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The Making of Humans and Their Others in and through

Transnational Human Rights Advocacy: Exploring

the Cases of Mukhtar Mai and Malala Yousafzai

omeone recently asked me what I thought of the surge of sentiment

against global human rights icon Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan: “How

could anyone from Pakistan not be proud of her? Doesn’t her work

advance women’s rights in your country?” The questioner was genuinely

interested in knowing how I, a self-identified transnational feminist immi-

grant scholar from Pakistan, understood the visceral repulsion in response

to Malala within some quarters in Pakistan. “Why,” she asked, “would any

educated Pakistani be against Malala? After all, one could expect such atti-

tudes from the illiterate lot, but why the All Pakistan Private Schools Fed-

eration?” Implicit in this question are assumptions about women’s rights

and education as signs of modernity, enlightenment, and progress. Any cri-

tique of Malala, then, is read as regressive, backward, premodern, and against

the principles of human rights. Indeed, any critique of the discourse of hu-

man rights is made incomprehensible because the discourse articulates it-

self as universal and morally correct and, in recent times, has exhausted the

space for how we imagine emancipatory possibilities and projects (Yeğen-

oğlu 1998; Kapur 2013). Yet, as feminist and post/de/colonial scholars ar-

gue, the very constitution of “human” in human rights discourses is predi-

cated on assumptions about that which is not human (Brown 2004; Mignolo

2006; Fregoso 2014). The discourse thus has colonizing and orientalizing

functions for those who have been, and are, excluded from its imaginary

(Yeğenoğlu 1998). In this article, to examine this constitutive role of human

rights advocacy and the politics of knowledge-making practices, I explore the

making of humans and their others in and through the discursive construction

of two global icons of human rights advocacy—Mukhtar Mai and Malala
Yousafzai, both from Pakistan.

Specifically, I analyze Mukhtaran and Malala’s discursive articulation in

anglophone electronic media to illustrate the ways in which the notions of

vulnerability, suffering, and empowerment that cohere around them facil-

itate the marking of brown, Muslim, Pakistani bodies as threatening the ra-

cial, civilizational, and ultimately humanitarian integrity of the white, anglo-

phone, often Christian male subject. Like other feminist and postcolonial

[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2017, vol. 42, no. 2]
© 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2017/4202-0004$10.00

S h e n i l a S . K h o j a – M o o l j i

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scholars, I illustrate the ways in which the public discourse around Mukhtaran

and Malala reinscribes brown, Muslim, female bodies as perennially vulner-

able to brown, male violence (Spivak 1988; Mohanty 2002; Abu-Lughod

2013); articulates the violation of their corporeal bodies as a confirmation of

their communities and nations as belonging to the time-space of the past; and

views empowerment as individualized action against local cultures, families,

and communities. Such knowledge-making practices not only secure the con-

tinuum of man to beast (Agamben 1998) but also (re)entrench the teleo-

logical narrative of liberalism where acquisition of more rights by individ-

uals is assumed to be the only way to secure development and emancipation.

This, however, clearly has consequences for those who are excluded from, or

made nonexistent by, the liberal humanist project. There is, thus, a need for a

reevaluation of the very terms and idioms that inform human rights advocacy.

I take up this task of decolonizing and pluriversalizing human rights

(Mignolo and Tlostanova 2006) by pointing to alternative conceptions of

what it means to be human and to lead a meaningful life that already cir-

culate in the context of Pakistan. Drawing on my fieldwork with adolescent

girls in the villages of Khyber and Aliabad, I observe that the autonomous,

individual subject of the human rights discourse exists side by side with con-

ceptions of being human that traverse the delicate space between individu-

ality and belonging to collectivities, be they families, tribes, religious com-

munities, or clans. My findings show that the participants experienced their

humanity in relational terms; that they viewed themselves as embedded in

different systems of living, including nonhuman ones; and that they empha-

sized a heightened sense of complementarity and interdependency to achieve

individual as well as collective well-being. When living that is experienced in

such complex ways is reduced to a list of rights, or to legal and state-defined

definitions of what constitutes freedom, which close off other emancipatory

projects, it can be read as a form of violence (Kapur 2013; Fregoso 2014).

Thus, I call for reconstructing the human rights discourse such that it ac-

knowledges multiple and diverse conceptualizations of what it means to be

human and how one might live with dignity, giving up its claims to univer-

sality. This, however, is only one example of how the project of pluriversaliz-

ing human rights can be achieved; other scholars may take up other philoso-

phies and epistemologies of the global South to outline alternate conceptions

of what it means to be human and experience human empowerment.1

1 An increasing number of scholars are turning toward nonliberal epistemologies to ex-

cavate alternate conceptions of human dignity, freedom, and happiness. Amina Jamal (2015)

seeks to do so by drawing on the Sufi tradition, and Ratna Kapur (2013) draws on the phil-

osophical tradition of nondualism or Advaita to do the same.

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The proliferation of human rights and its critiques

In recent decades, the language of human rights has become the domi-

nant idiom in and through which injustices are articulated and redresses

sought (Benhabib 2007). In the context of Pakistan, too, the language of

rights is gradually attaining the status of common sense. Local and trans-

national organizations and activists deploy this language to advance the

welfare of Pakistani women and girls. Studies show that some activists find

that it helps them appeal to a supranational community and reprimand a pa-

triarchal state (Grewal 2005; Khoja-Moolji 2014). In other cases, activists

who are cautious of the Western lineage of the language of rights try to

figure out ways to lay claim to the same ideals of dignity and protection of

women by vernacularizing and Islamizing the rhetoric of rights.2 Yet oth-

ers, recognizing the hegemony of the discourse of human rights, are ex-

ploring ways to use it in counterhegemonic, strategic ways. In short, human

rights have become the dominant vocabulary of human dignity and empow-

erment (Santos 2013).

