British Vogue’s interview with the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate set off a storm of virulent criticism in her native Pakistan.
The July issue of British Vogue departs notably from the usual fare of supermodels, pop stars, and actresses. Wearing a traditional salwar kameez and matching head scarf, Malala Yousafzai—“survivor, activist, legend”—gazes serenely through honey-colored eyes. Her warm smile is slightly lopsided, a permanent reminder that she survived a gunman’s bullet to her head. She is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the world’s most admired activists for the education of girls and women; and yet, she conveys neither artifice nor arrogance.
The interview, conducted by London-based journalist Sirin Kale, reads like the transcript of a lighthearted conversation between two young women sitting in a café. Malala, now 23 and just graduated from the University of Oxford, happily answers questions about what she likes to eat, how she spends her time, and what her plans are for the future.
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But when asked about her romantic life Malala became so visibly uncomfortable that her interviewer felt as though she were “torturing a kitten.” In the extremely conservative area of northern Pakistan called Swat, where Malala was born and raised, falling in love or having a boyfriend is considered shameful and dishonorable. But, later, she nonetheless offers some ambivalent comments about marriage.
“I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?”
In Pakistan, these anodyne comments set off a firestorm of virulent criticism. Social media users called her a “prostitute” and “traitor”; and the hashtag #ShameonMalala trended for days. Z-list celebrities attempted to capitalize on the Malala hatred by issuing sanctimonious statements about marriage, while newspaper columns analyzing the interview made headlines for weeks. A so-called preacher in the conservative north of Pakistan declared that he would assassinate the young woman for violating the sanctity of Islam.
By now Malala is used to Pakistanis expressing outrage at what she does and says. But the magnitude of this backlash was particularly intense.
Upper middle-class women, who tend to be more educated and thus supposedly more worldly, were particularly critical of Malala for voicing reservations about marriage. In Pakistani Facebook groups, they wrote that Malala’s head injury had probably caused brain damage; or they mocked her appearance, commenting that of course she was against marriage—with her disfigured face, she would never find a husband.
How to explain this vicious torrent of outrage? Perhaps these well-heeled, well-educated urban women were lashing out because by questioning the value of marriage, Malala had implicitly criticized the institution from which most Pakistani women derive their identity, status, and privilege.
Pockets of liberalism do exist in Pakistan. A 23-year-old woman from a rich family in Lahore, Islamabad or Karachi might be allowed to choose her spouse—even to date or have a boyfriend. But saving face is essential; cultural and religious standards must be upheld. Those who rebel against society’s mores are expected to do so discreetly.
It’s a rare woman in Pakistan who remains single by choice. By questioning whether partnership and love should require religious and legal sanction, Malala unintentionally held up a mirror that reflected all the burdens and restrictions of marriage. That is why these women responded to the interview by having a complete meltdown: Their own internalized misogyny trumped whatever lip service they usually give to female solidarity and sisterhood. Their lambasting of Malala, the so-called “darling of the West,” was reminiscent of the ritual of “salvaging” in The Handmaid’s Tale, when the Handmaids gleefully pull on the rope that hangs the condemned woman to death.
Of course Malala does have many supporters in her home country, where she’s often called the “Pride of Pakistan.” They counter the haters by holding up examples of Malala’s positive influence in Pakistan and the rest of the world—like the Malala Fund, mentioned in the Vogue interview, which is rebuilding schools in her native Swat, in several African countries, and in Gaza. Few people know about this important work, or that the Fund supports the work of policy reformists who are overhauling Pakistan’s creaky education system. Those who love Malala are happy that she survived the assassination attempt and thrived; that Pakistan’s military defeated the Taliban; and that something excellent can come out of Pakistan, a place where life is difficult and often grim.
Pakistanis are under a lot of pressure these days. The country faces serious economic problems even as it tries to recover from decades of dictatorship and terrorism; matters are further complicated by the country’s continued involvement in geopolitical conflicts with India and Afghanistan. Salaries remain low even as inflation and taxes continue to rise. Quality education, health care, and job security are all in short supply. Working-and middle-class people feel the economic frustrations most acutely; for them, dignity and security are a mirage.
