Oct 10th 2014 update: This was originally posted ahead of an Asia House panel discussion about women, freedom and the Islamic world, when the multimillion pound book deal of Malala Yousafzai was announced. It seems just as relevant since her Nobel Peace Prize win and with a second book imminent. What does the apparent popularity in the West of Muslim women’s misery memoirs and fiction reveal? Why is there such strong criticism of it too? And do such true “inspiring” stories enable governments to avoid responsibility for their wider failings? Supplementary to my Guardian Books post, this is more about the political issues around the Malala story in particular.
The label –“misery memoir” emerged in response to the publishing phenomenon of such international bestsellers as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; harrowing true stories of abuse that proved wildly popular. But while we can disagree about the literary merits of the genre, I don’t recall all that much of a fuss about whether such books were a slur on all Irish or American nationhood or the Catholic faith.
When it comes to women, and women who happen to be Muslim, though is there a different attitude? Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2006 memoir Infidel had important insights from her work as a translator for Dutch social services in Leiden into how politically correct attitudes among the authorities were blighting the lives of Muslim refugee women experiencing domestic violence. Together with the Iranian born-literature professor Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita In Tehran (2003), she suffered vitriolic attacks from some writers and political activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, that their books about their own experiences were somehow “Orientalist” artifacts, serving an American neo-Conservative political agenda in the aftermath of the Iraq War.
On the panel discussion I’m chairing this week about Women, Freedom and the Islamic World will be novelist Elif Shafak, whose novel Honour focuses on an honour killing in a British Kurdish family, and Kamin Mohammadi, whose memoir The Cypress Tree recounts her childhood exile from revolutionary Iran and upbringing in London; similar terrain to Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis. Alongside Shafak and Mohammadi will be Iraqi dissent, Haifa Zangana, who was tortured in Saddam’s prisons. Zangana’s memoir Dreaming of Baghdad (2009) features an astonishingly vicious forward by Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia University (and well known critic of Reading Lolita in Tehran). In it he writes: “When I read Dreaming of Baghdad, I couldn’t help but wonder: why is it that Iran has not produced a Haifa Zangana in exile, but instead a platoon of self-sexualising memoirists infantilizing a nation, whitewashing the harsh struggles of a people?”
Even if we ignore such attitudes, the uncomfortable reality is that the Western publishing world is fascinating by such tales. It’s argued that they raise the profile of struggles against misogyny and maybe they help fundraise for charitable causes. Weidenfeld and Nicolson has said of its recent book deal with the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala (estimated to be worth about £2 million) that her book, I am Malala, to be published in the autumn, will celebrate the “inspiring story of her determination not be intimidated by extremists.” A few days later Angeline Jolie led the praise at a special New York tribute event, where it was announced that the first grants from the charity, the Malala Fund would be spent on girls’ schooling in her home region of Swat.
Only a few days before Malala’s book deal was announced the most popular feature on the BBC News website had been about another remarkably brave young Pakistani woman, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, headlined “The Pakistani squash star who had to pretend to be a boy.” After years of disguise to continue her training in Waziristan she’s now based in Canada, though still representing Pakistan.
The focus on these “exceptionalist” tales of individual bravery captures news headlines and, one could argue, enabled politicians to play down the more difficult question: What to do about the millions of women and girls who live in many Muslim countries under the same often worsening conditions, but don’t make headlines? The Pakistani government has mostly escaped direct censure for its failures to protect and promote womens’s rights, and continues to be a very large recipients of British and US aid.
It is reasonable to assume Malala can never return home. However her exceptional status (with a consulate job found for her father and her ongoing medical treatment here) means the Pakistani government avoids any embarrassment and the British government avoids the most undesirable immigration precedent that a Pakistani asylum claim based on gender would establish. In the meantime the Malala charity funds will be distributed discreetly, to avoid the recipients suffering the same Taliban attentions as the schoolgirl and her family.
Perhaps it would be better to compare Malala’s book to a memoir like Half the Sky (2009). Written by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, its subtitle is How To Change the World – using inspirational stories of great personal suffering by women around the developing world to show models of improved life choices and outcomes.
But as we watch a growing backlash against women’s rights in many Muslim nations, including the new Egypt, Muslim women’s memoirs remain individual stories that testify to the ongoing failure of governments to tackle endemic abuse and discrimination.