I recently was able to attend the Chicago premiere of “He Named Me Malala” at the Chicago International Film Festival, and participate in a Q&A session with director of the film, Davis Guggenheim. “He Named Me Malala” is based on Malala Yousafzai’s book of the same name. Malala is an 18 year old activist for women’s rights and education, especially for the education of women in third world countries where it is either not easily accessible or denied to them.
The Taliban, a Pakistani extremist group, banned the education of girls beyond learning the messages of the Qu’ran. Malala counteracted this act by continuously publicly speaking against it as a girl seeking education. She soon became a symbol for oppressed Pakistani girls.
In 2012, while on her way to school, the Taliban stopped her school bus and shot Malala three times, one bullet hitting her in the head. Other girls were injured as well. After intensive care and therapy, Malala survived and continues to advocate for her cause. She recently founded the Malala Fund, an initiative to provide 12 years of safe education for girls all over the world. In 2014, she became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala’s movie, “He Named Me Malala”, focuses on Malala and her resilience. The entire film is modeled around the historical story of a girl named Malala who spoke out in a war despite it being considered ‘radical’, and was killed for it. Coincidentally, Malala is also an outspoken woman in a place where it is looked down on as well. The film open your eyes to an issue not always talked about: oppression of women of color in third world countries and the systemic importance of education. “He Named Me Malala” makes you think about situations happening on the Eastern hemisphere that Westerners are privileged to not experience. We often forget in this place of privilege that fundamental rights are not rooted in systems everywhere. Oppression on both sides of the hemisphere, although both legitimate, are on two different spectrums. Throughout the film, we are able to step into Malala’s shoes and feel her persistence in changing this situation for these girls. Her vision can not be dismissed. For those who want to educate themselves on global oppression and initiatives to minimize it, this film is a good first resource. It does a good job of not evoking pity, but admiration for the strength these girls have to endure such obstacles.
In the Q&A with Davis Guggenheim, the director of the film, I asked,
“How do the struggles of WOC on the Eastern Hemisphere like Malala and WOC in America parallel, and how can we minimize these struggles?”
Guggenheim replied, “WOC are denied opportunities just as WOC there are. Especially in minority neighborhoods, the system doesn’t allow certain people to get to resources outside of their neighborhood. The education offered in these low socioeconomic neighborhoods isn’t as good. Education is stripped on both ends. To minimize these struggles we need to provide more opportunity”.
Later in the Q&A he reflected on the impact the film had on Malala and her family saying, “The act of making the movie was a kind of therapy. I think the movie was an odd experience for them. But to her, it’s her mission. She really feels like she is the spokeswoman for these 66 million girls. She sees the headlines on what’s happening in Syria, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. She knows these girls are just like her. She wants to do something about it. The attention is nice, but she wants them to serve a purpose.”
When asked about different reactions people in Pakistan had to Malala he said, “It’s very unfortunate how her story gets twisted in Pakistan. There isn’t a lot of info about her, and I think it goes right back to education. People need to be educated well, be able to read well, to understand her story and their history. There’s this idea that they continuously turn her story. When she got shot they captured it with their imaginations. When she became popular in the west they called her westernized. But there is also an even greater population in Pakistan that love her, and that’s what’s most important”.
Both the film and the Q&A touched a lot on the struggles of different Islamic women, forms of oppression, and the importance of education. Impacted by the film, I sought to interview Islamic women on these subjects and Malala’s affect on them.
Njeila is a 16 year old Bosnian-American Sunni-Islamic woman, and Sarah is an 18 year old Pakistani-American Shia-Islamic woman. Although a part of two different cultures that come from different parts of the world, both had similar responses and ideas, especially when it came to the abundance of Islamophobia in America. Below are statements from their interview transcripts.
