Academic journal article College English

Forwarding Literacy in I Am Malala: Resisting Commodification through Cooperation, Context, and Kinship

Academic journal article College English

Forwarding Literacy in I Am Malala: Resisting Commodification through Cooperation, Context, and Kinship

Article excerpt

On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a fifteen-year-old girl known internationally for campaigning for women's rights and access to education, boarded the school bus in Mingora, Pakistan. Her mother insisted she start riding the bus because of threats Yousafzai and her father had received over their advocacy for girls' education. She sat beside her best friend Moniba when two masked men approached and demanded, "Who is Malala?" None of the girls answered, but several looked at Yousafzai; hers was the only face not covered. The gunman fired his pistol three times. One bullet hit Malala and two others hit her friends, Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz. The Taliban later claimed responsibility. Fortunately, all three girls survived. Since the shooting, Yousafzai has become an international symbol for girls' education, peace, and nonviolence. In addition to winning prestigious awards like the National Youth Peace Prize and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, Malala is the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She now lives in the United Kingdom with her father, mother, and two brothers. In 2018, she returned to her hometown for a short visit-her first since the shooting. Yousafzai is now in college at Oxford University and continues to champion universal access to education.

In 2013, one year after being shot, Yousafzai published a memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Cowritten with journalist Christina Lamb, the book tells the story of Yousafzai's life and education growing up in Pakistan before, during, and after 9/11. Written primar ily for a Western audience, the book has been read by critics as an "unabashedly doting" account (Ryder 175) of how one girl and her campaign for education could overcome Taliban cruelty, end the War on Terror, and promote Western ideals (Hesford; Rahman; Thomas and Shukul).1 Fauzia Rahman summarizes, "Malala and her campaign for girls' education were framed as the greatest and most effective weapon against the Taliban, and a potential turning point in the 'war on terror'" (154).

In contrast to the Pakistani media that was mostly critical of Yousafzai, the Western media has idolized her-framing her as an education hero, a subject of violence caused by terrorism and the Taliban, and a victim of a society hostile toward women (Bennett; Khoja-Moolji; Thomas and Shukul). Yousafzai has been depicted as "'empowered,' 'enlightened,' and, most importantly, connected" (Rahman 162). The New York Times repeatedly addressed Malala as "the girl shot by the Taliban," and other magazines and newspapers characterized her as "the girl saved from her 'savage people'" (Thomas and Shukul 234).2 As the face of anti-Talibanism and girls' rights and education, Yousafzai was portrayed as a martyr for the cause, even being likened to Joan of Arc for her "undiminished bravery and defiance of the Taliban" (Bennett).

The problem with these representations is that they commodify Malala, using her as a tool for particular arguments to mobilize populations and agendas rather than seeing her in her own right and personhood. Women's studies scholar Emily Bent argues that these depictions reinforce a colonial power structure through the dangerous image it constructs of "Third World vulnerability" (qtd. in Thomas and Shukul 236). Not only do these interpretations conveniently bypass the indictments Yousafzai makes in her book of the American government, drone strikes, war, civilian deaths, and poverty-which alone cast doubt on claims that she promotes Eurocentric ideals and agendas-they also fail to account for the ways Yousafzai incorporates and performs literacy in her book, a fact that upsets commodification claims.3 In fact, when I Am Malala is read as a literacy narrative-a story that foregrounds issues of language and literacy (Eldred and Mortensen; Scott; Soliday)-the book resists commodification through its rupturing of the "literacy myth." The literacy myth is the idea that better literacy necessarily and automatically leads to success and progress (Graff). …

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