Why is Malala such a polarising figure in Pakistan?

Most criticism of Malala in Pakistan is a reaction to the way she has been represented in Anglophone media cultures.

Malala Yousafzai receives an offer to study at a British university
Representations of Malala in Anglophone media cultures exceptionalise her courage to stand up against local patriarchies, writes Khoja-Moolji [EPA]

Malala has returned to Pakistan for the first time after she was shot almost six years ago. While many, including state officials, have welcomed her, there are also some who remain suspicious, even celebratinganti-Malala day”. It seems she has as many detractors as she does fans. 

In October 2017, she was trolled online for wearing jeans. Earlier, in May 2017, a Pakistani minister claimed the attacks on Malala were staged. She went on to name a number of young women from Pakistan – particularly those showing academic excellence – calling them “not Malala”. And when Malala’s autobiography was published, the chief of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, Kashif Mirza, noted that while the 152,000 private schools in the federation had supported Malala when she was shot, they had now decided to ban her book: she “was a role model for children, but this book has made her controversial … Through this book, she became a tool in the hands of the Western powers”.

In Western contexts, such anti-Malala sentiments are read as representing the pre-modern sensibilities of Pakistanis. Any critique of Malala is presumed to be a critique of human rights, and since human rights are the dominant vocabulary for justice at the current moment, expressing discomfort about Malala automatically signals an anti-women’s rights disposition. We, therefore, find articles such as Why Pakistan Hates Malala in Western media outlets, that traffic in ideas about Pakistanis being conspiracy theorists, jealous, and/or inhospitable toward women/girls.

What is needed, instead, is a nuanced engagement with anti-Malala sentiment, so it does not simply become further fodder to (re)cast Pakistanis and Muslims as intolerant. Significantly, understanding anti-Malala sentiment provides opportunities for us to become more astute about the politics of her representation in Anglophone media cultures, which I believe drives much of this sentiment in Pakistan. 

In other words, we have to analyse how she is represented, what elements of her life are discarded to curate a figure that can be glorified in the West, and the consequences of such knowledge-making practices.

In the past few years, Malala has spoken out against drone strikes; she has critiqued Israel's state violence targeted at Palestinians; she has donated money to rebuild schools in Gaza; she has spoken out against bombings in Afghanistan and atrocities in Kashmir; and raised her voice for the betterment of refugees.


Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall reminds us that an object has “no fixed meaning, no real meaning in the obvious sense, until it has been represented”. Representations, therefore, assign or congeal particular meanings in the objects they seek to represent. This process, as African American Studies scholar Alexander Weheliye elaborates, unfolds in a context of power imbalances, which is why some articulations become preferred, as they re-inscribe the prevalent relations of power and ideological interests.

Representations of Malala in Anglophone media cultures, for instance, exceptionalise her courage to stand up against local patriarchies. This articulation of Malala is popular in the West because it relies on pre-established maps of meaning, wherein Pakistanis and Muslims appear unconcerned about violence against women. Malala’s “girl power” then becomes legible in a geopolitical context of Islamophobia, racism, and on-going colonial relations of power. 

Specifically, Malala is represented as the girl who defied the cultural logics operative in Pakistan, and who now embodies a transnational, secular modernity exemplified by her emphasis on the autonomous self, enactment of choice, advocacy for freedom and arguments for gender equality. Instead of being a symbol of the courage of Muslims and Pakistanis to stand up against violence, Malala is shown to be an exception.

Through extensive media coverage and uptake of her image by international organisations, she is individualised in her courage and successful performance of empowerment. She is presented as succeeding against all odds, as a heroine or, as TIME magazine calls her, the “champion for girls everywhere.” She is made into an exception by practices such as celebrating “Malala Day,” receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and book deals. Even the title of her book, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013), centres her person, emphasising her uniqueness.

To create the idea of Malala as an exceptional Muslim girl entails individualising and abstracting her from her local environment and cultures, and connecting her positive attributes to another source, such as her formal education, desire for success, and ambition. Her courage, then, is not read as grounded in Pashtun cultural practices that valorise social justice. Instead, she is positioned as a singular force against local customs and cultural elements.

