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‘He Named Me Malala’: The Ordinary Life Behind An Extraordinary Girl

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By Alison Macdonald

Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out in support of girls’ education in Pakistan. Since then, based in the UK, she has continued her advocacy. She is the youngest-ever Nobel laureate: when it was awarded last year, she was just 17.

No doubt, then, that Malala, who grew up in Pakistan’s Swat valley and went on to inspire the world, is a truly remarkable young woman. But ‘He Named Me Malala‘ tells her personal story, whilst also shining a light on the wider global issue of the systematic exclusion of children, and especially girls, from education.

David Guggenheim’s documentary captures Malala’s everyday life as both a young teenager and a global activist through poignant and often humorous interview scenes. Malala is followed around her home, through school, to television interviews and global summits to spread her message of educational equality.

There are also hard-hitting clinical reconstructions of Malala’s emergency surgery in the UK after she was shot, brashly juxtaposed with the animated depiction of her upbringing in the Swat Valley. The dreamy style of these animations works well to capture the nostalgia of a life to which Malala and her family can no longer return.

Malala’s distinctiveness and bravery is reinforced by the way the film plays off the many juxtapositions of her life – voice and silence, empowerment and oppression, the triumph over tragedy. In so doing, it blends together a palpable sense of injustice with an unwavering commitment to hope. Malala speaks eloquently about everything from her favourite books and film stars to world politics. Her personal experience of suffering, however, remains wrapped in stoic silence.

Seemingly inconsequential, but touching moments of quotidian family life do well to pull you in emotionally to the heart-warming experiences of the Yousafzai family, who now live in the UK. Her relationship with her father, the “he” of the film’s title, is particularly focused on. Ordinary portraits of Malala’s giggling girlish coyness and childish banter with her brothers are a welcome reprise from the film’s prodigal tendencies. Indeed, these moments are crucial: they undercut the propensity of the film to romanticise Malala’s heroism. It is the very ordinariness of Malala’s everyday life, contrasted with the unnerving tenacity of her speeches to the UN, that pulls the rug from under our awe-inspired feet.

These touching moments are also important in the way they disrupt stereotypical imaginations of the “Islamic Other”, so often portrayed negatively in mainstream cinema and the media. The value of this simple depiction of a Muslim family being like any other family living in the UK cannot be overstated.

Malala and director David Guggenheim. 20th Century Fox

At the same time, many other wider political concerns are only hinted at. Nuggets of insight, such as Malala’s father’s claim that “the Taliban is not a person. It is an ideology”, certainly give the film a political flavour but could have been delved into in more detail.

Similarly, a 30-second clip of some Pakistani men agreeing with the Taliban’s threat to shoot Malala should she return is interesting, but also warranted more attention, particularly because it could have helped the audience better understand the everyday Pakistani perspective.

While this certainly makes for a good story, I couldn’t help but wonder about the voices of the people – in particular, the young girls – living back in Pakistan. Although the film uses Malala’s experience as a prism for thinking about the injustice of a lack of education globally, it may have been a more powerful argument for social change if the film had spent more time examining the reality of those left behind.

But despite this small niggle, ‘He Named Me Malala’ is a very important film. It does the crucial job of sharing the exceptional story of an exceptional young woman with a wider audience. And as an accomplished narrative of a heroic girl standing for what she believes in, it can do no wrong. But it is the moments of ordinariness that give the film real traction.

It is these moments that inspire and show us that any person, anywhere, can muster a voice. And a powerful, revolutionary one at that.

The ConversationAlison Macdonald, Teaching Fellow in Social Anthropology, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  1. B

    Where was Malala and all her supporters when Bush and Obama were busy bombing girls in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Panama, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and a number of Muslim countries for money, oil, and power. We really think that the platform given to Malala is for girls education, when they brutally murder, maim, and rape girls at the same time. How many Malalas murdered, terrorized, raped and slaughtered in a dozen Muslim countries over decades by a U.S. government in the control of Zionists?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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