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He Named Me Malala: A Feminist Review

Posted: November 9, 2015

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Here is a feminist review of the movie ‘He named me Malala.’ The girl who dared to stand against the Taliban because she wanted to go to school.

Doing a feminist review of a film on Malala was a tricky thing. Malala hands down is a female icon, an inspiration for millions of girls around the world and yet she never identified herself as a feminist. Perhaps she was too young to identify herself with any sort of ism at all. She was just a brave kid who wanted to go to school.

So Malala’s story didn’t have a feminist narrative and I didn’t expect this film to have one either. But it turned out relevant on two major counts. Firstly, it indirectly reveals that Malala’s fight was about feminism after all; and secondly, it makes an important point that religious extremism and terrorism everywhere is largely about controlling and oppressing women, be it Taliban in Afghanistan or Boko Haram in Nigeria.

The film runs in a non-linear style shifting between two parallel threads. The first thread featuresa range of surreal and vivid pastel shaded sketch animations portraying the back story of Malala. We are taken to the Swat valley in Pakistan where Malala was born, a beautiful land away from the humdrum of city life and rich with nature’s glory. But seclusion is not always the best thing, soon the geographically secluded land started coming under the grip of Taliban.

Malala grew up at a time when Taliban militants would force their way into people’s house and burn books, TVs, music CDs, DVDs which according to them were obscene. They regularly bombed school,defaced advertisement posters and hoardings with women’s faces on it. The local leader would deliver strict diktats on the radio and defaulters would be punished by death in the most gruesome ways – people were dragged to the town square and slaughtered in public, headless human torso exhibited to instil fear in people’s heart, human head shown to girls and threated with similar consequences. Taliban’s greatest attack was on women’s personal freedom particularly that of their education. It was announced that no girl of any age whatsoever would be allowed to go to school. Education for women was declared absolutely unnecessary except the study of the Holy Quran.In this violent environment where law and order were a thing of the past, and every person feared for her/his life every moment, young Malala was the only voice that bravely spoke up against Taliban.

The film is relevant in portraying this back story of who Malala was before she was shot. It is not like the Taliban’s woke up one morning thinking “let’s kill some school going girls” and Malala ,by chance, happened to be in the way. No, they wanted to kill Malala because of her defiance, because she was campaigning bravely and relentlessly for women education,first in an anonymous BBC blog and then more in their face making public speeches and appearances. If you thought Malala’s speech post recovery at the United Nations was one of the most powerful speeches in recent history, wait till you see in this film some of the speeches she had made before she was shot at the tender age of 12 or 13.

In the other thread we see interviews of present day Malala, her friends and family, shots of her trip to various countries for activism, her schooletc. The camera captures some of the rare moments when we meet Malala the cute teenager who shies away and giggles at the mention of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘dating’; loves Shahid Afridi and Roger Federer; she tells us that covering her makes her feel like she is hiding her identity so she doesn’t.

The script however did not give much space to Malala’s mother which was a bit of disappointment. The story is largely narrated by Malala’s father whose ideologies have played a great role in Malala’s life. He narrates how he named his daughter after the Afghan folk hero Malalai who fought against the British. It was him who motivated Malala to do the BBC blog under the pen name Gul Makai. He also spoke of his own childhood when he used to look up to his father who was an eloquent speaker but there was no mention of the women in the family.

It is evident that in the social structure Malala comes from women have no identity at all. They cover themselves up from head to toe, none of them get any education and they have no rights and liberties. In a significant voice over Malala mentioned that her mother barely went to school for 1-2 days and then exchanged her books ata local shop for a handful of candies. Quite metaphorical of a society that gives women few candies like pretty dresses, jewellery, home and kids and rips her off everything else.

The film attempts to absolve Islam from the dangerous interpretation made by the Taliban as both Malala and her father emphasize that Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is completely wrong and they are giving a bad name to Islam.

The film attempts to absolve Islam from the dangerous interpretation made by the Taliban as both Malala and her father emphasize that Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is completely wrong and they are giving a bad name to Islam. However I find this kind of explanation and justification on behalf of religion very discomforting. Whether a particular religion is anti-women or not (personally I think all religions are) it simply should not matter. We have got to stop letting religion decide for us. Our lives should not be decided by religious books and practices but by civil liberties, human rights and the Constitution.

The issue of women’s education and Malala’s fight are complex issues and the film fails to explore all aspects of the complexity. But it strongly makes an important point about women’s individual identity independent of the men in their lives. ‘He Named Me Malala’ is a thoughtful title which only makes sense in the closing scene when Malala, with immense strength and poise says, “My father only named me Malala, he did not make me Malala. I chose this life.”

P.S Before I could finish this review my father rang me to tell that Malala has after all dropped her hesitation in calling herself a ‘feminist’ thanks to Emma Watson’s speech to the world leaders.High five to feminism.

Cover image via Facebook

Writer, photographer and a story teller. Women and Gender Studies is my theme and media

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