I should admit I am not really following the whole Malala Yousafzai hype. I came across the article below because a friend shared it on the good old book of faces. The piece made me wish I had been following it a bit more carefully. I had been unaware of the attempts to uplift, appropriate, adopt and excpetionalize Malala. Omid Safi’s “How To Keep Malala from Being Appropriated: Five points on Malala, Obama, and Jon Stewart” published on the blog What Would Muhammed Do? brings to light many of the troubles with how the U.S. creates hero(iones) in other countries that exemplify U.S. interests. I was particularly caught by the way in which Safi criticized Jon Stewart’s use of the word adopt in his interview with Malala.
Excerpt from Safi’s piece.
“Malala is not “ours” to adopt.
It is not often that I disagree with Jon Stewart. He is quite possibly my favorite cultural critic, and my favorite comedian. That he can do both and weave them together is a testimony to his genius.
But I have to confess a profound discomfort with Stewart’s somewhat adorable comment to Malala “I want to adopt you.” Yes, we understand the urge, and I don’t think Stewart’s comments were in any way malicious or intended as anything other than a spur of the moment adoration. However, and this is an important point, Malala does not need to be adopted. Nor is she available for adoption. Her comments came right after she talked about how it has been the love and adoration of her own father that has given her wings to accomplish what she has. She already has a father, she has a family. And that family is as much a story of Pakistan, a story of Muslim societies, as the stories of the Taliban.
Malala is already rooted in a community, even as she is struggling to reform that community. One can only adopt someone who is an orphan, without family, without community. None of these are true for Malala. The extent to which she will be able to transform her own society will remain linked to the extent to which she remains grounded in her own community (while perhaps networking with international voices of resistance, human rights, etc.)”
It resonates with me that “Malala does not need to be adopted. Nor is she available for adoption.” In Stewart’s phrase “I want to adopt you” it is implicit that he, the one who would adopt, assumes that Malala is available for adoption. I think that is an underlying assumption in most cases of adoption. The underlying assumption that someone who you perceive as less fortunate for yourself (based on whatever western-centric lens of what defines someone as fortunate) would be better off in a western living situation. I think there is also an assumption that somehow Malala is different that all other Muslims, that she is an exception (another point I am stealing directly from Safi). I will elaborate a bit though. Not only is Malala labeled as an exception but she is thought of as more in line with U.S. ideals that other Muslims. She values education and equal access to educational opportunities; something that the U.S. touts in its global agenda. Since she seems like he ideals and beliefs are more inline with our values here in the U.S. she is thought of as a less dangerous and more conforming person to the our system of ideals. It is a common thread that people want to adopt children who are likely to succeed (socially and culturally) in their own home culture. Malala is identified as that type of person who is more aligned with our cultural and social values and thus more amenable to being adopted.
Sure you may say I am reading to far into the simple phrase, which i agree, I am, but I still feel there are a lot of assumptions that Jon Stewart had to make in order to feel the phrase “I want to adopt you” was appropriate.
Please take the time to read Safi’s piece since it is much more informative and well-written than my own and I feel makes some strong points that apply to a large part of the U.S.’s foreign policy structure.
One thought on ““Remarkable, however, not exceptional””
Well said…I heard about the controversy but failed to follow up or even think too deeply about the reasons why anyone for that matter feels “they” are in the “entitled” position of power, and, the underlying beliefs of aligning more with one culture vs the other. Speaks too of the automatic assumptions of other cultures that we really have minimal understanding of. Not coming out right but thanks for making me think.