone strikes in Pakistan, there’s no chance she’d make it to The Daily Show, much less Diane Sawyer. Yusafzai is indeed a hero, but there are countless other women whose bravery is too challenging for the American heroism narrative. It’s not necessary to speculate about how such a woman would be treated by the mainstream US media—we can look at the case of Malalai Joya.
Now 35, Joya gained fame in 2003 for a speech at the assembly which created the Afghan constitution. Joya blasted the dominance of warlords in the Afghan political process and called for greater freedom for the women of Afghanistan. She became the first female Afghan parliamentarian in 2005, apologizing to her fellow Afghans “for the presence of warlords, drug lords and criminals” in their government. Joya’s criticism extends beyond her government, though, to the NATO governments that empower those warlords. Joya blames the US both for its support of the corrupt Karzai government and for the terrors its occupation inflicts. In the US occupation of her country, Joya says, “Imperialism and fundamentalism have joined hands.”
In the Western media, activists like Joya or the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) are ignored. RAWA has been active since 1977, but their Marxist and anti-imperialist politics make them radioactive to the American mainstream. Joya’s stature, though, grew to such an extent that she was too big for the American corporate press to ignore. In 2010, Time magazine honored Joya on their “100 Heroes” list alongside Ben Stiller and Gen. Stan McCrystal, the latter being the man running her country’s occupation. In describing Joya, though, Time neglected to explain Joya’s anti-occupation stance. Instead, the magazine left it to neoconservative Ayaan Hirsi Ali to contain Joya’s activism. Channeling her buddy, Christopher Hitchens, Ali said “I hope in time she comes to see the U.S. and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must… get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.”
In choosing Ali to “honor” Joya, Time mediated Joya’s work for a mainstream American audience. Time and Ali reinstated the narrative of America’s Afghan occupation as a mission of “imperial feminism.” In the language of imperial feminism, warfare and state violence aren’t an endeavor of conquest. War is something that brings liberal humanitarianism to a savage population, courtesy of the enlightened conqueror. Ali’s hope that Joya will come to see the error of her ways betrays the patronizing attitude embedded in this narrative. Time’s commitment to propagating the narrative of imperial feminism was reinforced by their cover three months later. A woman under a shawl, her face mutilated, stared out from the cover. The headline read “WHAT HAPPENS IF WE LEAVE AFGHANISTAN.” A declarative statement, no question mark.
Warfare is an inherently masculinist enterprise, and women always suffer the worst in war and its aftermath. Furthermore, women’s emancipation is never a primary goal or even a byproduct of military aggression, it is a pretense. Very few polities are fascistic enough support war for explicit conquest, there is almost always a humanitarian pretense. The language of feminism is an appealing cover in maintaining support for the project bring the Muslim world in line with US dictates. This is why Yusafzai is celebrated, while Joya, the women of RAWA, and countless anonymous others are deliberately silenced or preferably unheard.
“The salient aspect of a humanitarian engagement is what it means for ‘us,’ not for its purported beneficiaries,” writes Richard Seymour in his book on the myth of liberal humanitarian intervention. It’s no coincidence that the most-read books about Afghanistan are Three Cups of Tea and The Kite Runner. It’s nice to think that America is at war so that children can enjoy the simple pleasures of going to school and flying kites. Consequently, emancipatory voices that fit into this framework are permitted, while those that are critical of the West are not.
Very few Americans will ever hear of Tariq Aziz. Aziz, like Yusafzai, was a burgeoning activist who lived in Northern Pakistan. Like Yusafzai, he was motivated to stop aggression and terror against his community. Unlike Yusafzai, he was terrorized by American drones, and his activism was documenting the damage they inflicted on his home in Waziristan. And unlike Yusafzai, Jon Stewart will never ask Tariq Aziz if he can adopt him. Three days after the 16-year-old attended an anti-drone meeting in Islamabad, he and his cousin, like hundreds of children, were killed by a Hellfire missile fired from an American UAV.