Meriam Sabih has a BA is English and Psychology from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She is a blogger for the Huffington Post and also blogs at http://meriamsabih.wordpress.com. She has also been featured on popular Pakistani blog sites pakteahouse and altmuslimah, and on Media Diversity UK. She writes about politics, religion, and philanthropy.
At the end of 2013, Meriam wrote a reply to Assed Baig’s piece ‘Malala and the White Saviour Complex’. Here the founder of “The Lifting the Veil Project” interviewed the author about what drove her to write her article, and on her hopes for the future of Pakistan.
Knowing how important Malala’s message of education and tolerance is, especially to Pakistan itself, and seeing it characterized in such a negative way was hurtful and shocking. I was taken aback by Baig’s negative generalizations and appalled that Malala’s agency was being stripped from her. It was as though Baig was trying to steal the global microphone from her hand as she was grasping onto it. It was unfortunate to witness Malala being silenced once again, this time not by the Taliban, but by some in her community who should have been be at the forefront of supporting her and celebrating her remarkable courage and recovery.
Though her profound message is entirely her own, Baig deems it as “propaganda“ when it is exposed to Western sympathy. Those were harsh words, especially since Malala’s message was already under attack from the apologists of extremists and many of those spewing wild conspiracy theories. Now some Pakistanis in the West were projecting their own grievances onto her campaign and silencing Malala’s voice. This young girl was specifically targeted by the Taliban for speaking out against extremism and calling for her right to go to school. She not only miraculously survived, but confidently and defiantly spoke at the UN. Was it only to be criticized, silenced, and shunned? The vitriol against Malala was becoming increasingly severe. In fact, it was frightening in its violent opposition.
In such an atmosphere, I wanted to lend my voice to those defending Malala. I was also inspired by Tehmina Kazi’s words, “the time has come to genuinely appreciate our humanitarian heroes, such as Malala, Mukhtaran Mai, and Abdul Sattar Edhi, rather than denigrating their achievements with misplaced cynicism.”
What was the general reaction to your piece? Did it differ between men and women, and between racial groups?
I was greatly appreciative for the positive reaction from so many, including young activists on the ground in Pakistan and female leaders, writers, and bloggers.
I received a lot of positive feedback from women, including many whom I greatly admire. It was particularly very encouraging for me for Pakistan’s former ambassador to the USA, Ms. Sherry Rehman to call my post a “great piece”, and for New York Times International Op-Ed writer and author Bina Shah to tweet saying “Well done, young woman. That was a very good article.” I was equally happy to see many Pakistani men supporting the article. My article went on to be featured on Raza Rumi’s popular Pakistani blog site Pakteahouse, Altmuslimah, MediaDiversityUK, and the Huffington Post UK. At the same time, others acknowledged a confused sense of solidarity with her message but felt shame with regards to Malala bringing up sensitive issues and airing Pakistan’s dirty laundry. There was a sense of denial, by those who are far more privileged, regarding the problems that many Pakistanis face. It was sad to see some argue that due to the fact that there are many highly accomplished women in parts of Pakistan, the problems faced by those like Malala are less relevant and should even be brushed under the carpet, rather than highlighted.
Also important to note is that it’s much easier for some to criticize Malala or the West, but there is a reluctance to openly criticize the Taliban; many simply remained silent and did not react either way. What does it say about us as a community if we fail to lend our voices in support of those brave enough to stand up to terror? It means we have failed to support our very own activists striving for good.
And to those who asked, “why her?” why not her? Yes, unfortunately many have given their lives in the fight against extremism and Malala would have been remembered as one of those statistics had she died. Instead hers is the story of a brave survivor; she is not just a victim who was shot by accident, but was purposely targeted for her activism. Not only that, but despite being attacked she got back up and continued in her unwavering drive to lead for a good cause. We don’t look to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and say, “why are we focusing on her?” Malala has shown remarkable courage and leadership. These are truly inspiring stories, so why not wholeheartedly celebrate them?
Do you think that the discrepancy between the two pieces exposed problems with the way that arguments are presented about issues where ethnic minority women or girls are involved?
Yes. Ethnic minority women and girls are often reduced to being characterized as victims and having no real power; unfortunately, often times this is the case even in their own communities. Yet Malala herself is a savior figure and represents a powerful image of Muslim female leadership. She boldly said she does not want to wait for men to speak for her or lead the way but asked women themselves to rise and tackle these problems. She told Jon Stewart that she believes women are even more powerful than men. Malala represents an example of a Muslim woman not wanting to fit within the outdated narratives projected unto her either by her own community, or the West. Instead she wishes to define herself as a global leader working on the front lines for social change. Muslim women are telling their own stories and fighting their own battles. It’s time we acknowledge them for that, and it’s time we celebrate them as well.
In your piece you stated ‘He [Baig] cannot fathom doctors, activists, institutions, and politicians around the world engaged in humanitarian work unrelated to a larger racist narrative.’ Would you say that this is an enduring problem with pieces that are written by writers of colour? Or is that the arguments need to account for a wider spectrum of opinions?