Misconceptions of the Hijab and Islamophobia
“In terms of the Hijab, there are some places in Southeast Asia where many women wear it because it is normalized, not necessarily forced, and there are some places where few women wear it. I currently am not a Hijabi. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about being one. I was severely bullied in grade school for being Pakistani and Muslim by teachers and students. I would get chanted at and spit at on the street when I wore it. When I go out for religious reasons and when I’m comfortable, I wear it. I feel like it’s so people don’t view me as a sexual object. When I wear it, it’s rare that I get catcalled. It’s like a mechanism of protection. It helps to alleviate objectification. I hate when people call Hijabis victims. Anytime someone sees a picture of a girl in a Hijab they say ‘that’s not feminism’. They say the most degrading and hurtful things about these women. I don’t understand how it’s different from a regular choice. It’s who you want to be represented as, and that’s fine. One isn’t more okay than the other. There is this western heroism because people want to ‘save these people being humiliated by this scarf’ and I just don’t get it. Why can’t they make choices? When I wear a Hijab people don’t make eye contact with me. Over the years, it’s gotten better. But when I was ten and wearing the Hijab, this big white guy chanted USA in my face, spat on me, and told me to go back to my country. I was ten. I think you learn as a Pakistani-American Muslim woman that people don’t like you. If people even see the word Islam they will say the most horrible things. It’s become okay in the media to slander Islam.” -Sarah
“I don’t like when people assume that when a woman wears a Hijab she is being controlled by a male, or by society because that should be her choice. In Islam that is the choice that you make, and that only you can make for yourself. No one else can make that choice for you. However, people confuse religion with culture. If her culture makes her do that, if society makes her do that, that doesn’t mean it’s because of her religion. It’s because of people around her and her traditions. ‘You have to wear the Hijab, you have to cover yourself. Women can’t drive or ride bikes.’- That doesn’t mean the religion says they cannot drive or ride bikes. Anywhere else in the world they can, no matter their religion. It’s a cultural thing. Wearing the Hijab is a really hard choice to make. You dedicate yourself to that for your entire life. It’s not something you decide overnight. Sometimes, your family does it so you kind of want to do that. That makes you happy because of the tradition. With me, it’s not really the tradition. It’s something I hope one day I can do, but I’m not ready for that. I feel like you really need to be ready and content with that decision. It means different things for different people. For me, It would mean being modest for the rest of your life. Making different choices. Once you do that you’re limiting yourself. But I feel like that’s a great thing, to live a clean and pure lifestyle. According to the religion, you only are supposed to show yourself to your husband. You can take the scarf home and show them to your brother, father, and husband. If you wear the Hijab you tend to get discriminated against. People approach you either as a victim or a criminal. They think you’re either forced into it or a terrorist. They’ll think you support terrorist groups and that you are violent. Or, they think you should go back to your own country. These are things that keep people from wearing the hijabs. It’s like a lot of change. You have to change your lifestyle, and people’s reactions towards you will also change. Our generation is more likely to accept it, but parents can be skeptical. People sometimes do see it as a costume and not culture. The best way to combat that is through education.” -Njeila
Culture vs. Religion
“When we do religious things like Ramadan and Eid, it’s better there. The atmosphere is different. Everyone around you is celebrating the same holiday. It’s more fun and more positive. Whereas here, I have to take a day off from school because it’s not a religious holiday for everyone. I’m actually wondering what tests I’m missing, and if it’s worth it taking a day off from school. Eid for us is like Christmas for Christians. We get two Eids a year. It’s kind of the only holiday we have. Its sad because sometimes I’m worried about if it’s worth it to miss school and hang out with my family. Sometimes it’s easier to go to school than spend time with my family.” -Njeila
