Malala and Bhutto Challenge The Oppression of Women in the Arab World

By: Katherine Vera

Women in the Middle East have minimal rights compared to the rights that men have. Malala Yousafzai and Benazir Bhutto are two women who have fought against the Taliban and its brutal efforts to reinforce the institutionalized oppression of women in the Arab world. In addition, Malala and Bhutto’s experiences while living in Taliban-operated Pakistan demonstrate that the power of force that Simone Weil speaks of in the The Iliad, or The Poem of Force is still relevant in today’s society. Throughout time, many philosophers have pondered freedom and attempted to define it. Hannah Arendt’s What is Freedom? is an ideal reference for the examination of oppression and political freedom in the Arab world. Furthermore, multiple texts will serve as references throughout the discussion so that holistically they provide a realistic illustration of what “freedom” means for Arabic women.

Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Simone Weil wrote The Iliad, or The Poem of Force in 1940 after the fall of France. Weil’s twenty-four page essay depicts Homer’s Iliad as a poem in which force is “the true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad.” Weil portrays how when force is employed, it modifies the human spirit: “as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to” (Weil 6). She proceeds to define force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing… it makes a corpse out of him” (Weil 6). This force is evident when Hector, a Trojan warrior, decides to go fight in the Trojan War and become known as the best, most valiant warrior of Troy. Although Hector has a wife and his child to protect, he prefers to go because he knows that once Troy falls, he along with his wife, Andromache, will be enslaved. So, instead, he abandons his family in hopes of attaining fame and glory and to avoid witnessing the inevitable capturing of Andromache.

Hector abandons wife, Andromache, and son to go fight in the Trojan War

Hector abandons his wife (Andromache) and son to go fight in the Trojan War

Hector seems to be conscious of an ideology that matches Weil’s concept of loss: “to lose more than the slave is impossible, for he loses his whole inner life” (Weil 11). So, instead of losing his inner life, Hector surrenders to the force of war and fights knowing that he will die. Andromache, however, is still restricted by the same force, but as a woman is worse off since she lives in a patriarchal society in which she has no control of her life. So, while Hector goes off to fight and die as a hero, Andromache is condemned to stay inside of Troy waiting to witness the death of her loved ones, including her child’s murder, and then be enslaved by the Greeks. Like Andromache, many Trojan women are taken as victory prizes and condemned to a life of servitude. As Weil emphasizes, both Hector and Andromache’s personalities are clearly deformed since they are left with no option but to surrender to force.

Oppression is still relevant to modern society and is prominent in the unjust treatment of women in the Arab world. In addition to Islamic values that oppress women, there are militant organizations like the Afghani-based Taliban, whose goal is “to terrorize ordinary citizens” and more aptly put, to oppress women in the public sphere (Skaine, Women of Afghanistan in the Post-Taliban Era 11). In Afghanistan, by 2006, the Taliban became the new terror using “roadside bombings, direct fire and suicide attacks” to establish themselves as the ones with power and leave everyone else defenseless (Skaine 11).

Ever since then, their presence and power has spread throughout Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban is convinced that society is in a perpetual state of war. This misconception is dangerous since people fail to recognize women when in a state of war. The only way soldiers are able to do their job is by desensitizing themselves to humanity and viewing people as animals – impassive cadavers. The Taliban has made women the property of men and has stripped them of any memory of life or freedom that they may have ever known.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai is a seventeen year old who has personally experienced the pressure that the Taliban places on Arab women. Since the day Malala was born in Pakistan, she was condemned to a life of limitations and restrictions simply because she is a girl living in an area dominated by the Taliban. At the young age of eleven, Malala started writing a blog under a pseudonym detailing her life under Taliban control and her drive to promote education for all children including girls. Four years later, Malala was on her way to school when a Taliban man stopped the school bus, asked for her by name, and fired three shots at her.

Malala in Pakistan after shooting

Malala in Pakistan after shooting

After intensive rehabilitation and fleeing from Pakistan to England, Malala still persists in her call for worldwide access to education. Currently, Malala is an activist fighting for rights to education and rights for women. Luckily, even after multiple assassination attempts, Malala has the full support of her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is an education activist himself. It is with his support that Malala can be brave in asking “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” (Yousafzai 142).

Malala with her father Ziauddin Yousafzai

Malala with her father Ziauddin Yousafzai

Malala at school reading a story: "All That Glitters Is Not Gold."

Malala at school reading a story: “All That Glitters Is Not Gold.”