Transnational feminist and postcolonial scholars, however, are wary of

this celebratory uptake of human rights discourse. They direct attention to-

ward the kinds of subjects and objects that are produced in and through it,

as well as its function in naming and consolidating distinctions between the

human and the subhuman, the free and the oppressed, the secular and the

religious, the developed and the undeveloped.3 Lila Abu-Lughod (2013),

for instance, argues that efforts of Islamizing and vernacularizing human

rights retain a common referent—human rights laws and documents—and,
hence, do little to contest the assumptions of this discourse. Likewise, In-

derpal Grewal (2005) views human rights as a system of truth and an “ethical

regime that put(s) into play a whole range of instrumentalizations of gov-

ernance” (122). She elaborates that human rights discourses have enabled

the indexing of the welfare of populations and, hence, facilitate the con-

vergence of geo- and biopolitics. Similarly, my own work in Pakistan ex-

plores the disciplinary effects of UN-centric human rights discourses as they

delineate specific forms of belonging as worthy of citizenship (Khoja-Moolji


Undergirding these critiques is a recognition and contestation of the hu-

manist philosophies and Eurocentric assumptions that inform human rights

discourses (Merry 2006; Mignolo 2006; Benhabib 2007). Within the doc-

trine of humanism, only particular kinds of subjects are recognizable as hu-

man, and all else is constituted as the other or the repressed other through

2 See Abu-Lughod (2013) for a review of such organizations and activists.
3 See Wynter (2003), Grewal (2005), Hesford and Kozol (2005), and Esmeir (2011).

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practices of racialization, sexualization, and naturalization (Yeğenoğlu 1998;

Wynter 2003; Braidotti 2013). Therefore, to explore the politics of human

rights advocacy we have to examine the constitution of the (non)(sub)(in)

human and the process of dehumanization. Indeed, Wendy Brown (2004)

insists that we interrogate the self-articulation of human rights as an anti-

political project and ask questions not only about its political functioning but

also about the processes of politicization that it sets in motion. I therefore

set out to examine the archives of Mukhtaran and Malala, as case studies, to

argue that their production as particular kinds of vulnerable, suffering, and em-

powered subjects in and through the language of human rights has the ef-

fect of (re)installing the white anglophone male as representing full humanity.

Analyzing cultural productions

Electronic media today have become some of the most powerful ways to

shape public discourse and, hence, make for productive sites for analysis

(McDermott 1995). I examine Mukhtaran and Malala’s representations in

popular electronic media outlets primarily located in the global North to ex-

plore the dominant discursive tropes and formations in and through which

they are articulated. Focusing on media and public intellectuals from the

global North is a way to understand the constitutive force of those discursive

practices as they are put in play from positions of strength (including posi-

tions of wealth and relative power). Indeed, discursive representations orig-

inating from the global North have a “distributive currency” (Said 1978, 23)

that is often not available to their counterparts in the global South. Further-

more, their dominance is also a function of their recuperation and re-citation

of sedimented tropes, which awards them prominence (Stoler 1995). Ana-

lyzing elite media productions, then, is one way to unpack these dense as-

semblages. Indeed, transnational feminists have long argued for such analyses

in order to make visible the processes of abstraction and spectacularization

that cast particular individuals as either ideal-victim subjects or empowered/

rescued subjects (Hesford 2011; Abu-Lughod 2013).

Data sources for this article include images, writings, and speeches fea-

tured in magazines such as Time, the Economist, and Newsweek; newspa-

pers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post; and online news

sites such as CNN, the BBC, and the Huffington Post; as well as the public

discourse of journalists and figures such asNew York Times journalist Nich-

olas Kristof and the former prime minister of the United Kingdom and

current UN envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, both of whom have

been prominent in speaking about Mukhtaran and Malala, among others. I

also examine the webpages of Western organizations that have presented

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Mukhtaran and Malala with accolades in order to explore their narratives

around such formal recognitions. My intent in this article, however, is not to

provide a comprehensive analysis of the public archives around Mukhtaran

and Malala (much of that appears in Khoja-Moolji 2015) but to consider

some elements for illustrative purposes to explore the operation of human

rights advocacy.

Objects and subjects of human rights advocacy

In 2002, Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped in Meerwala, Pakistan. The rape

was intended to serve as retributive justice for alleged sexual advances made

by her twelve-year-old brother, Abdul Shaqoor, toward a woman, Naseem,

from the more powerful Mastoi clan. While a tribal council had earlier agreed

that Shaqoor would marry Naseem and Mukhtaran would marry Naseem’s

brother Abdul Khaliq, two arbiters from the Mastoi tribe—Ramzan Pachar
and Ghulam Farid Mahmood—rejected the proposal. They decided instead
that dishonoring someone related to Shaqoor would be the appropriate

way to resolve the issue.4 As a consequence, Mukhtaran was raped by Abdul

Khaliq, Allah Ditta, Muhammad Fiaz, and Ghulam Farid Mahmood.5 She

filed a case against them, which led to fourteen men being arrested, four of

whom had committed the rape while the others were part of the tribal council.

Of these, Abdul Khaliq, Allah Ditta, Muhammad Fiaz, Ghulam Farid Mah-

mood, Ramzan Pachar, and Faiza Muhammad were found guilty. The men

appealed the court’s decision, and in 2005, all but Abdul Khaliq were ordered

to be released upon payment of a bond. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld

this verdict.6

Mukhtaran’s case received significant attention from human rights or-

ganizations and media outlets when the then-president of Pakistan, Pervez

Musharraf, disallowed her to travel to the United States to share her story.