On popular television talk shows broadcast each night, upper-class Pakistanis argue about the causes of their country’s malaise—e.g., corruption, government incompetence, and the erosion of moral values. But instead of looking for ways to strengthen the country internally, they blame external bogeymen such as India, “the West,” and anyone who seems to be working against Pakistan’s interests.
Malala has become a lightning rod for these people. Every time she does something that makes the news, she’s accused of making the country look bad. The usual round of accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories are trotted out: Her shooting was a staged drama so she could obtain a foreign passport; she has been chosen by Western and Jewish overlords to become prime minister of Pakistan one day; her many prestigious awards are in fact compensation for the role she plays in a master plan to dismantle Pakistan altogether. They speculate that Malala is actively working against her own country.
On the Vogue cover, Malala is traditionally but elegantly attired: She wears a crimson dupatta draped gracefully over her head and shoulders and a matching crimson kameez; the backdrop is the same shade of crimson—the color of blood, the color of revolution, of love—and she holds one hand up to her face, right where her facial muscles droop because of her injuries. She’s careful to portray herself visually as respectful of her Pashtun heritage. But it’s getting harder to keep her intelligent mind and her ideas as carefully curated. This tension will only grow as she navigates through life: In Pakistan, every word she says will be parsed and every action criticized.
Having completed her formal education, Malala is now considering what she should do with the considerable money and influence she has accumulated over the last six years. Besides the Nobel Prize, there is the Malala Fund (Bill and Melinda Gates and Angelina Jolie are donors) as well as appearances at Davos and the United Nations. For some, this is too much power for a young woman from a valley in Swat, Pakistan. Her friends Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, and Emma (‘X’) Gonzalez, the Parkland shooting survivor and anti-gun activist, both of whom have also been targeted by vicious critics, can relate.
Malala’s detractors often ask why other young victims of terrorism, especially boys, don’t receive the same treatment as the young woman from Swat. But most people don’t know what happened to these victims, whom they believe are stranded in Pakistan, locked out of the privilege and influence that Malala wields. Waleed Khan is a university student who was shot in a 2014 Taliban terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Like Malala, Khan went to the UK for treatment and stayed on to pursue his education; Malala and her family supported him throughout his ordeal. In the wake of the controversy over the Vogue interview, Khan tweeted: “From a long time I have been seeing images of me and Malala circulating around. I would like to request everyone please stop this comparison. We can’t uplift one person by degrading the other. Malala is an inspiration for many young ppl like me and millions around the world.”
From a long time I have been seeing images of me and Malala circulating around. I would like to request everyone please stop this comparison. We can’t uplift one person by degrading the other. Malala is an inspiration for many young ppl like me and millions around the world.
— Waleed Khan (@WaleedKhanAPs) June 4, 2021
With so many programs for improving the lives of girls funded by Western NGOs and foreign missions, many complain that boys are left behind. Some of this is fair criticism; but some is sexist backlash in a society accustomed to conferring automatic privilege upon boys and men. Elevating Malala above male victims of similar violence sparks fears about another Western conspiracy to rend Pakistan’s social fabric and make women more powerful than men.
The degradation of others considered to have gained too much wealth or prominence is called Tall Poppy Syndrome, a term that originated in Australia. In Pakistan, Malala is the home-grown variety; both men and women want to cut her down because they think she’s gotten too big and gone too far. But not everyone reacts with so much jealousy or negativity to Malala. Many Pakistanis openly adore her; and the government of Pakistan gave her full support and security when she came to Pakistan on a secret trip in 2018. Hundreds of little girls study in the schools she has opened in the Swat Valley. Across the country, plenty of people recognize that those who shot Malala in the head are the real enemies of Pakistan.
Malala rarely comments on this negativity, although when she came to Pakistan in 2018, she told the BBC that she couldn’t understand it. But in the three years since that visit, Malala has grown and evolved from a girl into a woman. The biggest sign that she’s ready for the next phase in her life, and that the hatred doesn’t faze her, is a meme, popular among millennials, that she tweeted a few days after the Vogue cover was released online. It’s a GIF of Elmo, the Muppet character, standing with his arms raised in front of a backdrop of flames dancing behind him. For Malala, this is the equivalent of a mic drop.