“A lot of my culture is religious. I attend my Mosque regularly. I’m involved in Islamic youth groups and conferences. It’s all dependent on the person. I’m personally at peace with my identity. With people at my Mosque, there are those who wear traditional clothing, it varies from casual wear to really fancy wear. Religion is a great part of that. But I feel like when you become a Pakistani-American you differentiate culture and religion a lot. Holidays are normally based off of religion. Eid just happened like a week ago. You got dressed up in cultural clothes, you do henna, you put on makeup, you go out with your family to your Mosque. It’s like Christmas. Being Southeast Asian, other examples of culture would be like Bollywood movies. I think the work ethic is different. The reason for you working in Pakistan is family. We work in America for ourselves. Its very self focused. Over here it’s about getting together with your friends, over there it’s about getting together with your cousins. Over there modesty in a different manner is looked upon. Modesty here is looked at solely as religious. Modesty there is culturally religious. The way you interact with people and everything is culturally religious. Over there you don’t think very hard about being Muslim. It is what it is. Islam is very integrated into culture. They have a very clear distinction. It’s far less integrated here.” -Sarah
Association Between Islam and Terrorism
“Whats sad is that when we think of terrorist groups we think of them as a complete representation of a religion. We forget that terrorists groups most often target Muslim people as well. My friend was telling me the Taliban wouldn’t let Muslim girls in Pakistan go to school, and they were hanging Muslim men. You would think they wouldn’t because they should try to show how they are for Muslim people. It just goes to show that they are actually sick people and not Muslim. Just because you identify as Muslim, doesn’t mean you are following the religion like the rest of us.” -Njeila
“People say Muslims don’t speak out against terrorist groups enough, and that’s just not true. We continuously say that these groups aren’t Muslim. But somehow, they are still connoted with the religion. Terrorism has now only been affiliated with Islam. I’ve been called a terrorist by teachers. It’s just a sad reality of life. It’s the only perception people have of you, and when they don’t, you’re surprised.” -Sarah
Malala and the Importance of Education
“I think no one expects for a strong female to come out of Pakistan. It shows how there is a change in Pakistan, and that women want to be educated. Unfortunately, they are being told that they aren’t supposed to have it. Education allows for people to get out of the hierarchical place they are born into in society. There’s a saying that, “If you educate a man the only thing that changes is he lives in a better house, he wears better clothes, and he will have a better life for himself. If you educate a woman, everyone in the neighborhood is going to be dressed better, eat better, and have a better education”. Terrorists groups think educating girls would mess up the entire social structure. Women go out more, they speak more, and they have more social connections. Its interesting that someone so young can be used as a symbol of hope for so many Pakistani girls oppressed by militants. The one thing you can’t take away from people is education , and they are afraid of that. If girls in Pakistan are educated, these militants lose their power. Malala represents the opportunity to get out and speak your mind. A lot of young girls think no one on the other side is going to care. Malala shows them they do. If someone who has been through so much like Malala can do it, they can too. It gives them hope that even if they can’t get education, maybe their kids can.” -Sarah
“Educating girls scares the Taliban. When you educate a girl you educate an entire community and improve it. Like in India, it would be a really good thing because when you educate girls they learn about their options such as birth control. When you don’t, you’re limiting them and making them dependent on someone else. I read Malala’s book. I think it’s great. I feel like if anyone deserves the Nobel Peace Prize it’s her. I think it’s so great that a girl shot by the Taliban has such a positive outlook. She has the Malala fund now, and she’s making a big difference. I think the American society thinks it’s cool but small. We don’t recognize it as a big deal. We think it’s a good thing, but there’s so much negativity around Islam, people would rather focus on that. Malala gets a lot of popularity with the fact that she is a WOC, and she was shot by the Taliban. It’s a big part of her story. If she were a white girl from the U.S. she would get more help from people of importance from the U.S. She would have more support if she were white because of white privilege. I feel like we almost feel bad for Malala. We’re like she deserves recognition, but she isn’t going to do anything effective. If she were white, it would immediately be as though she’s making this huge difference. It would be like ‘Good for you for helping those girls’. They say it’s cute that she’s trying, but her culture and religion will overpower her. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try. I think girls in third world countries, especially from Pakistan, see her as an idol. She went from having limited education to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s definetely making a difference.” -Njeila
For more on Malala visit: www.malala.org
“He Named Me Malala” premieres in theaters in America October 9th.