It was believed that such a retelling would tarnish an already problematic

image of Pakistan in the United States. Musharraf’s decision was condemned

by the media, and Pakistan’s legal system was criticized. Since then, a broad

range of groups and individuals have rallied around Mukhtaran to amplify

her voice and story, and to seek justice for other women in Pakistan. For

instance, in 2005, Time magazine named Mukhtaran one of its 100 Most

Influential People, and Glamour magazine declared her its Woman of the

Year. In 2007, she was awarded the prestigious Council of Europe North-

4 See Supreme Court Pakistan, Criminal Appeal 163,

5 Ibid., 3.
6 Ibid., 5. For more information about Mukhtar Mai’s case, see Khoja-Moolji (2013).

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South Prize, which seeks to honor efforts made to advance human rights

and strengthen North-South relations. In receiving this award, Mukhtaran

joined the likes of the Aga Khan, Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Queen

Rania of Jordan, among others. In 2013, she was invited to speak at the

Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. Mukhtaran has also es-

tablished a welfare organization in Pakistan with some of the funds that she

received from prize monies and from the government of Pakistan. Wikipedia

lists Mukhtaran’s occupation as “human rights activist,” which is one of the

clearest indications of how her activism in the aftermath of her personal trag-

edy is articulated.7

Similar to representations of Mukhtaran’s suffering and advocacy, the

international media coverage of Malala Yousafzai also situates her as both

an object and a subject of human rights advocacy. In 2012, Malala, then

fifteen years old, was shot in the head upon the exhortations of Mullah

Fazlullah (also known as “Radio Mullah”), an emerging leader of Tehrik-

e-Taliban Pakistan. The shooting was organized by a group of ten men led

by Zafar Iqbal. Malala had been writing against the atrocities of the Taliban

militants in her native valley of Swat, particularly on their call for school

closures. Her activism included appearing in two documentaries produced

by New York Times journalist Adam Ellick and writing a blog for BBC Urdu.

Her father had been vociferous on this issue as well, especially since he owned

and operated a school, which was his primary source of income. The shoot-

ing was aimed at halting their activist work. As with Mukhtaran’s case, this

event too attracted international attention, with people inside and outside of

Pakistan condemning the attackers. Pakistani state institutions immediately

provided medical assistance to Malala. She was taken to an army hospital

and later transferred to a hospital in the United Kingdom. Malala recovered

shortly thereafter and now resides in the United Kingdom.

Malala’s activism had already started gaining attention in Pakistan be-

fore the shooting. In 2011, for instance, she was nominated for the Inter-

national Children’s Peace Prize. However, after the shooting, attention to-

ward her increased manifold. Gordon Brown launched a petition called “I

am Malala” to put pressure on the Pakistani government to address girls’

rights to education. In 2013, Malala, like Mukhtaran, was named one of

the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine and Woman of the Year

by Glamour magazine. Like Mukhtaran, Malala has also come to symbolize

human rights struggles in Pakistan—in 2012 she was awarded the Rome Prize
for Peace and Humanitarian Action, and in 2013 she received the Sakharov

Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, the Human-

7 See

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itarian of the Year award from Harvard University, the Ambassador of Con-

science award from Amnesty International, and the UN Human Rights Prize

from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was also

nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, and again in 2014, when she

won, along with Kailash Satyarthi. That year she also received the Anne Frank

Award for Moral Courage.

The public discourse around both Mukhtaran and Malala is constituted

in and through the language of UN-centric human rights. This includes an

articulation of their suffering as a violation of human rights but also a reading

of their courage as an enactment of individual autonomy and a recognition

of rights, as demonstrated by the numerous awards they received. In addi-

tion, both take up the language of rights to explain the specifics of their

personal experiences and to frame their desires for girls and women in Paki-

stan. For instance, while acknowledging the advances made by state institu-

tions in Pakistan to improve the conditions for women, Mukhtaran writes that

the United Nations “can and must do so much more” (Mai 2013, para. 13)

and calls on the organization to help victims of violence in Pakistan: “The

UN can help rape victims like me, and other unempowered women in Paki-

stan, by calling on Pakistan to implement its international undertakings to

respect our universal right to human dignity and equality, and to truly guar-

antee access to education” (paras. 15 and 16; emphasis added). Malala, too,

has productively used the language of rights to draw attention to women’s

and girls’ issues. In a statement made after the announcement of her win-

ning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said, “a girl has the power to go forward in

her life . . . she should have an identity. She should be recognized, and she
has equal rights as a boy” (quoted in Kumar 2014; emphasis added). In her

acceptance speech for the same prize, Malala again articulated her activism

through the language of rights: “This award is not just for me . . . it is for
those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their

rights. . . . I am just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see
every child getting quality education, who wants to see women having equal

rights and who wants peace in every corner of the world” (Yousafzai 2014;

emphasis added).

Hence, Mukhtaran and Malala can be read as both objects and subjects

of human rights advocacy. That is, observers draw on discourses of human

rights to make sense of their suffering and activism, and Mukhtaran and

Malala draw on the same idioms to constitute themselves and others as

rights-bearing subjects. Mukhtaran and Malala traverse what I am terming

the “chain of vulnerability-suffering-empowerment” established by and

within contemporary human rights regimes, which transforms them from

vulnerable and suffering to empowered women/girls. The metaphor of a

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chain is productive for me as it draws attention to the teleological and pro-

gressive linking of these subject positions in the dominant discourse of

human rights—that is, a brown woman inevitably has to travel through this
chain in order to achieve the kind of empowerment recognized by the lib-

eral humanist discourse of rights.8 Such forms of legibility, as feminist post-

colonial scholars have shown, are an effect of discourses about Islam and Mus-

lim men that displace brown, Muslim bodies from dominant performances

linked to being human.

“Monsters rule in Pakistan”

The production of the Muslim world/Orient as antagonistic to the rights of

women and embroiled in premodern sensibilities is made possible through

an invocation of the binary of vulnerable Muslim women and threatening

Muslim men.9 From the British colonizers and missionaries’ calls to save

“Moslem women” from the practices of purdah, polygamy, and child mar-

riageto thecontemporarycallsbyhuman rights advocatesto giveMuslimgirls

an education and rescue them from backward cultures, oppressive families, and

child marriage (note the sturdy trope), the construction of Muslim women

as silent andvulnerablehas a longdiscursivehistory.Inthe context ofcolonial

India, for instance, these tropes enabled Victorian social reformers to inau-

gurate their humanitarian-cum-regulatory projects of education—including
zenana visitations whereby female missionaries and teachers entered the

homosocial spaces of Muslim households to educate women—and sanc-
tioned rescue/emancipatory missions (Montgomery 1910; Burton 1994).