Children in the Arab World, especially girls, are forbidden from receiving an education: “The Taliban is against education because they think that when a child reads a book or learns English or studies science he or she will become Westernised” (Yousafzai 162). However, to this Malala says that “Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human” (Yousafzai 162). Malala undermines the Taliban force by spreading her belief that it is only “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen [that] can change the world” (Yousafzai 303). Unfortunately, in the rare case that there is a school willing to educate girls, the Taliban intervenes to inflict fear upon the students and teachers. Even in schools that are supposed to educate girls, some of the teachers refuse to teach: “they keep the children quiet with a long stick as they cannot imagine education will be any use to them” (Yousafzai 43). The Taliban’s persistent terrorism stops children from going to school or wanting an education. Girls have lost hope in change or attaining better lives for themselves: “there seemed no point in going to school to just end up cooking, cleaning and bringing up children, so one day she sold her books for nine annas, spent the money on boiled sweets and never went back” (Yousafzai 40). Nevertheless, Malala is persistent and willing to tolerate threats so that she can achieve her goal: “Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right” (Peer. The Girl Who Wanted To Go To School). However, even though Malala’s father has rallied behind her, not everyone in her family has expressed the same support.

Malala and her family during her recovery. Her mother, who prefers to not be photographed can be seen from behind on the bottom left corner.

Malala and her family during her recovery. Her mother, who prefers to not be photographed, can be seen from behind on the bottom left corner.

Malala’s mother Toorpekai Yousafzai is firmly stuck in the traditional lifestyle that she grew up in and is fearful of her daughter’s expressive lifestyle. Islamic law thwarts the chance of women feeling free or present in society by establishing family codes that “sanction the control of women by their own kin group” (Ghanim, Gender and Violence In the Middle East. 37). From the very beginning, girls are taught that they are inferior to boys and can do nothing without the permission of their male kin. The distinction between men and women is so rigid that it remains regardless of age: “While boys roam freely about town, my mother and I could not go out without a male relative to accompany us, even if it was a five-year-old boy! This was the tradition” (Yousafzai 1). Whether it is to the grocery store, or to take a walk, women are not allowed to leave the house without a male family member. In addition to being dependent on male kin, women must also be completely covered and walk behind their male kin whenever they are outside of the house. The Taliban is a force that not only deprives women of independence, but also banishes them from the public sphere by making them invisible to society.

Furthermore, as part of the Islamic tradition, women are limited to being obedient wives and nothing more. Men ideally want “a young virginal bride [who will be] easily shaped into a dutiful wife” (Ghanim, Gender and Violence In the Middle East. 52). Because of this, women are given away to marry at an early age. In addition, giving girls away to marriage at such an early age is seen as a “solution” to the fear of them losing their virginity prior to marriage (Ghanim 51). Most fathers never show any concern for their daughters’ well-being or happiness; they worry only about the purity of society and Islamic values. Similarly their sons follow in their fathers’ examples and uphold the purity of Islamic values by passing down this tradition through generations. Society’s dogmatism leads men to believe that only chastity will lead to a good marriage and the preservation of the Islamic culture.

Arabic women walk behind a man.

Arabic women walk behind a man.

Under Taliban guidelines, women have been “virtually eliminated from public spaces by being forbidden to appear in public without being covered from head to toe [by wearing the burqa]” (Goodson, Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban. 118). The Taliban literally makes women invisible and irrelevant to any human interaction that may occur. Older generations remember how before the Taliban, women could “more or less dress the way [they] wanted to” (Bend, Bagdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq Aug. 5 2006). Nowadays, women feel like “the Taliban [sees them] as like little dolls to control, telling [them] what to do and how to dress” (Yousafzai 124). Arabic women no longer decide what goes on their own body. The Taliban has deeply penetrated society and is taking advantage of its power by enforcing extreme restrictions on women and eliminating the idea that women could ever have freedom and/or participate in society as equals to men.

Malala is free

Malala, through her blog, memoir, and activism, has acquired a sense of freedom and independence forbidden to women in the Arab world. Malala remembers her anxious mother always telling her “Hide your face – people are looking at you,” to which she would calmly reply: “It doesn’t matter; I’m also looking at them” (Yousafzai 118). It is this sense of freedom that Malala exhibits that makes her a target of the Taliban forces. While we from a western perspective admire Malala and her bravery and perceive her statements to be wise and beyond her years, the Taliban and Arabic men think of her as foolish and dangerously radical. Her misconduct makes Arabic men think of her as a traitor, which puts her at risk for stoning, street beatings, and even public execution. The possibility of these fatal consequences is what leaves Malala’s mother worried and why she encourages Malala to uphold as many Islamic traditions as possible.

Even though upholding family traditions does not sound overly demanding to us who live in a western society, obeying the Islamic code means conforming to living rigidly since the Islamic code sets the guidelines for every interaction between people and divides the universe into different spheres: “the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ the ‘pure’ and the ‘polluted,’ the ‘private’ and ‘public’” (Khuri, The Body In Islamic Culture 77). Women do not speak to men; they are only to be spoken to. Similarly, the caste system limits people so that class orders do not interact with one another. Even more strictly, women are kept in the private sphere – in their husbands’ house – and only men have access to the public sphere. Anyone, especially if it is a woman, who dares to disobey Islamic Law, is quickly a target of the Taliban and will be publicly punished for her defiance. Benazir Bhutto was a Pakistani politician who served as the eleventh Prime Minister of Pakistan for two terms, from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996. Given that she was the first female leader of a Muslim country, she encountered much opposition from society and peer politicians while in office. Bhutto could never show her feelings because a “display of emotion by a woman in politics or government can be misconstrued as a manifestation of weakness” (Bhutto, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West 1). Once again relevant to a universe that is divided into spheres, Bhutto had to keep her family life from her work life. Even though that was a difficult task on its own since she was alone in a country with no family members, Bhutto was willing to put “the people of Pakistan first” (Bhutto 2). Benazir Bhutto was willing to do just about anything that would get her close to granting rights to the women living in Pakistan.