Certainly I cannot speak for them all, but in Baig’s piece, he clearly has an issue with this. We cannot paint everyone with the same brush or feel paranoid that every white man is against us. Even those who may be against certain issues, or have made grave mistakes in the past, are not against us all of the time. We should be willing to work with those who are willing to help in achieving our goals. We must reconcile our differences wherever possible. These are the lessons of compassion and forgiveness Malala has learned from the Prophet Muhammad the prophet of Mercy (pbuh), Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, and Bacha Khan. On the other hand, those like the Taliban see every perceived good as a conspiracy. This is an attitude we must strive against. What is ignored is that the West is also engaged in a lot of humanitarian work.
But at the same time, I think we often give too much credit to the West. Entirely missing from Baig’s narrative is the fact that Pakistani doctors were the ones who removed the bullet from Malala’s head. And it was the Pakistani Army alone which freed Malala’s hometown of Swat from the hands of the Taliban. Even in her UN speech Malala graciously thanked Pakistan, the UAE, as well as the UK government for assisting her in her recovery. She was also recognized with the highest honors in her own country and featured on some of the most popular Pakistani talk shows. Why then did Baig only mention the West?
You said that ‘One wonders if a Muslim man had made such a fearless litany of demands to both world leaders and terrorists alike would Baig and others have referred to him as a “tool for the West” or celebrated him as a hero?’ – how integral are sexist attitudes to shaping this whole debate?
Addressing the world at the United Nations and making demands of world leaders is considered a bold and powerful act. Had a young Muslim man given such a speech at the UN it probably would have been universally applauded. Perhaps Baig would not have seen such a man as being used as a “tool” but of speaking his mind against both terrorists and world leaders. There certainly would be less emphasis on his gender and more on the substance of his argument.
On the other hand, Malala’s message was largely ignored by Baig; she is seen as neither powerful nor inspiring, but instead her image is simply enough to classify her as a weak native girl and a pawn to justify war. How did a powerful message of peace, survival, forgiveness, non-violence, a condemnation of terrorism, war and poverty, and a desire to grant all children worldwide an education, become reduced to a call to justify war?
Similarly, being sought after for hour long interviews with Diane Sawyer, Christian Amanpour, and Jon Stewart would be defined as the height of success and power for most celebrities and powerful leaders around the world. Assed Baig saw such media attention as a sign of Malala’s weakness and of her being “used” whereas she was amplifying her voice to a larger audience. Baig made it seem as if journalists and anchors are conspiring with the Pentagon itself to use Malala. This is simply not true. Malala’s message exemplifies courage that few in this world have, a determination that makes us yearn for our own goals, and a forgiveness that makes many feel awe. Her message truly inspires people!
Is there a problem with the debate being reduced to a choice between siding with Western leaders or the Taliban?
Yes there is. There is a another option: supporting activists working on the ground and working together with those who help with important causes. Malala paved her own path based on the inspiration she received from her own heroes and a desire to improve the situation in her own beloved land. She paid homage to her religion, culture, and heroes. Her desire for education and to fight against terrorism and extremism is inherent within her own narrative and stems from her own belief systems. It is her conflict that she wishes to resolve as a Muslim woman, Pakistani, and as a Pashtun. It is very much the conflict of Pakistan. Just as it is also the conflict of Islam to strive against those who wish to hijack the religion for causes, which are contrary to its own principles.
Furthermore, the “us vs. them” narrative is the same whether used by the Taliban or Islamophobes. They both seek to perpetuate this negative and false dichotomy. I explain in my piece that Malala, like the heroes she mentions, seeks to work together with others wherever she can for mutual benefit. There are many such on-going programs which are in collaboration with the West. These programs are supported by Muslim countries. In fact they are vital for development.
Similarly, education must be seen as a universal right. We should work together to ensure the right of every child to go to school. Terrorists, extremists, Islamophobes, racists, all precisely do not want people to work together. Tolerance, reconciliation, and the desire for peaceful co-existence have the power to defeat the cycle of hate. Malala understands this well.
What would you hope for the education of Pakistani women and girls as a result of what happened to Malala?
I would hope for Malala’s dreams to be realized – for every child to be able to go school. I would particularly hope for the focus to remain on providing free compulsory education for all Pakistani children, and on addressing the problems of poverty and war. Pakistan has the second largest number of children out of school, most of them girls. According to the UN, in the province of KPK alone 700,000 children do not go to school, and 600,000 of these children are girls. This is unacceptable. The government of Pakistan should not only invest more in education but also work to fight against terrorism and extremism in order to protect its population and its schools which continue to be targeted.
Given both yours and Baig’s articles, what would you say to Malala if you could see and speak to her?
Don’t read his(!) Just kidding!
I would say, Malala, I fully support and applaud you. I am in awe of your courage and determination. I am sorry you faced the negativity that you did, but as they say you are in good company as many before you faced similar resistance. At the same time I am sure you are overjoyed at the love and support you receive. Thank you for being an inspiring figure and much needed positive influence for improving Pakistan. We need the brave Malalas of Pakistan, along with their sisters, mothers, fathers, and brothers to stand up as you did. It is easier to attack one voice, but when we join voices it becomes harder to target so many. I would also love to see you as Prime Minister of Pakistan one day. I wish you success in all your goals
Follow Meriam Sabih on Twitter: https://twitter.com/@meriamsabih