Malala Yousafzai, Spivak, Abu-Lughod, and the White Savior Complex

Gayatri Spivak, in her classic article “Can The Subaltern Speak?“, explained that colonialist powers justify their draconian, parasitic rule with the belief that their “White men are saving brown women from brown men.”

In her well-known essay “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?,” Lila Abu-Lughod situates Spivak’s thesis in a contemporary setting, explaining how the US’ imperialist invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was justified with the exact same argument–Bush and his overwhelmingly white administration, far-right leaders who had consistently worked against women’s rights in their own country, now desperate to save Afghan women from Afghan men.

Journalist Assed Baig published a July 2013 column in the Huff Post titled “Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex,” exploring how this racist phenomenon is still alive and well. In October, he published a revised version, at Media Diversity UK. In it, he describes the ways in which the West, continuing in this paternalist, colonialist “white man’s burden” tradition, has exploited Malala Yousafzai’s amazing strength and bravery to support its interests.

An excerpt from Baig’s piece follows (emphases mine):

The way in which the West reacted made me question the reasons and motives behind why Malala’s case was taken up and not so many others.

There is no justifying the brutal actions of the Taliban or the denial of the universal right to education, however there is a deeper more historic narrative that is taking place here.

This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.

The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, “see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives.”

The truth is that there are hundreds and thousands of other Malalas. They come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places in the world. Many are victims of the West, but we conveniently forget about those as Western journalists and politicians fall over themselves to appease their white-middle class guilt also known as the white man’s burden.

Gordon Brown stood at the UN and spoke words in support for Malala, yet he is the very same Gordon Brown that voted for the war in Iraq that not only robbed people of their education but of their lives. The same journalists that failed to question or report on the Western wars in an intelligible manner now sing the praises of the West as they back Malala and her campaign without putting it in context of the war in Afghanistan and the destabalisation of the region thanks in large part to the Western occupation of Afghanistan.

Malala’s message is true, it is profound, it is something the world needs to take note of; education is a right of every child, but Malala has been used as a tool by the West. It allows countries like Britain to hide their sins in Afghanistan and Iraq. It allows journalists to report a feel good story whilst they neglect so many others, like the American drone strikes that terrorise men, women and children in Pakistan’s border regions. US drones ‘causing mental trauma’ in Pakistan (Aljazeera)

The current narrative continues the demonization of the non-white Muslim man. Painting him as a savage, someone beyond negotiating with, beyond engaging with, the only way to deal with this kind of savage is to wage war, occupy and use drones against them. NATO is bombing to save girls like Malala is the message here.

“You have to understand the Arab mind,” Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. “The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.”

This racist, dehumanizing and imperialist understanding of the Eastern world is more than rampant in the West and its armed forces: It’s ingrained. This type of thinking has been applied to Central and South Asia as well. ~ Mehreen Kasana

Historically the West has always used women to justify the actions of war mongering men. It is in the imagery, it is in art, in education, it is even prevalent in Western human rights organisations, Amnesty International’s poster campaign coinciding with the NATO summit in New York encouraged NATO to ‘keep the progress going!’ in Afghanistan.

Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz were also shot along with Malala, the media and politicians seem to have forgotten about them. Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi – how many of the Western politicians and journalists know about this name? She was the 14-year-old girl gang raped by five US soldiers, then her and her family, including her six-year-old sister were murdered. There are no days named after her, no mentions of her at the UN, and we don’t see Gordon Brown pledging his name to her cause.

I support Malala, I support the right to education for all, I just cannot stand the hypocrisy of Western politicians and media as they pick and choose, congratulating themselves for something that they have caused. Malala is the good native, she does not criticise the West, she does not talk about the drone strikes, she is the perfect candidate for the white man to relieve his burden and save the native.

The Western savior complex has hijacked Malala’s message. The West has killed more girls than the Taliban have. The West has denied more girls an education via their missiles than the Taliban has by their bullets. The West has done more against education around the world than extremists could ever dream of. So, please, spare us the self-righteous and self-congratulatory message that is nothing more than propaganda that tells us that the West drops bombs to save girls like Malala.

Not a “Western Puppet”

It is important to establish that Malala is certainly aware of this manipulation. In a statement, the young woman made it clear that she is not a “Western puppet.”

When discussing the way in which the neocolonialist West exploits and manipulates the trials and tribulations of those working against oppressor groups and forces, for justice and liberation, we should be careful to establish that this is not done to them unwittingly. We must remember we are dealing with agents here, with individuals who understand the implications of their actions and change them accordingly. To forget this fact is, in a less overt way, to uphold the very paternalist, neocolonialist strictures we seek to destroy.

As Spivak reminds us, the subaltern indeed speaks out against their oppressors. Articulated a bit differently, Arundhati Roy declares “There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” This speech, this voice, will indeed be co-opted by oppressor groups, yet we should not assume that those speaking out are unaware of this co-option. Malala, a self-professed socialist, an outspoken anti-imperialist, is well aware of the ways in which capital exploits her story.

I will leave this subject with the Malala the Western corporate media doesn’t like to quote.

I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.