Bhutto’s familial ties to Pakistan motivated her to be persistent with her attempts to help the women in Pakistan. No matter how much opposition she faced, Bhutto was determined to make a difference in Pakistan. Although Islamic values prohibit women from entering the public sphere, Bhutto was prepared to confront great opposition in exchange for Pakistani women obtaining well-deserved rights. Bhutto was “expecting attacks by snipers and by suicide bombers” (Bhutto 10). To minimize her risks, Bhutto asked for protection during her times in Pakistan, but was aware that Taliban forces held sway over society and could easily get away with murdering a woman who had made herself vulnerable in the public sphere.

On December 27, 2007, only two months after she had returned to Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was murdered while attending a political rally in Rawalpindi (Munoz, Getting Away With Murder: Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan. 20). After the United Nations investigated the circumstances, it was concluded that al Qaeda and its Pakistani Taliban allies assassinated Bhutto by recruiting a “fifteen-year-old suicide bomber” (Munoz 33). At the expense of Bhutto’s life, Islamic forces, such as the Taliban and al Qaeda, publicized how much power they held and diminished the hopes that women had to take part in the public sphere. Even though there are a few educated women who are devoted to improving the country, since they are women, forces in power make it impossible for them to accomplish anything or to take part in the public sphere. Therefore, it is evident that no matter the age, whether it is girls not getting an education or grown women not exercising their right to participate in society, Islamic forces have established a strict system that deprives women of independence.

There is still a large amount of discrimination based on gender now, just as there was in Homer’s time period. In What is Freedom?, Hannah Arendt teaches us that, in order to have political freedom, we must be able “to do what we ought to will”; we should be allowed to do anything that is morally correct. In addition, another condition to political freedom is that we must be allowed to appear in the public sphere without any obstructions. Given this definition, it is clear that women in the Arab world are deprived of freedom. Arabic women are forbidden from making any decisions on their own, and they are strictly prohibited from entering the public sphere; thus, they lack personal and political freedom. Both Malala Yousafzai and Benazir Bhutto, however, distort the strict Taliban forces that deprive Arabic women of freedom. While Bhutto makes herself known in the public sphere and encourages other women to never abandon their thirst for freedom, Malala asks that girls pursue their desires for education. Additionally, Malala and Bhutto’s experiences are perfect portrayals of how the force that Simone Weil defines as that which turns “anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” is still relevant in today’s world. Both Malala and Bhutto have made an impact in their society and have encouraged more people to affect the societal forces that have been long-established.

Women oppression

Islamic forces, such as the Taliban and al Qaeda, have gained so much control over civilians that power has numbed their sense of reason and pity and made them dogmatic in holding women as subordinate subjects. If these forces are not required to relinquish the power they hold, they can easily control every aspect of life, even more than they do now. Eventually future generations of Arabic women will not even question the strictness of these forces or the fact that they are deprived of freedom. This oppression of women seems to be a constant aspect of society since it is still relevant today and can be traced back to thousands of years ago during Homer’s time. In conclusion, the oppression of Arabic women gives the illusion that things have not changed much and women are still suffering and will continue suffering indefinitely.

Simone Oppression

Works Cited

  1. Bard, Mitchell. Human Rights in Arab Countries., 2012.
  2. Bend, River. Bagdad Burning, Girl Blog From Iraq. com. 2003-2013.
  3. Bhutto, Benazir. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West. Harper Collins. 2008.
  4. Ghanim, David. Gender and Violence In the Middle East.Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2009.
  5. Goodson, Larry P. Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban. Vancouver, BC, CAN: University of Washington Press, 2012. Web. 28 November 2014.
  6. Khuri, Fuad. The Body In Islamic Culture.London: Saqi Books, 2001.
  7. Markoe, Lauren. Religious Oppression Rises Despite Arab Spring. Pew Study Shows. 2013.
  8. Munoz, Heraldo. Book Review: Getting Away With Murder: Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan. W.W. Norton (2014).
  9. Peer, Basharat. The girl who wanted to go to school.The New Yorker. October 10, 2012
  10. Shirazi, Faegheh. Muslim Women In War and Crisis : Representation and Reality.Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
  11. Skaine, Rosemarie. Women of Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era: how lives have changed and where they stand today. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2008.
  12. Westhead, Rick. Brave defiance in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.Toronto Star. Retrieved15 October 2012.
  13. Yousafzai, Malala,Lamb, Christina,I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban. New York, NY: Little Brown & Co., 2013.

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