I should have predicted it, but it was a surprise to me. I was not quite done being overwhelmed by my emotional reaction to the shooting by Taliban of the 15-year old activist for girls’ education Malala Yousufzai.
And then I found a meme circulating on Facebook that pitted Malala against the victims of US drone attacks. The argument ran thus: Why is there such a unanimous outcry against the shooting of this one girl, when numerous girls have been crippled and killed by American drones in Afghanistan? Why are the lives of drone victims so cheap, but the life of Malala so significant?
As the argument progressed, I heard such phrases as “the BBC blogger,” which portrayed Malala Yousufzai as something of a Western plant. If she was fighting for girls’ education against Taliban (who were against the US military presence), surely she was in favor of the US/West. The images of little Afghan girls in wheelchairs (victims of US drones) and the radiant face of Malala Yousufzai swiftly became pitted against each other in a nauseating battle of pawns.
The meme reads: “Do you know this girl? Have you seen her story on CNN or the BBC? Have you seen any breaking news about her on Geo, Dunya and Express? Have you updated your Facebook status to mention her? Have you seen any tweets about her? Have you ever heard that she was transported to hospital in an army helicopter? No, right? Yes, never – because she was wounded in a drone attack.”
I understand the reaction, on some level. In a college classroom, while discussing the injustice of the French headscarf ban, I heard someone challenge my focus on Western secularism by reminding me of the Taliban attack on Malala. I had been heartbroken over the attack, but suddenly, I found that I was being asked to perform my outrage, to prove that I wasn’t just opposed to secular, Western oppression of young girls but that I was similarly (or more) angered by sexist Muslims opposed to the education of girls.
It is true, of course, that there are plentiful spaces in Western discourse for anti-Muslim fundamentalist outrage. There is reason for suspicion of the ideological machinery that constantly attacks Muslims as sexist and opposed to girls’ education. The Western imperialist project continues to use girls and women as pawns against the Islamic threat.It is likewise true that the victims of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are invisible, treated as collateral damage, yet embarrassing enough to be brushed under the carpet. Now we have virtual memes that actually shrug off such cases as that of Malala and challenge the so-called obsession of pro-Western discourse with gender equality.
Of course there are ideological spaces where such groups as the Pakistani Taliban proclaim their opposition to Malala and the “secularism” and “enlightened moderation” that she allegedly preaches. If she blogs against the Taliban role, the argument runs, she is (quite successfully!) whipping up people’s emotions against the mujahideen, so she is against Shariah and a legitimate target for said mujahideen. Apparently, in this argument, Taliban=mujahideen=Shariah=Islam.
In such a climate of constant ideological tussle, the task of upholding equality and opposing oppression becomes charged with unintended meanings. American military and political agendas infect the framing of all postcolonial struggles and debates. And within postcolonial contexts, anti-imperialist agendas constantly hijack the struggles of girls, women, minorities, and the poor. If you are outraged about the treatment of Christians in Pakistan, you must be pro-American; if you are suspicious of gender activism, you must be pro-fundamentalist. Activism for girls’ education or anti-imperialist political activism? Which memes will you post at your Facebook page? Which will you choose?
Meantime, people in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan struggle to make lives of meaning and dignity. Between American drones and Taliban guns, forced to choose sides, they find themselves to be mere pawns – mere objects, mere jpegs in a Facebook meme.