Malala as an idea, thus, sustains assumptions about Muslims and Pakistanis that are deeply hurtful. It transforms all Pakistani, Muslim men into terrorists and all Muslim women as victims or potential victims. Malala is distanced from other Muslim girls. She is made to simultaneously stand in for, represent and symbolise the perennially oppressed Muslim girl, and positioned as the empowered girl who is not one of them. 

This representation of Malala denies other Muslim girls similar forms of empowered subjectivities. More importantly, it sustains the facade of Islam as an oppressive religion and Pakistan as a backward nation, positioning Western interventions as necessary or even ethically imperative. 

It is important to note, however, that this representation of Malala erases the moments where she herself highlights her radical specificity as a Muslim and as a Pakistani, and her anti-colonial and anti-imperial stances.

For instance, if we read I Am Malala against the grain, we come face to face with vibrant cultures and societies, an abundance of strong-willed women, and kind, thoughtful men. The text reveals aspects of the Pashtun culture and its people; we learn about their hospitality, their oral traditions of poetry, their love for knowledge, the imperatives for kindness, and the beauty and precariousness of mountain societies. There are incidences when the religion of Islam emerges as a source of generosity and peace. For instance, the only charities that stay behind to help local people after the earthquake in 2005 are local Muslim charities.

In I am Malala, we encounter women who shatter the trope of the victimised Muslim woman waiting for a saviour. From Malala’s namesake, the Malalai of Maiwand, who fought the British, and her great-grandmother, who “walked forty miles alone over mountains” in order to appeal for the release of her son, to the women of Spal Bandi “who had great freedom and were not hidden away,” we find evidence of women’s enactments of agency that are emergent within the constraints of socioeconomic and political structures. 

These glimpses into the lives of Muslim women add complexity to, and work against, the narrative that reduces human rights activism to just “resistance” against local practices. Women exercise agency, and experience empowerment, at the intersection of local, national, and global forces. They resist, but they also compromise, twist, mould, and strategise. In Malala’s writing then we see Pakistani women attempting to establish their rights within local frameworks and against both domestic and global patriarchies.

We also come across a wide range of kind, thoughtful, and intelligent Muslim men who work for the betterment of their communities, including contesting the advances of the local Taliban-inspired militants. Figures such as Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai (an activist), Jehan Yousafzai (Zaiuddin’s cousin who brought a gift on Malala’s birth), Uncle Dada (a conscientious teacher), Nasir Pacha (a stranger who helped Ziauddin complete his college education), Akbar Khan (Ziauddin’s mentor), Usman Bhai Jan (the beloved school-bus driver), and Dr Javid (the Pakistani-British doctor who arranged Malala’s hospitalisation in the United Kingdom) all strike at the heart of the ahistoricised and decontextualised figure of the violent, brown, Muslim man.

The key Taliban characters in the book, Fazlullah, Sufi Mohammad and the mufti who tried to close Ziauddin’s school, are viewed as an irregularity, and their actions are contested by local men and women. Indeed, the challenge to Fazlullah comes from within the community – the Pashtuns called their assembly of elders to oppose him, and those who viewed him favourably earlier retracted their support when his initiatives did not align with their sensibilities. Challenges to Fazlullah’s militancy were also featured prominently in the local media. 

In the past few years, Malala has spoken out against drone strikes; she has critiqued Israel’s state violence targeted at Palestinians; she has donated money to re-build schools in Gaza; she has spoken out against bombings in Afghanistan and atrocities in Kashmir; and raised her voice for the betterment of refugees. 

Malala has, thus, used her stature for those who are pushed to the edges by global capital, state violence, Islamophobia, and racism. In doing so, she has shown remarkable grace, tact, and acute knowledge of local customs and global politics. Hence, any critique of Malala must make the distinction between Malala the person and how she is represented in Anglophone media cultures.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.