Malala, Nobel Prize Winner and Muslim Feminist

Malala, Nobel Prize Winner and Muslim Feminist October 11, 2014

Seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations. This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education.

In the aftermath of this award, I have found an article from a year ago, titled Malala, Muslim Feminist, incredibly relevant:

For Muslim girls and women around the world, however, the story is more than just a tale of survival. In Malala’s frank prose is proof that feminism, or the desire for equality through education and empowerment, is not the terrain of any one culture or faith. In the first few pages of the book, we are introduced to Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun heroine of old for whom Yousafzai was named. Malalai rallied Pashtun men to fight the invading British, venturing bravely onto the battlefield and dying under fire. Her namesake has done the same and survived. In later pages, we meet Gul Makai, another Pashtun heroine, who used the Quran to teach her elders that war is bad. It was under her name that Yousafzai wrote her first published work, the diary of a schoolgirl banned from school in a Swat controlled by the Taliban. In the legend, Gul Makai is able to convince her elders of the evils of conflict; she marries her love, a schoolmate. The legend of Malala, who no longer uses a pseudonym, has just begun.

If you’ve read my other posts on this topic, this concept should be familiar to you. Islam is a religion like any other, and like so many others it has a varied and complex history and a sacred book that has to be interpreted by the reader. Religions change over time and mean different things to different people. They are rarely static or brittle—if they are, they will not survive. Malala is drawing on her religious tradition and faith as she works toward education and empowerment for women and girls.

The author of the article contrasts Malala’s story with that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

In the renunciation narrative of ex-Muslim women like Hirsi Ali, persecution is a justification for abandoning culture and homeland, deeming those contexts too stubbornly patriarchal to be the venue of empowerment. Malala’s story exposes the error of these assumptions; with confidence, she not only embraces faith and culture but also critiques them.

I want to be clear that I do not see leaving a religion (or a culture or homeland) as wrong or as some sort of betrayal. I left a religion myself—leaving is a perfectly valid option. What I think is important to remember is that leaving is not the only option. Staying in a religion—or a culture or a homeland—and working to reform it is another option, and one that can be just as worthwhile, for those who want to take it. I think sometimes we forget that.

Finally, I found this bit from the article very important:

Yousafzai is but one example of this ongoing fight. It is a contest that transcends Pakistan and the Muslim world and challenges Western ideas of feminism and its stereotypes and blind spots. The tradition of narratives that hold up the medieval backwardness of abandoned countries and pivot invasions on liberating their hapless women is a strong one, but it is built on the historical edifice of colonial subjugation. A Western feminism that asks Muslim women to leave their traditions at the door is fundamentally disempowering.

I so agree with this. We cannot ignore the role of colonial subjugation, both in the past and in the present. We have to remember that linking of equality or empowerment to leaving their culture and religion plays into that tradition. Leaving their faith, and often their culture, must not be presented as the only way for women of any religious tradition to gain equality or empowerment. And as Malala Yousafzai and other Muslim feminists show, it needn’t be—faith traditions can be used to empower, and to fight for equality and justice.

In that light, we need to avoid statements like this one by Sam Harris:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

Harris wasn’t talking specifically about Malala or women’s equality, but he rehashes an idea I’ve seen too many times before—that the reformers are those “who don’t take the faith seriously.” I’ve seen this argument made about Christianity, this idea that the “true” Christians are those who take their sacred book “literally” (whatever exactly that means), and that those who find arguments for equality in the text are not taking their sacred book “seriously.” This narrative does not support reformers. It suggests that reformers are undermining their faith and doing it wrong, and that the only way to bring a faith tradition in line with more humanistic values is to walk away from it—to not take it seriously.

But Malala Yousafzai and so many others make it eminently clear that this isn’t true. Malala draws her fight for women’s education and empowerment—her words, not mine—from her religious faith—from Islam. She did not have to stop taking her faith seriously to fight for equality. Rather, she grounds her fight for equality in her faith. There are plenty of Christian women today who also draw their fight for equality or justice from their religious faith. Religions are not static, and they are not uniform. They are varied and dynamic.  They can be used to oppress, yes, but they can also be used to empower, and that’s worth remembering.

And so, with that, I’ll finish with a word of congratulations for Malala Yousafzai.

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