Echoes of such constructions can be heard in the more recent public dis-

course of human rights as it relates to Mukhtaran and Malala.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Thor Halvorssen, the president of the

New York–based nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, for instance, titles
his commentary about Mukhtaran’s rape “Monsters Rule in Pakistan;

Rape Is Public Policy” (Halvorssen and Pizano 2011). Here, Pakistan is dis-

cursively produced as a haven for rapists and Pakistani leaders—mostly Mus-

8 I am inspired by Nancy Lesko’s use of the term “chains of reasoning” (2001, 180) to

theorize the story lines of Mukhtaran and Malala as traversing chains of vulnerability-suffering-

empowerment. There are, however, moments when both Mukhtaran and Malala break this

chain—for instance, when Malala uses international attention to discuss issues related to Pal-

estinian children or drone strikes in Pakistan—yet the chain is operative when it assimilates

their activism back into its dominant codes. To argue against this chain is to argue for messy,

nonlinear ways of being, as I will discuss later in this article.
9 See Said (1978), Bhattacharyya (2008), Shehabuddin (2011), and Charania (2015).

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lim men—likened to monsters: “You see, rape is standard punishment in
Pakistan for women and girls who have brought dishonor to their fami-

lies or communities. . . . Violence of this sort is common practice in Pakistan,
considered part of an ancient ethical code, commonly referred to as ‘honor

revenge’ and ‘honor killings’” (2011, paras. 2 and 5).

Such discursive maneuvers produce Pakistan and Pakistanis as embroiled

in premodern sensibilities and as harboring ill will toward women and girls.

Instead of analyzing the complicated sequence of events that led to Mukh-

taran’s rape, including the nascent and still struggling system of law and

patriarchal attitudes, as well as the good will of the many people who stood

up for her, including her own parents and the mullah of the local mosque,

what we find is an image of Pakistanis as less-than-humans or as monsters.

Similarly, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, who has written ex-

tensively about Mukhtaran, also constructs Pakistani citizens and cultures

as threats to Mukhtaran. In an article titled, “Sentenced to Be Raped,” Kristof

exclaims, “I did encounter a much more ubiquitous form of evil and terror:

a culture, stretching across about half the globe, that chews up women and spits

them out. We in the West could help chip away at that oppression, with health

and literacy programs and by simply speaking out against it” (2004; em-

phasis added). Elsewhere, in a video produced for the New York Times ti-

tled “The Courage of Mukhtar Mai,” Kristof (2006) notes, “When she is

being welcomed at the White House or receiving thunderous standing

ovations in New York, it is easy to imagine that she is safe. But when the

spotlights go down, she returns here to the village in Meerwala where many

people want to kill her for threatening the existing repressive order.”

These discursive practices produce the Western subject as free, empow-

ered, and humanitarian, and the people and culture of Meerwala and Pa-

kistan (Muslims in this case) as repressed and backward, harboring ill will

toward women. In order to present himself and others like him (“we in the

West”) as liberal and humanitarian, Kristof draws on the tired strategy of

blaming local cultures and traditions for bad behaviors, which feminists have

critiqued incessantly (Volpp 2000; Massad 2015). Similar invocations are

also made in cartoonist representations around Malala in elite newspapers,

featuring visual and textual rhetoric that portrays the undifferentiated mass

of bearded men, Islam, and the Taliban in stark contrast to Malala, books,

and education.10 Here, the latter stands in for the cherished ideals of civilized/

progressive people, and the former signals its lack.

10 The selection of images from elite newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washing-

ton Post, and Time magazine is one of the ways in which I attempt to delineate the loudest, most

dominant discourse about Muslim women and men.

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Consider the systematicity in visual representations of men in figures 1

and 2 with stereotypically ethnicized noses, excessive hair, deep frowns, and

screaming, wide-open mouths; in figure 2, in particular, the trope of the un-

educated Muslim, which has a long history in British writings about Mus-

lims in colonial India (Sarkar 2008; Batsha 2010), is reinvigorated.11 These

images evoke what Jasbir Puar (Puar and Rai 2002; Puar 2007) describes as

the terrorist-monster-fag assemblage, a necessary set of othered bodies—
often orientalized and racialized—that enable the constitution of the Amer-
ican (hetero)homonormative citizen. In this case, the discursive representa-

tions of Muslims and Pakistanis as monstrous help to define the key elements

of humanity, which is conflated with the West.

Affects play a critical role in rendering the Muslim male body as mon-

strous and in- or subhuman. Writing about the constitution of the Latina/o

citizen-subject, José Muñoz argues that Latina/o identity is not simply

a cultural marker but also an affective performance—a performance in re-
lation to an “‘official’ national affect” of whiteness (2000, 68). Since the

Latina/o citizen-subject is displaced and blocked from accessing majori-

tarian and official paradigms, it is impossible for her/him to perform official

citizenship and normativity (Muñoz 2000). While Muñoz focuses on iden-

tity constructions within the United States and, hence, links whiteness with

“national affect,” I extend this line of inquiry and draw on arguments about

the embeddedness of present ways of conceptualizing the human in

Eurocentric paradigms (Yeğenoğlu 1998; Braidotti 2013) to theorize white-

ness as the official human affect as well. Human affect, when linked with

whiteness, entails reason, control, and drabness. Within such a construction,

“excess” affect marks a displacement and, therefore, those displaying such

excesses are constituted as less than human. In the case of brown, Muslim

men, dominant cultural productions in the media mark them as figures of

excess, rage, and unpredictability, thereby constituting them as a displace-

ment from official human affects, which are linked with control, rationality,

and reason. In figures 1 and 2, for example, anger jumps off of the pages

and seeps into the viewer’s skin; the viewer affectively feels the threat of

brown men, and feelings of care and protection cohere around the innocent

girl. These affects rely on the re-citation of orientalizing tropes to maintain

their effect. Consider the images on the cover of magazines such as News-

week in September 2001 and September 2012 and the Economist in January

2008, as well as television shows, such asHomeland (see Shah 2014), where

11 Readers can also see images in the New York Times (particularly, http://www.nytimes

.com/2012/10/13/opinion/heng-cartoon-malala-yousafzai-shot-by-taliban.html); author

was unable to secure permission to reproduce the image.

