Malala Yousufzai & Women’s Education: Ethnography of Contested Muslim Womanhood and Gender Empowerment in Pakistan

by Ayesha Khurshid

Khurshid_image1-4“Taliban never attacked you (Malala Yusufzai) because of going to school or because you were an education lover, also please mind that Taliban or Mujahideen are not against the education of any men or women or girl….” stated Adnan Rashid, a senior Taliban commander, in a public letter written to Malala Yusufzai days after she addressed the UN about the rights of children to go to school. Malala, a young activist from Pakistan and a recent Noble Laureate, was shot in the head for supporting girls’ education in Pakistan. The intended audience for this letter were the Pakistani public, and not Malala per se. It aimed to shift the discourse of a “cowardly attack on a schoolgirl” by presenting the Taliban as an anti-imperialist and anti-Western movement rather than being against women’s education. The letter further states “you and the UNO (United Nations) are pretending that as you were shot due to education, although this is not the reason, be honest, not the education but your propaganda was the issue and what you are doing now, you are using your tongue on the behest of the others…..” Rashid tries to persuade the Pakistani nation to view Malala as a Western agent rather than a young “education lover.”

Khurshid_image3-5Why did the Taliban write this letter when their brutal opposition to women’s education has never been a secret? Why did they feel the need to label their attacks on girls’ schools as retaliation against the Western imperialism rather than as opposition to women’s education? I argue that this letter is an attempt not only to mobilize the anti-US sentiments in Pakistan but also to speak to the national imagination of education as an Islamic right and responsibility for both men and women. This imagination is shaped by the nineteenth century Islamic reformist discourse that introduced women’s education as being central to the progress of Indian Muslims. It is this discourse, and not the idea of Western modernity, that is frequently employed by the local actors in Pakistan to support women’s education. Malala herself mobilizes this narrative in her autobiography I Am Malala by stating “In Pakistan when women say they want independence, people think this means we don’t want to obey our fathers, brothers or husbands. But it does not mean that. It means we want to make decisions for ourselves. We want to be free to go to school or to go to work. Nowhere is it written in the Quran that a woman should be dependent on a man.” In alignment with this local discourse, Malala presents women’s rights as Islamic rights that would transform traditional beliefs and customs without disintegrating the family and community.BlogPic8

It was also this local narrative of Islamic modernity that the women participants of my ethnographic study referred to while explaining their identities as modern and educated Muslim women. They were recruited and trained by a transnational development organization to work as teachers at girls’ schools serving their low-income and rural communities. To examine this transnational project of women’s education, I interviewed and observed the organization staff, women teachers and students, and community members for 16 months from 2008 to 2010 and then in the summers of 2011, 2012, and 2013.

These women teachers were one of the first and very few women from their communities to have received education beyond high school and to have paid employment outside of the home. They saw themselves as empowered and resourceful women whose lives were transformed by education. Their journey, however, had not been easy. They faced opposition from their communities when they commuted to schools as young adults, since women from “respectable” families were not supposed to become visible in public. They were able to continue their education because of active support from their parents, especially from their fathers. Their parents referred to Islamic teachings to respond to such objections. Fatima, a 38-year-old participant, shared “my father would tell my uncles that you ask me to not send my daughters to school but my Prophet P.B.UH. (Muhammad) orders my daughters to seek knowledge.”

Khurshid_image2-3In this narrative, Islam was not seen as an opposite of modernity but rather a modern religion that guaranteed rights for women. The local customs that confined women to homes were viewed as unIslamic/uneducated ways of being. The practice of these rights, however, was not meant to weaken the institution of family and community, as Malala also asserted in her writing. The women participants felt proud for being “trusted” to protect the honor of the family as they entered into public spaces. This trust implied that they were to exhibit behavior that was in alignment with the values of their community, e.g., they were not to get involved in any romantic or sexual liaison with men. This performance of modern and educated Muslim womanhood presented an entanglement of various discourses. For example, Islam was mobilized to transform a local norm of public mobility so that women could acquire education. Women’s entry into public domains, however, was contingent upon them strictly following the local norm of sexuality.

In this particular case, the employment of Islam did not constrain but rather empowered women participants to argue for certain rights and roles. The participants, however, selectively deployed the Islamic framework of rights to ensure that they did not challenge the norms that defined the core of the family and community. This ethnographic analysis reveals that family, community, and Islam are not merely rigid local structures against which women’s education has to modernize, but rather are institutions in flux that shape the meaning of educated Muslim womanhood in different contexts. I argue that we need to engage deeply with the stories of courageous activists like Malala to better understand this complexity instead of reinforcing the narrative that pits modern West against traditional Islam and presents Muslim women as victims of their own culture.

Ayesha Khurshid is assistant professor of Comparative & International Education at Florida State University. Her article, “Islamic Traditions of Modernity: Gender, Class, and Islam in a Transnational Women’s Education Project,” is published in the February 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.


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