How To Keep Malala from Being Appropriated: 5 points on Malala, Obama, and Jon Stewart

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Would we know Malala Yousafzai if she was one of the hundreds of children killed by American drones?

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Would we know Malala Yousafzai if she was one of the hundreds of children killed by American drones?

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It is vital for Muslim reformers to have and maintain a holistic sense of justice in which one speaks simultaneously against both abuses of Muslim extremists and Western colonial powers. As for Malala, it means simultaneously to speak against the misogynist policies of the Taliban AND the violence inflicted on the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan by American drones.

  • sleepless

    Excellent critical observations.

    Malala is not an exception. Muslims are not exceptions. They don’t need to be adopted, they don’t need foreign powers in their lands or constantly mingling in their politics. We should look behind the logic of adoption and domination. We should work on the culture of imperialism that the US inherits, and the widespread stereotypical representations of others that justify and perpetuate the violent international politics of the US.

  • sanielle

    Can I just go ahead and disagree with one point in your otherwise great article.

    She really is exceptional. Not among *Muslims* or among *women* or among *girls* or the *occupied* or or or.. She is just purely an exceptional human. And I really refuse to believe there are many other people who at her age and in her circumstances would be able to behave as she did and with the grace she has shown.

  • Kay

    I, too, feel that Malala *is* exceptional. And I take opposition to your general point. Why is it that you have trouble accepting her path as her own? Why do you insist she take up other causes (even though I agree with those causes)?

    The world should celebrate this exceptional young woman, not ask more of her. And to your view….other exceptionsal Muslims can stand up for the other issues of today.

  • Lia C.

    As someone who has been called out for being “exceptional,” I want to clarify what that can mean to an ‘othered’ person.

    It was during the course of a college class on Special Education and Exceptionality (often used to mean both special needs and gifted/talented). The professor kept giving doom and gloom speaches about minorities, those born into poverty, those in large families, those in rural areas…and I am all of these things. A product of generational poverty, eldest of 10, born to an interracial couple in a poor orcharding community.

    I finally stood up and angrily pointed out that I was all of these things he spoke so bitterly of, and I was there. In a highly ranked school, sitting in his classroom, with a merit scholarship and a scholarship I’d won in an essay and interview competetion that took no financial need into account or race into account, that I’d beat out the salutorians and validictorians of my high school class for, and every one of my 9 siblings was just as capable as I was.

    He looked at me evenly and told me I was an “exception.”

    It is hard to express just how much of a slap in the face it is to have my extended family, my community, anyone I look like or who would understand my stories without long explanations, dismissed, and myself pointed out as an “exception.” Although priorities often varied in my poor community, I knew that many in my extended family, and even my own parents, were brilliant, capable people with some amazing talents who simply hadn’t had access to higher education and support for seeking it. If you can fix a truck when you’re barely literate and get it to purr, if you can learn a whole other language without any kind of support beyond the television (or beyond simply being around your husband’s family), when you can successfully graft beautiful, healthy fruit trees that produce well, you are not DOOMED. You are not stupid, you are not someone the system could have never served.

  • John

    A little editorial care please. The Peace Price was endowed by Nobel, and has nothing to do with nobility. Hence the Nobel Peace Prize, not Noble.

  • Sam Glaize

    Exceptionally (no pun intended) well said, thank you. …and something for all of us to remember. It is too easy to unwittingly fall into arrogance when trying to understand who or what is “exceptional”.

    Sam Glaize

  • Hanna

    True…then again, maybe girls who grew up with a feminist campaigner as a parent might have similar poise?

  • dear John, I plead autocorrect! Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and will fix it.

  • Ali M


    What exactly do you mean when you speak of “Muslim Reformers”?

    I’m just curious.


  • Ankur Bhaskar

    Number four is just silly. It was a JOKE to express how proud her father is of her. Keyword: JOKE,

  • Danios

    Clearly people are misunderstanding the way in which Prof. Safi used the word “exceptional” here. The disagreement is only semantic.

