Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has become a global icon for women’s education after bravely surviving a gun attack by the Taliban last year (and who may be named the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient in history this week), appeared on the “Daily Show” Tuesday night with standup comic and host Jon Stewart.
I would never watch this program, but I was intrigued by Malala’s scheduled appearance and gave it a try.
Malala, who was promoting a new book called “I Am Malala,” appeared on stage wearing a beautiful and modest orange-colored dress (with her head covered as per tradition). She spoke eloquently (in perfect English) about her home in the Swat Valley of northwestern Pakistan, her passionate embrace of education and her severe criticisms of the Taliban and terrorism.
Despite suffering facial bone displacement from her injuries (and the effects of reconstructive surgery), Malala is still a beautiful young girl -- but more importantly, she is wise beyond her years, well educated, seemingly unspoiled, modest and apparently unaffected by her sudden, overwhelming, enormous planet-wide fame.
And then we have Jon Stewart.
Stewart satirizes news events on his parody public affairs program that apparently is very popular with a certain segment of the U.S. population. He is a millionaire many times over and appeals to an audience that adheres to his left-wing, secular (and largely uninformed and ignorant) political views.
In essence, Stewart (and his studio audience of laughing trained seals) represents the polar opposite of Malala and everything she stands for.
Stewart is a direct product of a vulgar, corroded, cynical, materialistic, value-free, selfish, self-absorbed, superficial, media-saturated U.S. society that has largely destroyed culture, gentility and many traditional values.
Even worse, Stewart (and again, his lemming audience) treated Malala as a “heroine” for her bravery against the Taliban – but I think they viewed her through a very 21st century “American” prism that seeks to portray the young rural Pasthun girl as a “liberated feminist.”
Malala may indeed be a “feminist” of sorts, but a Pakistani feminist is light-years away from the American/British version.
Malala, who is probably far more intelligent and better educated than Stewart could ever hope to be (can you imagine him conversing with Malala in fluent Urdu or Pastho?) comes from an extremely conservative and patriarchal culture – and nothing she has said or done has suggested that she wants to undermine her community’s values. It would probably upset and aggrieve Stewart to know that Malala will likely enter into an arranged marriage in a few years and never wear blue jeans and T-shirts in public (among other very "unliberated" things).
I was amazed (and sickened) by how Stewart’s studio audience seemed to respond to Malala the same way they would if she were a TV actor or rock star or athlete. Whoever her handlers are they should have never allowed Malala to appear on what is basically an inane "comedy" program. What's next? I dread seeing Malala appear on Letterman, Leno and then on 'Dancing With The Stars."
What people like Stewart do not understand is that Malala largely rejects the type of lifestyle and attitudes he embodies – yes, she wants women in Pakistan and other poor nations to learn and study, get good jobs and influence policy. But she clearly does not want to become like the kind of women one sees in America – uncultured, undereducated, shallow and obsessed with stupid trivialities.
Indeed, she has said she wants to return to Pakistan someday and has insisted that her exposure to Britain and the U.S. has not “Westernized” her (and I believe her).
I also worry that appearing on shows like Stewart’s will only increase the backlash Malala has already endured in Pakistan. Some in her homeland have grumbled about what a celebrity she has become and how she has earned millions of dollars from book royalty deals. They are also clearly perturbed that while thousands of other Pakistanis have been killed or wounded by sectarian violence, none of them have become darlings of Western media, nor given cozy jobs by the government as well as free housing and medical treatment in Britain. Girls in the Swat Valley remain vulnerable to attacks from Taliban gunmen, while Malala receives the tightest security imaginable for a teenage girl thousands of miles away.
Resentment against Malala and her family (through no fault of her own) has been building.
If and when she wins the Nobel award, this backlash will likely intensify. Malala has already been accused of being “manipulated” by Western media -- which, to many Pakistanis, means Jews, whom they believe control U.S. media and direct its government policy (Stewart, born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, is, Jewish).
Moreover, Stewart’s complimentary remarks and flattery toward Malala struck me as phony, self-serving and patronizing. She, too, was clearly embarrassed by some of the unintended laughs she triggered from the audience and seemed reluctantly compelled to laugh herself at Stewart’s unfunny, inane ”jokes.” Stewart also (perhaps unwittingly) tread on some very dangerous ground when he "joked" that he was so fond of Malala that he would like to "adopt" her -- in Pashtun and most other South Asian cultures, a young woman is essentially "property" -- first of her father, than of her husband.
Stewart and Malala are worlds apart – thank God, and the twain shall ne’er meet. The world needs far more Malalas and far fewer Jon Stewarts.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.