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Malala and her Pinay sisters

/ 12:08 AM November 18, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC—Of the eight themes suggested as guides for students reading through the memoir of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the one that caught my attention was “Malala and the Media.”

Malala, the youngest Nobel Peace laureate ever and survivor of a brutal attack instigated by the Taliban allegedly because of her outspoken championing of education for girls, has become in her native Pakistan, says a Pakistani journalist, a polarizing figure.

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Pakistanis either fervently believe in her and in her cause or pooh-pooh her story of survival, maintaining that she is mainly a creature of media, her heroism manufactured by a West determined to paint Islamic conservatism as evil.

Amira Bakir, a George Washington University (GWU) freshman, an Algerian-American and a Muslim, says she is most impressed with “Malala’s degree of self-awareness,” and how in her life and her passionate advocacy, she has proven how “faith is an integral part of your identity.”

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Sean Aday of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs concedes that Malala’s story “is mainly a story in Western media,” the themes created by media outlets with little regard for context. One yawning gap, he maintains, is the analysis of the causes of Malala’s shooting “from the perspective of gender-based violence.”

For Kelly Pemberton, a GWU faculty member in the Religion and Women’s Studies department, “Islam is a most misunderstood religion” especially in the Western media.

The “overall images” created and spread by the world’s media, she says, are typically negative, disturbing images that tend to create the impression that Islam “is a religion of war, intolerance and violence.”

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Even as leaders of majority Islamic countries and Muslim religious leaders speak of Islam as a religion of peace and total surrender to the will of the almighty, Pemberton says there is still a stubborn “disconnect” between the public statements of Islam’s spokespersons and “the images we are bombarded with.”

“There are few positive stories (about Islam) out there,” Pemberton notes, pointing out that images about Muslims in the world media are “static and monolithic,” even if the Muslim world is highly diverse and expressions of the faith vary from culture to culture, setting to setting.

Even among Muslims, she concedes, there are still a lot of misconceptions about and limited understanding of Islam. But if more young people like Malala “become more educated in Islam, the less likely they are to be attracted to extremism,” Pemberton added.

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As for the rest of the world, there is a need to come to a deeper understanding of Islam beyond the shallow perceptions and alarming images pandered by sensationalist media. Indeed, it is precisely this pandering to the “popular” but misguided image of Islam that encourages the more extremist groups to record more and more outrageous images, knowing they have a most ready and eager audience among the Western media. It is a vicious circle that provokes and promotes a “negative” view of Islam among non-Muslims and offends the majority of Muslims who have no patience with extremists.

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The Resource Guide, said GWU officials, is meant to be an education tool “with the power to activate young minds and start a dialogue about the millions of girls around the world who are unable to go to school.”

The guide is designed so that “faculty members in any discipline can choose the themes that apply” and which they can teach in class. A group of faculty members from across various disciplines in GWU designed the guide, hoping to stimulate classes to discuss themes ranging from the writing of memoirs to the human rights of girls, from cultural politics, gender and history to violence against women and girls.

“Something we started talking about a lot was how we get people talking about this beyond Malala herself,” said a GWU student. “We need it to stick that there are millions of girls around the world who aren’t in school. I think what’s great about Malala’s continued success is that we are talking about it. And with this curriculum, we will still be talking about it. Not only has it empowered me, but it has empowered our class and added another bit of the story of women’s rights and human rights around the world.”

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Girls in the Philippines should feel a sisterhood of sorts with Malala and all other girls living in situations of violence and repression.

But one remarkable thing about the Philippines is that in the country, education for girls is considered not just a right or entitlement, but is even a preference even among parents in the poorest sectors of society. Education for girls is deemed a “better investment” among parents, who can expect a higher rate of return from their daughters than from sons who are more likely to drop out early or lack the aptitude for classroom learning.

Still, even with the high rate of school enrollment and attendance among Filipino girls, their future remains murky given the overwhelming poverty and the lack of opportunities that await them even after they finish secondary education or graduate from college.

And given the common attitude among parents that educating girls is an “investment” they expect to recover with years of blind obedience and servitude from their daughters, one must consider whether sending a girl to school here is all that empowering or liberating for her.

What would Malala say to that?

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TAGS: Malala Yousafzai, news, Nobel Peace Prize, Taliban
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