  • James Souttar

    “Malala is already rooted in a community, even as she is struggling to reform that community.”

    Actually, she has re-rooted with her family in Birmingham, England, where she now goes to school. And trying to reconstruct Malala as an ‘all Muslim heroine’ ignores the fact that she has been campaigning for a British model of education that she was brought up with. The article seems to unnecessarily polarize the issues here: it’s not about ‘West versus Islam’, Malala’s campaign is about an individual’s right to choose against the demands of ideologues who feel entitled to dictate others’ choices, and to murder those who don’t go along with them (even if they are children).

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  • Mary Mac

    It feels like your comment is doing exactly the polarising that you’re suggesting Omar is doing? I don’t think that saying that her values come from whatever in her schooling and upbringing derived from her Pakistani, Islamic and regional heritage is to exclude or devalue the parts of it that derived from a Western/British model. To suggest that the two are opposed or even discrete is exactly the kind of arguments that the Islamic extremists and the War on Terror depend on.

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  • Yes, it was a joke, and a joke can contain within it various unconscious motivations.

  • Joel

    That’s kind of a weak reason… like saying, water can make things wet.

    If you’re going to point out a motivation, then I would point to the statement in the interview where Jon mentioned “nothing feels better, than making you laugh,” as that would stick better with his “adopt” statement, which made her laugh.

  • Ashley Quinn

    I was just surprised when I read your comparison to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not that this isn’t accurate, but it seems to be an example of appropriation.

    Gandhi seems like the obvious comparison, with their more similar biographical and geographical stories.

    The concern I see with calling Malala, or MLK, or Gandhi, “exceptional” is this belief that no one else could or would be so brave, committed to non-violence, etc. We hold these people up on pedestals and do not hold ourselves to the same standard, the exceptional ones have some magic, some divine power, some extraordinary fortitude.

    Hundreds and thousands of individuals had the courage in the US Civil Rights Movement, the South African Civil Rights Movements, the campaign for Indian Independence. Yes these movements had spokespeople and leaders, but one lonely man protesting does very little to create change. Hundreds died rather than lift arms against their tyrants. Thousands march. If you think it is “exceptional” for a human to chose love over hate, then I hope that you meet thousands of people who believe differently that they may change your mind.

  • Amjed

    I totally agree with you on the point that she is exceptional. I come from the same province and have been in her hometown for years. For economically and politically marginalized ordinary Pashtun people it is well nigh impossible to stand against the Taliban or the unwavering exploiting policies of Pakistan’s majority. But she did that and she was silenced to the best they could, missing by millimeters. She comes from a people constantly fed with anti-west propaganda and disinformation, the creators of which are the stooges who make it possible for thieves both in America and Pakistan to siphon off well meant funds donated by individuals and organizations in US and elsewhere.

    I won’t be able to make you imagine the state of mind of our people at this point in time. There is a complete dislocation of sensibility as the religious, military , political and socialite propagandists shoot their version of state of existence on the common man’s mind through the mass as well as social media.

  • Douglas Roberts

    What will happen when people discover that Malala is related to one of the people being held in Gitmo?

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  • Actually the great nonviolent leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is a better comparison, because he was (1) Pukhtun and (2) started his career in education (for which he was first thrown in jail by the British). The only problem is that relatively few readers will have heard of him, including Muslim readers.

    There is no doubt in my mind that men and women like Khan are exceptional. That is why Khan was given the honorific Bacha Khan.

  • Professor Safi, thank for your thoughtful piece. May I suggest next time you interview some local specialists to supplement your own analysis? Some examples would be teachers at the Bacha Khan Educational Foundation School in Peshawar, the film maker and girl’s rights activist Samar Minallah Khan, and a Pukhtun development professional such as Shandana Humayun Khan. I have really missed seeing their ideas in the discussions taking place this last couple of months. And let’s face it, they are among the real experts in these issues.

  • Mordecai

    Thank you, Lia, for your comments. They are a great reminder that level of education does not equal level of intelligence or capability. And level of intelligence does not equal wisdom. I would question your professor’s definitions of success and fulfillment.

