Malala in Vogue: A sign of the times

Malala’s interview unveiled worrying trends relating to Islamophobia and activism to an international audience

Mary Hunter
Malala was photographed by Nick Knight for the July 2021 cover of British Vogue, wearing Stella McCartney.

Malala Yousafzai, among her many notable credits, recently appeared in the British Vogue. In her interview, she touched on some highly topical concerns for Islam, Pakistan, and the entire world.

The first is the concept of modesty for women in Islam. Adorned in her headscarf, Malala responded to those who perceive such clothing as a symbol of oppression, stating:“...Muslim girls or Pashtun girls or Pakistani girls, when we follow our traditional dress, we’re considered to be oppressed, or voiceless, or living under patriarchy. I want to tell everyone that you can have your own voice within your culture, and you can have equality in your culture.”

In the West, it is increasingly acceptable for people to express themselves through clothing. But the stereotype about women who wear hijabs or burqas has sadly not been shaken.

Back in April, though not in law yet, France’s senate called for the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.”

This perception signifies not only ignorance of the Islamic faith and people, but an unwillingness to understand. In Islam, both men and women are taught to be modest in their dealings with the opposite sex, especially in public. It is in this public sphere where Muslim women would wear a hijab or burqa.

The pre-existing ban on conspicuous face coverings already means that the very purpose of the clothing has been undermined. Similarly, the suggestion that Muslim women are rendered inferior through their face-coverings ignores the empowerment that many women feel in wearing their hijabs or burqas.

It is a condescending perception that is being used as part of a flagrant denial of the autonomy of Muslim women. Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims what their religious symbols represent.

One model responded to this proposed ban with #HandsOffMyHijab, which started to trend as notable Muslim women internationally shared the hashtag to express solidarity. For many, this worrying development is a symptom of the larger Islamophobia which undergirds the supposed ‘anti-separatism’ that France is committed to.

To force a person to not dress in a certain way is just as significantly serious as forcing a person to dress in a certain way. Either way, the individual is prevented from publicly expressing themselves.

Secondly, Malala questions where she should live in the future: “Where do I live next? Should I continue to live in the UK, or should I move to Pakistan or another country?”

This is a common issue for Pakistanis who have been successful internationally. Faced with the choice between living in their native Pakistan or somewhere like the US or UK, they can be judged by their fellow Pakistanis for forgetting where they came from if they choose the latter.

This is in part a valid concern in that successful Pakistanis, regardless of their field, have the resources and influence to initiate positive change in Pakistan. Pakistan has great potential to advance by virtue of its remarkably youthful population, but its brightest minds are often enticed away to world-class institutions abroad where they can live with all the trimmings of the Western lifestyle.

However, it must be noted that overseas Pakistanis are playing their part in contributing to Pakistani society through record remittances. It was recently reported that these had increased significantly, with $24.2 billion sent to Pakistan between July 2020 and April 2021. This is despite the economic implications of COVID-19 and places Pakistan as the 6th most remittance-receiving country in the world.

Furthermore, the part that Pakistani diasporas play for the interests of Pakistan cannot be underestimated. By having prominent Pakistanis in world-class positions in a diverse range of countries and institutions, aid and policy towards Pakistan can be positively influenced for the benefit of Pakistanis.

Pakistan, like any other country, must be represented by some of its most talented who can voice the concerns of Pakistan which require international support. This is particularly pertinent today in relation to issues such as the disproportionate effects of climate change on Pakistan and the human rights abuses carried out in Kashmir.

Third and finally, Malala addresses the trap activism falls into by being inherently social media-driven: “we have associated activism with tweets. That needs to change because Twitter is a completely different world.”

No one can doubt that the power that social media has to galvanise diverse audiences is vitally important to instigate change. The worldwide backlash to the murder of George Floyd or the abuses by Israeli forces against Palestinians, to name a few examples, occurred in part because of social media. We are all brought into the heart of the crime and thus can join hands with the oppressed.

But Malala is right, activism cannot be limited to social media. When we raise our voices, we must have some understanding of how the system works so it can be reformed. It is never fundamentally simple and social media activism can sometimes oversimplify what it takes to make lasting change. Institutional and systematic reform must occur from the very bottom upwards in abusive and corrupt structures.

Words must always be accompanied by action. Recent events show that guilty parties can be halted, but it is often insufficient. Anyone can be pressured to stop but this must be accompanied by a willingness to accept wrongdoing and a commitment to reform.

Malala’s interview unveiled worrying trends relating to Islamophobia and activism to an international audience. The response to her interview is also symptomatic of the threat of division and judgement, as she drew criticism from some quarters of Pakistan over her liberal statements.

She merely expressed her personal views, which neither invalidates nor condemns traditional practices of Islam. The burden to tackle Islamophobic sentiment does not fall upon Malala but upon non-Muslim countries and organisations. Division among Muslims is exactly what the world’s Islamophobes love to see.

Amongst all the criticism and controversy, we must remember to address this fundamental question. What must be done at institutional, national, and international levels to address these problematic trends?

Hunter works as a researcher and analyst in the UK. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter