Why the Media Champions Malala, but Ignores Nabila

Malala Yousafzai has received an immense amount of media attention in the past few years, and rightfully so. Just last week here at SIF, Mediha Din took a conflict theory approach to discuss Malala’s global influence as the young activist continues to advocate for girls’ rights to education. In this post, David Mayeda continues to examine Malala’s social impact, dissecting why Malala’s popularity has risen so dramatically in western society, and why other very related stories go virtually unnoticed.

As explained previously in SIF, Malala Yousafzai is a 16-year-old girl from Pakistan now residing in England. Roughly two years ago when living in Pakistan, Malala was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen after she gained noteriety as an outspoken advocate for gender equity in education. A survivor of this horrific act, Malala continues her staunch social activism and has received extensive praise by the west for her actions. Check out her amazing interview on The Daily Show, where at one point she leaves Jonathan Stewart utterly speechless:

Considering the conditions that impact girls and women in Pakistan, it is not surprising, given her incredible conviction, that Malala spoke out for gender equity. Moving beyond educational gender disparities, in 2011, Pakistan was ranked as the world’s third most dangerous country in the world to be female. As reported by TrustLaw, in Pakistan:

  • More than 1,000 women and girls are victims of “honour killings” every year, according to Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission;
  • 90% of women in Pakistan face domestic violence; and
  • Women earn 82% less than men

No doubt, these figures point to unquestionable gender stratification and patriarchal violence. With regard to understanding violence, Elizabeth Stanko reminds us that, “What violence means is and will always be fluid. It is this fluidity that provides the space for disrupting violence, altering its impact on people’s lives and on the way in which we give meaning to it in society at large” (p. 552). In other words, how society defines violence and determines whether or not its impacts are significant depends on social context.

As I described a few weeks back, the United States and other western countries began to acknowledge men’s violence against women in Afghanistan as a global concern only after the Taliban became an enemy to the west. And in fact, the United States supported the Taliban (then known as the mujahideen) as a political ally during the 1980s to push against the Soviet Union, despite knowing full well, the mujahideen’s violently patriarchal tendencies. In other words, at that time, men’s violence against women was rendered insignificant by the United States when juxtaposed with American hopes of winning the Cold War.

Fast-forward a few decades. Now the Taliban stands as one of the west’s global enemies, and all of sudden the Taliban’s violent patriarchy is granted significant meaning in American political circles. It is largely this political backdrop that explains why Malala’s bravery is given so much attention in contemporary American media. This takes nothing away from Malala’s unbelievable talents and passion. An inspirational individual, she deserves all the attention she is getting.

However, it makes sense sociologically to ask why other forms of violence in Pakistan don’t get highlighted in western media to nearly the same degree. In an illuminating article from Aljazeera, Murtaza Hussain compares Malala’s story to that of Nabila Rehman, an 8-year-old Pakistani girl whose grandmother was killed by an American predator drone in 2012. After Nabila and her 12-year-old brother took great lengths to travel to Washington DC to tell their story, only five out of 430 American congressional representatives showed up to listen.

Hence, only certain forms of violence that support an American agenda are defined as meaningful. Only certain individuals who rise up as activists in ways that end up reinforcing American ideology get lauded as public heroes. Those individuals who question American foreign policy and military practice – courageous as they may be – are rendered invisible by western media and political forces.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How have shifting American international relations in the Middle East altered the ways mainstream American media deem certain violent acts significant and others invisible?
  2. How has men’s violence against women been constructed politically to support American intervention – and many would say imperialism – in the Middle East in ways that contradict American foreign policy from decades past?
  3. Aside from her immense bravery and aptitude, why does Malala Yousafzai receive so much American media attention when we account for international politics?
  4. In contrast, why doesn’t American media devote nearly as much thoughtfulness and attention to Nabila Rehman’s plight?

Photo via Wikicommons.