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the trope of the angry, brown, Muslim man looms large. Without the re-

petitive use of these tropes in dominant media, or what we can describe as

processes of dehumanization, such representations would lose their histor-

ical connection to Muslim, brown bodies.

This trope, however, is repeated with difference (Deleuze [1968] 1995)

every time a new victim-subject emerges. That is, it adjusts itself with ev-

ery repetition, making way for anomalies and exceptions. For instance, in

Malala’s story, her father Ziauddin appears as supportive, visionary, and a

human rights activist. His dominant articulation, much like Malala’s, is that

of an exception against the background of the presumably known entity of

Pakistani Muslim men and a patriarchal society. Shiza Shahid, the CEO of

the Malala Fund, praises Ziauddin, writing: “He had no qualms about his

organization being run by a 24-year-old girl, an openness to gender and age

which is unheard of where he comes from” (Yousafzai and Shahid 2014; em-

phasis added). According to this rhetoric, Ziauddin’s desires and practices

of encouraging his daughter are not grounded in local environments but

against them.12 That is, particular kinds of attributes and activism—espe-

12 See Mohsin (2013) for an example of such writing.

Figure 1 “The Mortal Threat” by Nick Anderson, cartoonist for the Houston Chronicle
(October 18, 2012). © 2012 by Nick Anderson. Image courtesy of Nick Anderson, the Wash-
ington Post Writers Group, and the Cartoonist Group. A color version of this figure is available

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cially those that are valorized in today’s neoliberal context—are assumed
to be properties that one acquires due to exposure to Western/Enlight-

enment/humanitarian ideas and education. Thus, what we have is a dis-

cursive and affective impossibility for Muslims and Pakistanis as a collec-

tivity to inhabit spaces that are constituted as human, with all of the liberal

humanist paraphernalia of freedom, democracy, and rationality.

The production of collectivities such as Muslims, Muslim men, and Pa-

kistanis as belonging to the time-space of the past—either as embroiled in
premodern sensibilities or as subhumans or monsters yet to develop into full

humans—has consequences for their treatment as a group (even as individ-
uals from such groups—such as Mukhtaran and Malala—may be spared that
treatment). When having a qualified life as a human is linked with whiteness,

a state of exception (Agamben 1998)—a time-space sanctioned by sover-
eign power where laws can be suspended—can be created around non-
whites.13 It is Pakistanis/Muslims/Muslim men’s already constituted status

Figure 2 “Malala Yousafzai Wins the Nobel Peace Prize; The Taliban’s Reaction” by Ann
Telnaes,Washington Post (October 10, 2014). © 2014 by Ann Telnaes. Image courtesy of Ann
Telnaes and the Cartoonist Group. All rights reserved. A color version of this figure is available

13 A large number of Pakistanis in northern Waziristan have been displaced as a conse-

quence of the clashes between the Pakistani/American state and militants. Due to the con-

tinuing high rate of drone strikes, many are unwilling to return to their homes (Press TV

2014). The success of these strikes, according to a report by the United Kingdom–based Bu-

reau of Investigative Journalism, is around 12 percent; of the total 2,379 people killed, only

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of being less than human that allows for a devaluation of their political sub-

jectivity in relation to the American state. They can thus be subjected to state

violence without raising the same kinds of legal and humanitarian dilemmas

that might be operative in other contexts and in relation to those who are

deemed fully human/bios. This is illustrated by the overpolicing of brown

bodies in the streets of American cities, torture in the prisons of Abu Ghraib

and Guantanamo Bay, the invasion of sovereign states such as Iraq, the decla-

ration of a War on Terror against Pakistan, and drone strikes in Afghani-

stan and Pakistan. The certainty about the inhumanity of brown bodies

produces an ease with which their human rights are relinquished. Meyda

Yeğenoğlu (1998) reminds us that the West’s project of global domination

has entailed defining and imposing universally applicable norms of moder-

nity, development, and progress that deny freedom and autonomy to native

cultures. Likewise, in defining universal measures of humanity—through the
enumeration of rights, or by waging a war to protect human rights, for in-

stance—particular subjects are denied this very humanity. Here, politics, re-
ligion, and gender mesh in meaningful ways to show that not all political

lives are equal, and state violence draws on, and reproduces, cultural expres-

sions of some populations as bestial. In contrast, Mukhtaran and Malala’s

suffering occurs outside the domain of state-sanctioned violence, helping to

rearticulate the threat constituted by Muslim men, Islam, and local cultures.

These frames of recognition come together to make their suffering legible

within humanitarian regimes of care (Ticktin 2011). What is at stake here,

then, is that the horrendous crimes committed against particular victim-

subjects such as Mukhtaran and Malala by specific men are grafted onto an

entire set of people who are turned into bare bodies.

The particularized vulnerabilities and sufferings of Mukhtaran and Ma-

lala are also grafted onto the state of Pakistan, rendering it simultaneously a

vulnerable nation incapable of addressing the needs of its own population,

and hence requiring aid and assistance, and a threatening, suspect nation

with nuclear capabilities, and thus in need of regulation and, possibly, pun-

ishment. This paves the way not only for unsolicited military interventions

and sanctions but also for humanitarian projects. In Pakistan, humanitarian

projects have precipitated the privatization of public goods and services,

which does little to strengthen state institutions.14 Furthermore, foreign

aid to Pakistan has often been contingent on the state implementing struc-

tural adjustment programs, which include provisions for decreasing spend-

14 See Keating, Rasmussen, and Rishi (2010) for a critique.

295 can be identified as militants (Serle 2014). The probability of a civilian being killed, there-

fore, is fairly high, engendering vulnerability at a societal level.

