By Gargi Padki
Malala Yousafzai was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart during her trip to the United States in October of 2013. She spoke beautifully on human nature and the value of education, and she demonstrated the power of speaking out against oppression. When Malala was fifteen, she was sitting on a school bus waiting to go home when a Talib boarded the bus and shot her three times, once in the head. The brutal assassination attempt was meant to quiet her public outcries against the banning of girls from schools in Swat Valley, her homeland in Afghanistan. Since the attempt at her life, Malala has become an incredibly vocal proponent of equal access to education for women and girls. Malala is now sixteen years old, and has grown up under Taliban rule for the past eight years. She has watched men abuse power and destroy her village and her way of life.
Malala was born into the Muslim faith. It is all she knows by way of religion. She believes in the tenets of Islam, and she worships and prays in mosques alongside her family, friends, and peers. She shares the religion of the men who have placed a fatwa (a bounty) on her head. A young revolutionary, she is working in far more perilous conditions than most Western activists, and is working with a lot of compassion and sincerity. She is a wildly different image of a Muslim woman than we are ever shown in Western media. Her father, a Muslim man, supports and protects her, and is a brave man who stands in the face of Taliban rule and encourages his daughter to go to school. Enlightened men, fathers and brothers, exist throughout Islam, and they are working to do the best they can for the women in their family.
In Western media, portrayals of Muslim men and women are incredibly severe. “Muslim men are polygamous (read polygynous) and abusive, and Muslim women are veiled, shackled, and secluded” (Hasan 58). Americans are taught to hate Islam in order to gain support for the two invasions and occupations, both illegal under international law, that our nation is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The West has used Islamophobia as a tool for justifying new cruelties in warfare since the year 622, when Europeans began wars against Islam. “European powers have found it convenient to portray Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light”, and this fear of Islam allows us to hate Islam without understanding how our hatred is deeply rooted in justifying war (Hasan 57). Modern examples of cruel warfare are drone and chemical warfare – technologies that allow us to blindly decimate a population, and has “other-ed” Muslims so much that we fear them and are unwilling or unable to see their humanity.
The Western media selectively depicts the most oppressive aspects of Taliban rule in Afghanistan to scare us into thinking that all Muslims are hateful of the West, technology, and equality. Yet in those same borders live men who are challenging Taliban authority and risking their lives everyday for the sake of their wives, mothers, and daughters. We demonize and simplify the worst, most extreme, violent, and oppressive regimes in the Middle East and say that those men are “obeying” Islam, but to say that we must hate Islam because of those few thousand men is to be blind. Malala recognizes that these men are not using, but are indeed abusing Islam to assert domination over her village. She tells us a story about when the Taliban destroyed an electricity generator in her village, an act that left hundreds without water during the sacred month of Ramadan, and how she detests them for abusing the word of the Prophet to justify their actions.
The use of religion to oppress women and control their bodies is hardly a new concept. Society, including the West, has been villainizing and cursing women since conception. When Adam and Eve fell from the Garden of Eden, Adam and all men after him were punished with the burden of having women gnarling at their heels, and women were cursed with having menstrual cramps and painful childbirth. Christianity tells women that the natural and miraculous process of child bearing, labor, and delivery is inherently evil and is a punishment. De Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that “thus humanity is male and man defines woman as not in herself but as relative to him,” and that to be a man is the default, anything less than is a failure. De Beauvoir asserts that as early as in Ancient Greece, Plato thanked the gods for not making him a woman, because to be woman was inherently lacking and defective.
Everywhere around the world women are oppressed and religion is used as the justification for violence because it is easy to claim that men are exerting authority given to them by a higher power. Hindu men used to burn women in a pyre when they became widows, saying that she must live and die for her husband, a barbaric practice known as sati. Even though it was awful, it does not make sense to say that all Hindus are evil. The implementation of Hindu practices differs, and it is always the decision of the follower to choose peace or violence. Hinduism does not need to be demonized in America. This is why many Americans might never know about sati — the United States does not need to fear monger Americans against Hinduism. But the United States will use any tool at its disposal in order to remain in control of the oil rich Middle East.
Hatred of Islam is not going to help resolve the very real oppression that Malala and thousands of girls like her live with under Taliban rule. In order to help girls and women educate themselves in Afghanistan, we cannot force our values and religion on them. We must instead understand and respect Malala’s religion, listen to her requests, and help her achieve her goals from her perspective. We must understand that the violent images we are fed of Afghan men are what the powerful Western media wants us to see. Within Afghanistan, people are working to put an end to the inequalities and violence perpetrated by a very small portion of the Muslim population.
We must also realize the full extent to which other-ing leads to violence. Drone warfare allows a soldier to sit in a secure facility in a desert in the Southwest United States, without any physical threat, and kill a man riding a jeep in Afghanistan, which might as well be a million miles away. Drone warfare distances soldiers from combat and therefore calls into question the ethics of killing and what it means to serve in the American military. Drone warfare also “emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists,” and as more Afghan people live in fear of missiles coming out of thin air, destroying their homes, and killing their families, they become tacit supporters of extremism in the region (Bowden). Other-ing of Islam, and the hatred of Muslims allow Americans to see drone warfare as a justifiable act of war without giving concern to the power of the military. We become blind to the incredible power our government holds and content when we kill men thousands of miles away like they were characters in a video game.
The other-ing of Muslim people has allowed for the United States military to justify drone warfare, and that there are a lot of parallels between using Islam to justify violence and using fear of Islam to justify violence. Both require the oppressive party to dehumanize the other, and though there is a lot of violence against women that exists in a lot of Muslim countries, and though it would be foolish to deny that, it would be detrimental and contradictory to the progress of women and girls to say that Islam is the root of the violence.
Hasan, M. (2012). Feminism as Islamophobia: A review of misogyny charges against islam. Intellectual Discourse, 20(1), 55-78.
Bowden, M. (2013, August 18). The killing machines. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/09/the-killing-machines-how-to-think-about-drones/309434/
Yousafzai, M. (2013, October 08). Interview by JS Stewart [Video Tape Recording]. I am Malala, New York, NY. Retrieved from http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-october-8-2013/exclusive—malala-yousafzai-extended-interview-pt–1