Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable woman, with a spirit and voice that needs to be acknowledged and heard. What happens to this voice when it is mediated through the lens of a documentary maker? He Named Me Malala is a fascinating film, through which Malala’s charm and courage shines, but it is not perfect. It starts with the mythologised context of Malala’s naming. Her father chose her name which is from the Afghan folk heroine Malalai who rallied Pashtun fighters against the British in 1880. This provides a context of colonialism and conflict and a narrative of defiance. There was a powerful scene, narrated by her father (over animation) where on seeing the family tree populated entirely by men, he draws a line and adds her name. For me, this is what that act symbolised:
“Women’s history has a dual goal: to restore women to history and to restore our history to women.” (Kelly-Gadol, 1987: 15)
This act was defiant and empowering. It suggested that women should not be hidden away, that our history matters despite attempts to foreclose the possibility of women’s power and agency. It also demonstrated how easy it is to write women out of history, to ignore our contribution, to refuse to notice us. Given that Malala’s area of activism has been the education of women, it is also worth noting that this problem remains, and cannot be dismissed as a problem of ‘over there’.
“For most of its history, western political theory has ignored women. We seldom appear in its analyses of who has or should have power; when it has deigned to notice us it has usually defended our exclusion from public affairs and our confinement to the home; only rarely have we been seen as political animals worthy of serious consideration.” (Bryson, 2003: 1)
This is why I signed this petition
I was lucky enough to watch the film with my own daughter and to watch her anger, disgust, fear and pleasure as the story unraveled. I know that this particular quote induced a shade of shock to flicker across her features:
Documentary Maker: What would you be doing now if you were an ordinary girl?
Malala: I’m still an ordinary girl. But if I had an ordinary father and an ordinary mother then I would have two children by now
She saw a young girl, not different (but different) to herself or her friends and realised just how limited a girl’s life could be. That what surrounds a girl can make a girl.
And this is also the tension in the story-telling. Malala’s story is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is worthy of celebration, but so are so many other girls whose stories will not be heard. The film tries to tackle this paradox. It shows Malala meeting Hilary Clinton and studying for GCSEs. It shows her addressing the United Nations and playing with her brothers. However, for me, the film in its attempt to give the story a complete narrative arc, loses some of its complexity. My own daughter smiled as the film announced Malala’s Nobel peace prize. The suggestion that this was the triumph of her life was compelling. But it also irons out the complexities and leaves other threads hanging. For example, the documentary maker asks about Malala’s suggestion that the American drone strikes could be producing terrorists. Malala is quick to assert this link. It is the only time it is mentioned.
Voice, being heard, articulating different perspectives, challenging authority – these are key themes within much feminist theory. Who gets to talk and who gets to listen and who gets to report are central issues (Spivak, 1988). It may just be that I wanted to hear more about this argument, the link between military intervention and the growth of terrorism because I was aware that our own government would be debating and voting on this issue, in relation to airstrikes and Syria. I wanted to be better informed. The film showed me some glimpses of life under extremism, but did not elaborate on the process of it. Malala’s challenge to US military strategy is glossed over and I can’t help but think that this is because it detracts from the key storyline – fighting for women’s education, a mission that ‘the West’ can be quick to adopt. As though this is something ‘we’ have got right. However, as the above petition shows, it is not just form but content of education that matters.
Malala is more complicated than the story-maker can accommodate within the film. This means, sometimes, the tone of the film lands the wrong side of sentimental. Malala’s courage is undoubted. But she is courageous because she knows fear. As we watch her wobbling steps as she recuperates from the assassination attempt, as we listen to the nightmares endured whilst in her coma, we know that it is not just that she survived that was important but that she continued to speak out when she understood the potential cost. Therefore, we owe it to her to listen to the totality of her message, whether we agree or not. And we owe it to ourselves that we grapple with the nuances and difficulties of her story, not just the triumphs. There is much I am still grappling with – the role of religion, portrayals of religion and how this intersects with gender and disability, understanding histories, limits of resistance, poverty, violence etc. and one sentimentalising documentary will not be enough to satisfy this curiosity.
I am very glad I saw the film. I am even happier that I saw it with my daughter. That this story will be a part of her history and understanding of how we have to balance courage and fear, speaking out and silence. And to remember to be outraged when we are not allowed to speak.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.” (Lorde, 1984, 2005: 40)
Bryson, V. (2003) Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction [2nd Edition] Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Davies Guggenheim (Director) (2015) He Named me Malala
Kelly-Gadol, J. (1987) “Did Women have a Renaissance?” in Bridenthal, R., Koontz, C. and Stuard, S. (eds.) Women in European History Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Lorde, A. (1984, 2005) Sister Outsider Crossing Press: Berkeley
Spivak, G. (1988) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture Macmillan Education: Basingstoke