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ing on social services. Hence, there is a circularity at work here—the vulner-
able state needs aid, which comes with contingencies that further weaken

state institutions, causing the state to require additional aid in the future.

The final link in the chain of vulnerability-suffering-empowerment ar-

ticulates a transformation of Muslim women and girls into empowered sub-

jects. However, a narrow conceptualization of empowerment is produced

here. Empowerment is constituted as an individualized act, where the sub-

ject makes her concerns audible by deploying the language of human rights

in opposition to local configurations of patriarchy, families, or communities.

This is apparent in the ways in which both Mukhtaran and Malala are pro-

duced as empowered. Malala, for instance, is valorized for standing up against

the collective of Taliban/Islam/terrorists. Popular American blogger Sam

Harris writes that “Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim

world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl

who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to

do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam” (2013, par. 17; empha-
sis added).

Likewise, Gordon Brown (2013) titled one of his articles for CNN “How

Malala Forced Terrorists onto Defensive.” And Malala herself titled her

coauthored autobiography I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Educa-

tion and Was Shot by the Taliban (Yousafzai and Lamb 2013). In 2013,

Mukhtaran wrote an article for the National Post, a Canadian newspaper

in which she too emphasized Malala’s individualized performance of voice

and speaking up for rights: “Malala showed Pakistani women that they now

have a voice: a voice to demand their rights” (Mai 2013, para. 5). Similarly,

across public media archives, what seems to mark Mukhtaran as empowered

is her decision to pursue a legal case instead of committing suicide.15

These articulations collectively narrate empowerment as an individual-

ized action undertaken by women—standing up, speaking against, forcing,
demanding, fighting back—against the Pakistani legal system, its culture,
and its people. Empowerment in such discursive formations is theorized

as a delinking of girls and women from specific forms of attachments (to

their families, communities, and nation) and a developing of new kinds

of attachments (toward human rights laws, schools, and the labor market

[Dingo 2008]). Under this dominant logic of empowerment, women who

align with their husbands and families or who enact different versions of self

and communal care do not feature as empowered. This is clearly illustrated by

15 See Mukhtaran’s brief biography, under 2006, in the Council of Europe’s list of previ-

ous laureates for the North-South Prize (


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how women who subvert imperialist ambitions in the context of Pakistan

or enact transgression in unfamiliar ways are often not invoked as work-

ing toward human rights.16 This includes women who engage in guerilla

warfare to resist American military establishments in Pakistan (and Afghan-

istan), those who protested Pakistan’s alliance with the United States against

the Taliban in 2007 as part of the siege of Lal Masjid, as well as the hundreds

of women who (as I write these words) have been participating in a sit-in

in Islamabad for the past hundred days to expose the alleged rigging in the

elections that brought Nawaz Sharif to power. These exercises of women’s

empowerment do not always employ the language of rights, are enacted

in concert with men, argue for a balance between collective and individu-

alized well-being, and often contest colonizing practices undertaken by West-

ern institutions as well as the elite within the country.Theyare,therefore,not

intelligible as enactments of empowerment within present discursive frames

of human rights.

In short, dominant public representations of victim-subjects such as

Mukhtaran and Malala in and through archetypal frames of vulnerable women,

threatening men, or a vulnerable/threatening state do little for the project

of extending our understanding about others. Instead, they reify the bina-

ries of human/monster and the contours of othered identities.17 What we

are left with, then, are reductive story lines that produce stable, knowable

third-world subjects. It should now come as no surprise that some people

have taken it upon themselves to observe “anti-Malala” days to contest their

own and their state’s marginalization that results from dominant discourses

about Malala. The specific slogan of the campaign launched by the All Pa-

kistan Private School Federation, “I am not Malala, I am Muslim, I am Pa-

kistani” (Express Tribune 2015; Ghani 2015), is a clear indication of the

group’s resistance to the ways in which Malala has been taken up to define

Pakistanis and Muslims, something that has real, material implications for

their everyday living. The paradox, however, is that any resistance to Malala

is often viewed as a sign of backward cultures and not as a serious critique of

imperial knowledge-making practices. Even in their political resistance, Pa-

kistanis and Muslims often are unable to disentangle themselves from

entrenched conceptions of who they are and what they represent. What,

then, might be viable alternatives to, or extensions of, the vocabulary of

human rights? How might we (re)think the human such that it creates space

16 See Mahmood (2005) and Jamal (2015) for alternative enactments of piety and/or

17 See Nakamura (2006) and Queen (2008) on the consumption and commodification of

such identities.

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for those who have been historically dehumanized? What conceptualiza-

tions might Pakistanis themselves offer to reclaim their personhood and


Pluriversalizing human rights

As I note above, particular conceptions of what it means to be human un-

dergird human rights discourses, wherein assumptions about autonomy

and self-determination are sometimes valorized to the extent that individ-

uals appear to be delinked from their human and nonhuman environments.

Feminist scholars have traced the history of human rights to show the many

subjects who have been excluded from this discourse (Wynter 2003; Es-

meir 2011; Phillips 2015). One way to disrupt the dominant claim of hu-

man rights is to contest the very terms that inform it by pluriversalizing

it. Decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo (2013) uses the term “pluriversality”

to denote the existence of universalizing principles across all civilizations

rather than only the Western ones. That Western epistemology and herme-

neutics appear universalistic is then seen as part of the larger imperial project.

