Malala Issue: Perils of Overexposure

Raza Habib Raja

I remember when the assassination attempt on Malala took place, many felt horror and in fact after a long time, there was across the board vociferous opposition of the cowardly act of the Taliban. At that time she was a unifying figure and buoyed by what I was witnessing, I even wrote an article praising her not only for her courage but also her symbolic importance.

However the situation has changed and somehow she has become a controversial and polarizing figure.  Right now media, both electronic and social, is being dominated by tussles between Malala supporters and opponents. The supporters want everyone to accept her as a hero whereas opponents are opposing her vociferously. Their opposition ranges from criticism of International media to calling her a foreign agent. Some are out rightly abusive and are indulging in cheap slander which is deplorable.

While some of the opposition is coming from those who are obviously bigots and believers of cheap conspiracy theories, I have seen that many apparently reasonable people have also joined the chorus. This set of people does not call Malala as an agent or take cheap shots at her. However, they are getting irritated at what they see as manipulation of Malala incidence by the West (particularly USA) to sell its own narrative.

How come a merely sixteen year old girl has become a polarizing figure?

Now obviously some Pakistanis are completely blinded by their irrational hatred of the West  but at the same time I do think that the international coverage has gone overboard. While I really admire her but I do think that media overkill and virtual elevation of Malala to a saint like status is now proving counterproductive.

On a personal level, for me Malala is a hero. In many ways her tragedy is Pakistan’s tragedy but her courage is the hope that all is not lost. At a very young age she was able to see things clearly that majority of our urban middle class population is simply unable to.

Definitely she is a hero but not the only hero as countless others have been the victim of terrorism and religious extremism. Heroes also include countless soldiers, who have laid their lives while fighting Taliban. Heroes also include those polio vaccine workers –both men and women-who have been shot while on duty. Heroes are those continue to speak against religious extremism following the example set by late Bashir Ahmed Bilour, despite knowing that such act may end up in their own extermination.

But compared to all those, Malala has received the most attention in the international media. To some extent this is understandable as she is young and the way Taliban felt threatened by her existence made her a symbol of female emancipation. But at the same time a near exclusive focus on her leads to divergence of discourse towards rather trivial things such as whether she is a hero or an agent of the West. Moreover it also allows the opponents to introduce drone attack victims in the same category by pointing that “they are also like Malala” ( without bothering to think that there is a hell lot of difference between deliberate targeting and collateral damage). I have actually seen countless status updates in the social media whereby people are showing pictures of girls killed by drone attacks and drawing attention to relative “indifference” of the West compared to its constant projection of Malala.

Of course I do not agree with this absurd comparison ( not saying that I endorse collateral damage of drones), but right now it is becoming effective and many people are buying it. And unfortunately the media overkill is one of the reasons.

The problem with over projection is that it automatically creates visible targets and also puts questions about motives. This is what has happened in Malala’s case. In my opinion, we need to move beyond her and focus our debate on the larger issue of extremism.

Those who claim to be liberal also need to understand that there is no point fighting uselessly on proving that she is a hero. Those who have made it their mind are not going to change.  One can argue and convince some but not all opponents. Frankly, it does not matter as it does not materially affect her. She is now outside Pakistan and safe. Many are now simply getting irritated by this useless debate.

Battle against extremism is also the battle of the minds. If a person is losing the symbolic value then there is no harm moving beyond him/her and trying to fight another battle.



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