  • Alcofribas Nasier

    First, we’re all aware that Jon Stewart was busting a joke about adoption. Right? After what he clearly reflected as a very moving and authentic statement from a young guest. There is nothing in here I want to disagree with, besides the piety with which the author schools us in what is and what is not exceptional. Or what can be adopted or appropriated. Understanding begins as a sort of adoption or appropriation — this essay is perfectly aware of that in the way it tries to make familiar ideas that might be new and not obvious to American readers. I will agree with the notion of a holistic sense of justice for everybody. But to be truly holistic that sense cannot be arbitrated by this author.

  • m.a

    Wow..! I m short of words..! Power to you.

  • JW

    I agree. This excellent piece is weakened by makingtoo much of Stewart’s sweet attempt to speak to her as just a girl; one he confessed he was especially happy to see laugh at his jokes.

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  • Nawied Jabarkhyl

    I’m quite concerned that someone who has “spent years… living in and studying Muslim majority societies” can classify the Taliban as purely “evil”. It’s very ignorant to classify the “Islamic” world as one homogenous group, with similar preferences and beliefs.

    Related to that, to think that the people of North-West Pakistan and large parts of Afghanistan think of the Taliban as evil, shows a great lack of awareness and cultural understanding.

    Ironically, you seem to have bought into the Western-constructed view of the Taliban, despite spending large parts of this article trying to highlight the need to avoid Western constructs.

    On a seperate note, I like Malala, think it’s just cynical human nature that’s leading people to find ways of discredit her motives.

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  • Dear Profesor Safi,

    And thanks for this piece on Malala!

    Please see my response to Baig’s post : Silencing Malala Yousafzai and “the Brown Man’s Honor Complex” –

    Also, I disagree with one point (though understand what you meant). There are lots of courageous Pakistani activists and leaders, BUT Malala is certainly exceptional in her bravery and resolve!!!

    Meriam Sabih

  • Tracy

    Malala is certainly exceptional. She speaks with a better vocabulary and more eloquence, in a foreign language then most adult native English speakers. She has also written a book. seriously! She is 16.

  • David Sacks

    Professor Safi,

    Thank you for this article. I would like to call everyone’s attention to another woman in Pakistan who is doing much for girls’ education: Humaira Bachal:
    An inspiring video, and an article describing her work.

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  • Jack

    I disagree that Jon Stewart was offering to actually adopt Malala. His heartfelt sentiment… coming after being rendered speechless my her stunningly mature wisdom… was symbolic. Malala is a daughter of the world now, as much as she is her father’s daughter. She has been taken into the hearts of people all over the world. Mr,. Stewart was merely verbalizing the deep affection many of us have for this remarkable young woman. As with many others, I would adopt her instantly. But what that really means is that she would make me supremely proud to be her father. I hold her father in the highest respect for what he has given to the world in his daughter.

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  • Jerry

    America is powerful and rich, and as Americans we want our own way. We propagate wars for oil or power or ideology. Our government is corrupt and ineffectual. In our society, we have children killing other children and a whole host of uncivilized behavior. On a social and governmental level we have many, many failures. Our institutions (civil and religious) speak out against all of the horrors in our midst, seemingly to no avail.

    Fortunately for us, if we do speak out, no institution is going to track us down and shoot us in the face. If they did, they would be tracked down and brought to justice. If our govt. did not act, our people and our institutions would act. Sadly, there is little anyone can do to stop the killing of Muslims in Muslim lands. Perhaps if Muslim institutions, Muslim leaders, Muslim congregants… started to regularly and habitually speak out against Muslim on Muslim and Muslim on infidel violence, they might find the peace they claim their religion represents. If they do speak out, they may well suffer Malala’s fate. But she did speak out, and that is why she was shot. And that is why she is exceptional. Malala’s small voice was heard, but the silence of the Muslim community is deafening.

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  • hey malala is the best i want to be like her when i grow up i love her a lot 😀

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