An Inconvenient Woman

An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.

– Judith Butler

Journalists, when reporting from the wastelands of US imperialism, have become adept at deploying what Eve Tuck called “moves to innocence”: the act of disappearing the role of the US in creating wastelands. These “moves to innocence” are one of US journalism’s essential roles. Journalists rely on liberal discourses–feminism, democracy, free speech, human rights–to whitewash US war crimes and acts of aggression and erase its role as the creator of violence. They become magicians, disappearing history and chronology and repainting themselves as “innocents abroad,” merely reporting on the world.

On October 13, 2013, Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, was received at the White House by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama. Malala, perhaps even to her surprise, had by then become an international cause célèbre and rocketed to international celebrity after Taliban shooters attacked a girl’s school in Swat, Pakistan, and injured her. She became a global spokesperson for girls’ education and, equally, for the liberal West’s self-proclaimed struggle against the tyranny of religious obscurantism. For a US and Pakistani military and political establishment mired in a seemingly pointless and unresolvable conflict on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions, Malala offered the “women’s rights” cover to a war that was becoming one of the US’s most protracted and most intractable.

The use of brown women to cover US imperial wars in the region wasn’t anything new. [Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Haymarket Books, 2012]. Laura Bush–treading a long tradition of colonial claims of “freeing brown women from brown men” [Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can The Subaltern Speak,” In Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Eds), Colonial Discourses and Post-Colonial Theory, Harvester, 1993:93] as justifications for colonial repressions and killing–had argued that the “fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” [Full text of Laura Bush’s radio address is available online at as part of the “Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women” here: (last accessed January 2021)].

The attack on Malala captured the political and media’s imagination because it encapsulated in one stroke the humanitarian and feminist message of the US “war on terror.” Girls’ educational rights fitted well with militant Western imperialism’s self-image as a civilizational and progressive force in the region. It helped the Pakistani political and military establishment garland itself as a liberal force while ensuring that its historical record of near-complete neglect of and indifference towards public education for girls and boys in Pakistan remained unquestioned.

On her visit to the USA, she was feted and received by many influential political figures, activists, socialites, and celebrities. She appeared as a guest on The Daily Show–the ultimate measure of her acceptance into the American popular imagination. The European Union honored her with the Sakharov Human Rights Prize. She spoke at Harvard University. She later shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian campaigner against the exploitation of children.

“We were awe-struck by her courage,” President Obama stated during his meeting with her at the White House, “and filled with hope knowing this is only the beginning of her extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place.” [The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President on Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi Winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize”, October 10, 2014].

There is a veritable industry focused on painting Malala Yousafzai as a tool of Western imperial interests. I have no intention of joining that industry. I am interested in understanding how women from the geographies of US imperialism are carefully chosen as “symbols” to represent the “civilizational” benefits of US violence and wars. This is, of course, an old colonial tactic, one frequently put to use by the British, the French, and other colonial powers to justify their genocidal crimes, body and resource thefts, and destruction of life and society.

Books that speak to this question include Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem, University of Minnesota Press, 1986; Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Verso Book, 2021; Mimi Thi Nguyen, “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” Signs, Volume 36, Number 2Winter 2011; Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, The University of Chicago Press, 2014; Inderpal Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, Duke University Press, 2005].

That same year, another young Pakistani girl arrived in the USA. She, too, came from a US geography of war and was a victim of violence. However, she received far less interest and media attention. There were no late-night television appearances or lunches at the White House—no seminars at Harvard for her to speak her piece. At significant risk to herself and her family, nine-year-old Nabila Rehman traveled from Waziristan to the US to testify about the killing of her grandmother by a US drone strike in Northern Waziristan. Mamana Bibi, Nabila’s 68-year-old grandmother, was killed in an American drone strike on October 24, 2012.

Along with six other children, Nabila was with her grandmother that fateful afternoon, playing and working in the fields, when the drone missiles struck nearby, instantly killing Mamana Bibi. Nabila’s younger brother Zubair and younger sister Asma were both badly injured in the attack. Nabila herself sustained severe shrapnel and burns across her body.

On October 30, 2013, Nabila entered the chambers of the US Congress to speak directly to those responsible for the decisions that continue to maim and destroy so many lives across Pakistan’s North Western frontier with Afghanistan. [Madiha Tahir, “The Ground Was Always In Play,” Public Culture, (2017) 29 (1 (81)): 5–16]. But the chamber was empty. Only five of the 100 Senators and 435 House of Representatives members of Congress members bothered to attend an event that must have been one of the most critical, most unusual experiences of this little girl’s life. [Naureen Khan, “Pakistan drone victims give evidence in the US,” al-Jazeera, October 13, 2013; Karen McVeigh, “Drone strikes: tears in Congress as Pakistani family tells of mother’s death,” The Guardian, October 29, 2013]. She, too, was a young Pakistani girl with a message of peace, acting with courage and hope, but she was not a voice the US wanted to hear, nor was she interested in “liberating.”

Perhaps it was because, in 2013, the ground truth was quite clear. In Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal frontier regions, “the rate at which civilians are being killed has picked up, and the numbers of women and children among the civilian dead have risen dramatically.” [Ann Jones, “The Forgotten War,” The Nation, October 1, 2013]. Or that the “pace of civilian death seems only to be gaining momentum as if in some morbid race to the finish.” [Ibid.] Ironically, as Nabila sat in the empty Congressional chamber, President Obama attended a meeting with weapons manufacturers, security technology corporations, and CEOs of banks that had willfully indulged in fraud and theft but were now about to receive a massive bailout. [The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Readout of the President’s Meeting with CEOs on Cybersecurity”, October 29, 2013].

Malala Yousafzai and Nabila Rehman were products of the same imperial geography and political imaginaries in the US.

[Aside: When we use the term “imperialism,” we refer to a form of power that is a heady brew of military, economic, and cultural power. It isn’t any one thing, but many things are working together. It was a form of economic expansion resulting from late 19th-century European economic needs; see Anthony Giddens, Sociology, Polity Press, 1989:530-5. It was equally a drive towards the destruction and erasure of indigenous life, government and politics; see Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, Knopf, 1990; Robert J. C. Young, White Mythologies, Routledge, 2004. It is also an idea linked to the European Enlightenment and the new economic, political, and cultural ideas that emerged during that epoch. Imperialism and colonialism are closely related; colonialism was always “imperialism’s outpost, the fort and the port of imperial outreach.” See Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies; Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books, 2001:23. It is how imperialism becomes resident].

They were usurped into the calculus of US imperial interests to help act as cover and as a distraction. Their relevance and irrelevance as women of concern hinged on their role in the place of the US imperial drama. They were, and remain, regardless of the fame of one and the marginality of the other, actors in the stage play called the “War on Terror.” Their uses are what Hortense J. Spillers described as “a theft of the body–a willful and violent severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire.” [Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, Summer, 1987, Vol. 17, No. 2, Culture and Counter-memory: The “American” Connection, 1987:pp. 64-81].

It is a capture that erases a person’s “private and particular space” where “biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join.” Instead, it completely disrupts and erases this space and imposes “externally imposed meanings and uses” on the captured body. [Ibid.]

Ironically, the ab/use of brown women in the service of the US empire and violence is a tactic of veiling imperial reality. It exploits Western liberalism imaginaries that posit that the Western woman, and culture, are the necessary ideal for women globally and that this ideal are so unique and perfect that they justify, explain away, and require violence that can simply be explained away as a necessary cost.