Gender, Social Justice

You’re focusing on the wrong part of Malala’s interview

Sigh. Let me just get that out of the way before we continue. 

Marziyeh Ali’s previous work for The Tempest can be found here.

So Emma Watson interviewed Malala. Which sounds lovely and fascinating–but as white feminism has a way of doing, after the interview, everything has become about Emma.

It was almost as though it were Ivy-educated Emma versus Malala, the girl who nearly paid for defying the Taliban with her life.

Malala was a joy to listen to. She was poignant and honest, speaking about how men need to step up and do their share for equality since they benefit from the patriarchal systems in place they have the most power to change the equilibrium. (Shout out to Justin Trudeau!) And she talks about how her father believes in women’s rights and equality and calls himself a feminist.

Let’s pause.

This is a phenomenal moment. Pakistan is in the news every day, it seems, but never because of Pakistani men declaring themselves feminists. This an empowering, emotional, and teachable moment. So why was this point completely and totally drowned out by what her subsequent confession that she had once been hesitant to call herself a feminist?

“It’s been a very tricky word,” she said, expressing a common concern that’s very common among women, especially women of color. The title of feminist inevitably brings heavy and negative connotations that can put a target on a woman’s back. For women of color, this danger multiplies.

Malala then says Emma’s United Nations speech, where she debuted her star-studded “He For She” campaign, was what changed her mind. Now, she says, she associates herself as feminist because she has decided there is nothing negative in associating herself with a movement that is about equality.

I view this as a personal struggle that Malala has overcome, a story young women of color can use to propel themselves to join this movement of equality, but the flood of articles that followed the viral interview have taken a very different angle. Every headline from Vanity Fair to the Guardian is not about the Nobel laureate’s journey – but about the Hollywood star. “Malala Yousafzai thanks actress Emma Watson for helping her become a feminist,” one site says. “How Emma Watston Made Malala A Feminist.”

What? Was becoming a Nobel Prize-winning global activist of girls’ education before hitting 18 years of age, and defying the Taliban and patriarchy and obstacle after obstacle to do so, not enough to “make her a feminist” for you?

If there is any saving grace to all of this, it is Emma’s response to the what Malala said. She’s clearly overwhelmed by it, visibly moved to tears. Later, she wrote on her Facebook page, “I had initially planned to ask Malala whether or not she was a feminist but then researched to see whether she had used this word to describe herself. Having seen that she hadn’t, I decided to take the question out before the day of our interview. To my utter shock Malala put the question back into one of her own answers and identified herself.”

A few minutes after that question, Malala mentions that she thinks it’s about time America had a female president, though she’s unsure of candidates’ political stances. Hillary Clinton’s verified account on Twitter promptly began using that quote. Dear Hillary, are you sure she meant you? Are you sure she didn’t mean a woman who would bring about actual equality and change? Someone who wouldn’t leave American students fighting for a degree in mounting debt and depression? Someone who would send books instead of drones to the Middle East?

I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is listening, neither is the rest of the world it seems. Gone is intersectional feminism and all I hear is a whole lot of white noise and a dozen flash bulbs going off as people go cray over Emma Watson.