This does not mean that these universalisms exist in harmony—histories of
colonialisms clearly show the relations of power that structure epistemolo-

gies. To disrupt these hierarchies entails dwelling in the border spaces across

epistemologies and rewriting dominant discourses by introducing multi-

plicities. Said differently, it is critical to contest the hegemonic terms in and

through which societies make sense of their present, to recognize their Euro-

centric origins and, simultaneously, to attempt a retrieval of indigenous con-

cepts to pluralize knowledge fields (Mignolo and Tlostanova 2006; Santos

2012; Mignolo 2013). The remainder of this article is my attempt to explore

one such alternative way of being human in Pakistan.18

As an immigrant from Pakistan who teaches about gender and educa-

tion in the United States and returns to Pakistan every year or so to work

with Pakistanis, I inhabit what Mignolo (2013) might recognize as border

space or what Keita Takayama (2011) calls double knowing, which enables

me to do dialogical work across different epistemologies. Reconstructing

human rights from this space and from this knowing entails “shifting the

geography of reason to geo- and body-politics of knowledge” (Mignolo

18 It is important to remember that this project does not call for a denial of the (human)

subject; I align with postcolonial and women-of-color feminists who point to the embodied

dimensions of identities and violence. This project, instead, is about how our dominant

vocabularies of the human and human rights structure the kinds of emancipatory projects that

we imagine. Deepening our understanding of the multiple ways in which human dignity is

thought and felt can be fruitful in our quest for social justice.

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and Tlostanova 2006, 210) and “thinking from different imaginaries of the

human, humanity, and rights” (Fregoso 2014, 587). It entails an orienta-

tion toward human rights that simultaneously seeks to unsettle its colo-

niality, attend to its multiplicity, and maintain space for its strategic use. Be-

low, I draw on my experience of organizing a human rights education camp

for adolescent girls in Pakistan and then revisiting the community a few

years later, to illustrate the multiple ways in which individuals live out their

humanity. In doing so, I aim to restage conceptualizations of the body/self

that undergird human rights discourses. One reason to focus on the body

is that it is often viewed as the only site of humanity and, hence, used syn-

onymously with the human. The quest for commonality through assertions

of universalisms then gives way to an acknowledgment of diversity and a

conscious effort to work through them.

During the summer of 2011, I, along with a colleague, organized a se-

ries of human rights summer camps for adolescent girls in the province of

Sindh, Pakistan.19 At the camp in the village of Khyber, some students

contested the emphasis that human rights declarations (such as the Con-

vention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,

the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the

Rights of the Child) placed on the individual. Participants often saw them-

selves as linked with the welfare of their families and communities, with

each having a particular set of responsibilities to further the well-being of

the entire unit—whatever that unit might be. For instance, some proposed
that a gendered division of labor, with women undertaking reproductive

labor in the household, was a logical choice for them as opposed to entering

the labor market. While they wanted to complete twelve years of schooling,

they did not necessarily connect schooling with future income generation via

partaking in the formal workforce, a connection that we, the educators at the

camp, made as we rehearsed the normative link between calls for girls’ educa-

tion and skills development. Figure 3 is a pictorial representation by one of

the participants about what she calls “responsibilities of women in different

working fields.”

Here, the reproductive labor of cooking in the home and unpaid labor

in the agricultural fields are placed at the same level as the waged labor of

teaching at a school or participating in sports (I assume professionally).20

19 I later critiqued my own practices in Khoja-Moolji 2014.
20 It is interesting to note the reference to sports here, since professional sports for women

in Pakistan are still a rare occurrence. I conjecture that the student may have been inspired to

think about this given our discussion of the then-recent ban on the Iranian women’s football

team by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association due to their dress code, which

included a headscarf.

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My students’ contestations illustrated their conceptions of the body as re-

lational, linked with the welfare of others, and experienced within systems,

supportive as well as nonsupportive, human as well as nonhuman. Such a

conceptualization of the body poses a challenge to human rights discourses

that abstract the body in its experiences of vulnerability and empowerment.

My students hinted at an ethics that deocolonial and posthumanist schol-

ars see as “an enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others,

including the non-human or ‘earth’ others, by removing the obstacle of self-

centered individualism” (Braidotti 2013, 49–50). In such modes of living,
the human body is no longer the center but a component in a wider net-

work. This was visible in Khyber. Living in a largely agricultural community,

villagers emphasized a reciprocal relationship with the land such that hu-

man needs did not supersede those of the land. These ethics informed their

practices of reflective farming, which included dedicating time for the land

to recover so that it would bear fruit in the next season instead of ex-

hausting all of its potential. That which allowed for the sustenance of hu-

mans (the Urdu term rozi and the Sindhi term hayati were used) featured in

the villagers’ talk as part of the “family” that made claims on them for its

survival and well-being. Their talk of complementarity between the envi-

ronment and their bodies highlighted the significance of the sheer inter-

Figure 3 Shehneela Shaukat Ali’s artistic rendering for Women Leaders of Tomorrow sum-
mer camp in 2011. © 2011 by Shehneela Shaukat Ali. Reprinted with permission. A color ver-
sion of this figure is available online.

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dependence of humans and their environments. During these conversations,

I was reminded of Native American activist Katsi Cook’s struggles against

the environmentalcontamination causedby General Motors(LaDuke 1999).

