Sympathy for Pakistani Girl Shows Limits of Concern

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

U.S. media have shown great, and warranted, interest in Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head October 9 by members of a Taliban faction for her outspoken promotion of education for women. The attack “has horrified people across the South Asian country and abroad,” reports the Washington Post, and “has also sparked hope that the Pakistani government will respond by intensifying its fight against the Taliban and its allies.”

In recalling conversations with Yousafzai, the Christian Science Monitor‘s Owais Tohid noted her sources of inspiration:

The first time I met Malala, a couple of years ago, I asked her what her name signified. She answered: “Probably, a hero like the Afghan heroine Malalai [of Maiwand] or Malalai Joya. I want to be a social activist and an honest politician like her,” she said, smiling.

It’s good to remember, in that case, how Joya tested the limits of U.S. media’s concern for women and girls who stand up to oppressive authorities. Activist and author of A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, Joya has also faced attempts on her life after speaking out against the oppression of women under the Taliban, but she is explicit in counting the U.S. and NATO too as enemies of Afghan women’s (and men’s) right to live and learn in peace.

Time magazine, having named Joya one of its “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World,” nevertheless backhanded her with a profile from Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote that Joya “must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.”

The very mention of the military occupation of her country seemed to offend CNN host Heidi Collins (10/28/09): “Again, ‘occupation’ would certainly be your word. A lot of people would take great issue with you calling the US presence in Afghanistan, in your country, an ‘occupation’.” These would not include, e.g., the U.N. Security Council or the International Committee of the Red Cross, who recognize US/NATO military occupation of Afghanistan as a simple fact of international law.

While saluting Joya’s “singular and heroic” life, the New York Times Book Review (12/13/09) still sniffed that her “tendency to choose rageful denunciation over calm observation is immensely frustrating” (though it has “earned the plaudits of people like Noam Chomsky”).

Joya recently issued a statement of support for Yousafzai (rabble.ca, 10/14/12) that called Yousafzai’s efforts to “wake up the women of the rural areas of Pakistan to stand up and defend their due rights” a “warning for those who only understand the language of the gun.” One wonders how deeply U.S. reporters understand that, or want to.


About Janine Jackson

Program Director and Co-producer of CounterSpin
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.