Yet another day, yet another field day for Malala haters. It feels like all that the keyboard warriors did was pray for misjudgments on Malala’s part during Ramadan and lo and behold, we are back to seeing the circus of hypocritical self-righteousness from entitled males and virginal females of the Twittersphere.
While I don’t expect any nuanced intellectual discourses to occur on social media, every time this happens, the barrage of trolls seems to get more and more dimwitted. Each time, I also lament the forever stretching gap between these custodians of morality and “liberals” like me who dismiss them, yet embolden them by our inaction.
Many like me are frozen with hesitancy. Should we partake in Malala’s defense? Yet again? Is it even worth it? Or are we so numbed out by our privileged western-values-loaded gaze that we have lost our ability for outrage?
Just last night I was watching the Diana documentary on Netflix, and the cultural commentators all seemed to zero in on one point- how fame turned to abuse in Diana’s case. She was probably the first “celebrity” to create that level of mass hysteria around her. At one point she became the most photographed woman on the planet, thanks to thousands of tabloids that were born, nurtured, and boomed in the wake of her spell-binding persona and colorful life choices.
We thought this monster she had unwittingly unleashed would get a dose of conscience upon her untimely death. But alas, celebrity culture, press, toxic fame, and abuse were here to stay. Just last week Naomi Osaka- a four-time Grand Slam-winning tennis star had to pull out of the French Open citing mental health issues. Why? Stress over performance? Sure. But more importantly, she mentioned how media interviews exacerbated her already fragile mental state. Somehow the need for celebrities to be approachable, to serve in the public eye, to become public figures with ‘more responsibility and higher moral grounds’ have superseded the real spirit of their talents that have made them famous.
Why do we ask so much from our celebrities? So much so that every step out of line justifies punishing, mauling, and downright abusing them over their “transgressions”? In the case of Malala of course, the accountability culture has undertones of misogyny, post-colonial inferiority complex, pure envy, and fear (of our own evil selves). Let’s look at these in turn.
So, in the last hurrah for patriarchy, Malala has confirmed her status as a “western agent” spreading sheer immorality. Her comments about marriage and partnership (twinned with her “friendship” with Mia Khalifa) park the point that she is en route towards “behayai”. Naturally, the faith brigade is on alert and men and women are fighting tooth and nail punching their keys to save Islam from corrupt, incompetent Malala whose only achievement in life was getting shot in the head by a well-meaning, albeit, slightly crooked soldier of Islam.
What disappoints me most is not the morally bankrupt men lifting their imaginary swords as a response, but the devil-may-care attitude holding women like Mathira. Once upon a time, Mathira too got the diatribe of bilge for being herself, for speaking her mind (or what we call being “bold”). Yet, in the curious case of Poo bani Parvati, she chose not to allow the same freedoms for a 23-year-old.
Every act of individualism by a woman often comes at a cost: of her body, her sanity, or, if she’s lucky, just her dignity. How many times have I wished to be allowed to date a guy before censoring my thoughts lest I be considered besharam by my family? Don’t deny girls, we have all had unspeakable crushes, wet dreams, and whatnot. But we repress all that “evil” in us. Gradually, we grow out of that phase (so I have heard) and attain the wisdom Mathira thought fit to shove down Malala’s throat publicly.
Malala’s venture into bad girldom was years in the making. I knew that as soon as she becomes a woman who speaks her mind, leaves the cocoon of university life, or even attempts to act like a confused tween getting over the trauma of her childhood, she won’t sit well with many who want to see famous women only as saints.
A Muslim woman will subsume a number of identities in her life, where variety itself will become integral to her idea of womanhood. Malala isn’t Zaira Waseem or any other young woman who has made a choice about her life. It’s foolish and presumptuous to speak for all women in the general notion of “muslimah” which leads to women either filling a stereotype or breaking one with no middle ground for them to lie.
The critic Emily Nussbaum nailed the problem: “When you’re put on a pedestal, the whole world gets to upskirt you.”
Envy is the source of this misogynistic hatred towards Malala. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we all wanted to be her, minus the gunshot bit of course. When something becomes too big, too unfathomable for us to comprehend, we start fearing it, grow suspicious of it, end up hating it with toxicity we never knew we were capable of harboring. Malala is that phenomenon. From her great escape to her Nobel Prize, to her Oxford degree, all invoke envy in a third world nation knee-deep in poverty, misery, and general discontentment with the big bad first world.
Finally, the fear of the evil that resides in us all. It will be easy to label those haters as hollowed-out jealous peddlers with no ability for discernment or intelligence. But
that criticism itself reflects a desperate desire to pretend that thorny issues are straightforward. Neither Malala nor her haters are pristine monks.
We are all flawed humans struggling inside vast, complicated systems, for example, the system Malala escaped from, and the one she landed in. We aren’t in the Avengers universe where there are good guys and bad guys, easier to tell apart. We must restore the complexity that makes us human, evolving, dark, grey, white, and all shades in between.
As Hannah Arendt tried to point out, we are not inherently sinful, but because we are part of greater systems that, as a whole, can produce outcomes that could be considered evil, we are complicit. All of us.
So please don’t suggest that 23-year-olds carry the burden of morality completely by themselves. It will just bring our society to a screeching halt in demand of moral perfection. And that’s the nightmare for all of us.
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