Indeed, indigenous feminists have long emphasized their spiritual, cultural,

economic, and political relationship with the land, blurring the boundaries

between bodies and environments. Such relationships are not only ceremo-

nializedbut also appear in the ways in which native languages assign animate

status to that which in Western discourses may appear as inanimate (Nixon


I visited the community again in 2015 at a different site called Aliabad

and saw additional examples of alliances across bodies, as well as new pre-

carities. This time I was in the community to conduct focus group con-

versations with girls who had decided to drop out of school. One day, I saw

a man sitting, having lunch, near the area where I was conducting my con-

versations. During the entire time, there were several houseflies on his plate

of food, but he did not shoo them away. Intrigued by this, I inquired about

the reason and he said, “Beta, flies too are Allah’s creatures; they have to eat

as well. So I am sharing what Allah has given me.”21 My focus group partic-

ipants shared this sentiment and did not find anything unusual in this be-

havior. While this practice may be critiqued from a public health perspective,

what I am pointing to here is a radically different understanding of what it

means to inhabit (and then leave) this world. In this village, the demarcations

between self and other, animal and earth, were absent at some moments and

present at others, pointing to a delicate balance between individual iden-

tities and collective, cooperative living. There was a strong ethic of alliance

with, and interdependency across, all forms of living, even as villagers sought

to improve individual well-being. Hence, complex and relational subject-

subject, subject-object combinations replaced the unitary subject of human

rights or the delinked body that is alternately vulnerable, suffering, and em-


A final example from the same community points to the precarity of

bodies, resists assumptions about free/autonomous selves, and reveals the

potential of human rights advocacy to reinstate normative gender and sex-

ual orders. During the focus group conversations, I learned that many girls

dropped out of school after their fathers had fallen severely ill or passed

away. The high occurrence of this response compelled me to inquire fur-

ther into the causes of the illness, and I was told that over the past year the

pipeline that brought water to this community had been contaminated and

the open sewage canal (near the fields where mostly men worked) played a

21 Beta is an Urdu term for “child.”

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role in weakening men’s bodies. After the death or ill capacity of male mem-

bers of their households, many girls decided to stay back and help with re-

productive tasks as their mothers engaged in waged labor. In this context,

assertions of education as a right could not deter these girls from prioritiz-

ing household responsibilities over school. Their choices were an effect of a

whole range of other practices, which included corruption in state bureau-

cracies, lack of infrastructure in low-income areas, a hospital without a doc-

tor, and so on. Any advocacy around human rights that fails to recognize

these complex ways in which life unfolds inevitably remains incomplete. In

fact, an imposition of laws around compulsory education via human rights

advocacy, in this case, could have the effect of increasing the economic pre-

carity of these households as adult women would be required to return home

to accommodate girls’ attendance to school and, hence, lose their already

meager income. In such cases, human rights advocacy could actually have

disempowering effects for the most marginalized.

The examples above show the multiple axes along which humans expe-

rience their humanity. The sense of complementarity prevalent in Khyber

and Aliabad was quite different from the hierarchies (men over women,

public over private, humans over land, humans over animals) that domi-

nate Western humanist thought, including mainstream feminism.22 Indeed,

different idioms, histories, and languages inform the contemporary strug-

gles of people in the global South and, as decolonial scholar Boaventura

de Sousa Santos (2012) points out, their ontological conceptions of being

and living may be quite distinct from Western individualism. A strong sense

of community and family, as well as an acknowledgment of interdepen-

dences, circulated in Khyber and Aliabad, which was balanced with a sense

of individualism. However, within the human rights discourse, one exists

either as an individual or a state (Santos 2013). Thus, modes of living that

are collective are made nonexistent or absent. It is precisely this tension

between individual and collective rights that leads to the valorization of

Mukhtaran and Malala (as individuals) and the simultaneous disciplining

of Muslims and Pakistanis (as a collective category). Indeed, in relation to

Muslim women, there seems to be an inability to conceive of them as in-

dividuals and members of a collectivity (Jamal 2015). There is, hence, a

critical need to center conceptions of human living that reflect the com-

plex, relational, and deeply interdependent ways in which people live their


Applying these analytics to the case studies of Mukhtaran and Malala

would entail a careful look at the ways in which their lives are embedded

22 See Nixon (2015).

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in the histories of the many collectivities to which they belong and the

registers of support and human dignity other than human rights that they

draw upon. For instance, if we closely analyze Mukhtaran and Malala’s en-

actments of empowerment, we find that even as they both choose to deploy

the language of human rights, they also draw on the language of Islam and

work toward the well-being of collectivities. Malala, for instance, explicitly

places her advocacy within the Islamic tradition and sutures together phi-

losophies of nonviolence with human rights, thereby extending the nor-

mative human rights discourse (Hesford 2014). Elsewhere, I show that

reading Malala’s coauthored autobiography (Yousafzai and Lamb 2013)

against the grain reveals complex Pakistani political subjectivities and the

extensive local alliances that are needed for women to experience empow-

erment (Khoja-Moolji 2015). As an example, her autobiography details the

Pashtun ethics of care and support, which create an authorizing environ-

ment for women, including her. Likewise, Mukhtaran names the male mem-

bers of her local community—her relatives and the local imam—who came
to her support (Mai and Cuny 2006). In fact, she has established a school

for the people of the same city of Meerwala whom Kristof (2006) marks as

threatening her well-being.

Thus, Malala and Mukhtaran as well as my experiences with adolescent

girls in Pakistan reveal a multiplicity in how women and girls enact em-

powerment, casting doubt upon dominant constructions. They point to the

possibility of noneconomic forms of empowerment, demonstrate the avail-

ability of spaces of empowerment outside the context of schools and the labor

market, signal the necessity of alliances and the inevitability of interdepen-

dence, and portray ethical registers outside the language of rights. Any artic-

ulation of women’s complexly lived lives through teleological discursive

chains, as described above, serves to make nonexistent myriad ways of actu-

ally being and acting in this world.

One of the obstacles, however, that prevents us from recognizing alter-

native conceptions of human dignity and ways of living is the false assump-

tion that the discourse of human rights has won over all other conceptions,

that it is, in fact, a universal good, with ethical and moral superiority over all

other philosophies. Santos calls this the “illusion of triumphalism” (2013,

19), which hides the hegemony of Western modernity and the historical

relations of power, and delinks the present dominance of the discourse from

its powerful mechanisms of transmission—such as UN institutions, global
declarations, and more recently, corporate philanthropy. A robust critique

of this discourse’s situatedness, its partiality, and its uses is thus required.

The task, then, is to excavate conceptions of human dignity—which may
include turning toward nonliberal philosophies and epistemologies of the

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global South—that transform human rights from a call to commonality in
spite of differences to a call that acknowledges differences and seeks to

practice pluralism.

Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism

and Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

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