Representations in “He Named Me Malala”

MCM475 – Critical Analysis of Mass Media: Assignment

“He Named Me Malala,” 2015, is a documentary directed by American filmmaker Davis Guggenheim based on the biography “I Am Malala.” It provides insight into the life of a young Pakistani girl who was shot by a masked Taliban gunman in 2012 after demanding women’s rights to education. It introduces the viewer to her family, their history and their ideological beliefs. A level of intimacy is created through Malala’s interactions with her family in front of the camera and the filmmakers themselves, as well as through home videos and pictures.

German filmmaker Harun Farocki, said that a shot “does not create signs, it seems to find them in reality … as if the world spoke for itself” (Shapiro, 1997). However, we can see that specific signs have been created through editing and narration to represent and misrepresent an ideology, people, and/or place. These representations based on internalized ideologies will be explored in this paper. On the surface, the documentary’s main theme revolves around the importance of education and the power of knowledge, as well as the myth that has been created of Malala Yousafzai as an ordinary yet extraordinary girl. However, when paying closer attention, one can determine that the shots of the documentary, the narration, and the editing reveal other underlying themes including the representation of Middle Eastern Muslim women, Islam, and the West in the media, as well as the emphasis on power that derives from knowledge.

Still from “He Named Me Malala”


The Myth of the Legendary Ordinary Schoolgirl

The creation of the “myth” that Malala is a legendary and heroic leader begins with the name of the documentary, which showcases the fact that her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, named her after the 19th-century Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghani heroine who is responsible for their victory during the second Anglo-Afghan war. In the documentary, an illustration shows Malalai rallying the Afghanis with a cry: “Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame” (Bennett, 2013). As shown, her voice illuminated the sky and encourages the men to turn around and fight. Similarly, Malala has a voice; she believed that women had the right to education, and for that, she was shot. Scenes of her lecturing schoolgirls, meeting world leaders and sitting for interviews exemplify just how far Malala’s voice has reached. In this sense, her voice has become the light that rallies young women to pursue their education. This strength is reinforced as the documentary allows Malala to narrate her own story. When speaking, Malala shows immense power in her voice, tone, and use of language. The documentary often cuts to her saying a relatively impressive quote followed by cheers and people admiring her.

According to Saussure, a combination of a signified and signifier is a sign (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013). In this context, not only is Malala a hero, but she is also a sign, in which the global audience that has heard about her courage and the Pakistani women whose needs she represents have given the meaning to her image. Old and young women, schoolgirls and children are shown lighting candles, holding Malala’s photos and praying while she was in a coma. Everyone seemed desperate for her to regain consciousness, which illustrates how Malala is not just a schoolgirl who spoke up; she is every woman’s hope to education. Her name and image embodied the right to equal education itself to the point that her survival is essential to these women in order not to lose that hope.

Malala is also an ordinary girl. The contrast is made most obvious when the presenter introducing Malala said that she may be an influential world leader but she is also doing her GCSEs. Moreover, this is presented in the documentary through her comparison to her British classmates wherein she expressed her teenage insecurities, the challenges that she faces at school, and the horrors of liking boys. This allows the average viewer to relate to Malala despite the fact that she is one of the activists of children’s educational rights. This shows that Malala has been “normalized” in the Western community, where the teenage experience is the focus of many contemporary shows and movies. This is essential in building the image that any ordinary person can be an extraordinary symbol.


Knowledge is Power

The relationship between Malala and her father is one of the focal points of the documentary, as they both share an unbreakable bond and a passion for education. What he and Malala share together has made him feel like they are “one soul in two bodies” (Guggenheim, 2015). Her father is a symbol of a “progressive man” unlike no other in Pakistan. He started his own school with just three students in it, and he encouraged young women to pursue their education regardless of circumstances. The idea that knowledge is empowering is best represented here through Malala’s mother, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, who sold her books after finding out she was the only girl in school. This is then followed by two descriptions that illustrate her helplessness. First, Malala says her mother is not free or independent due to her lack of education. Second, Ziauddin emphasizes her beauty when he speaks about her, stating that she did not have the knowledge and he did not have the beauty. That is how they completed one another.

The other way in which knowledge is seen essential to power is in the rebellious nature of Malala and her father. Their intelligence alongside their desire for education has given their voice a profound amount of power and an unlimited platform, reaching out to people in both the Global North and Global South. It enabled Malala to stand up to the gunman and say, “I am Malala,” knowing the risks associated with such a statement. As Foucault said, “power does not function in the form of a chain – it circulates” (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013). The oppressed can have power over their oppressor if they had the adequate amount of knowledge to give them that power. Furthermore, her father has been able to use his knowledge to give speeches against those who use Islam to push their political agendas and impede others from seeking their own knowledge. An interesting example was how his knowledge enabled him to get over his fear of giving those speeches due to his stutter regardless of his father berating him for having it.

Power also derives from one’s desire to seek more knowledge. For example, when a BBC correspondent wanted a girl to record her daily life in Swat, Malala’s father asked her to do it and she did not reject. This is because both Ziauddin and his daughter have strong aspirations to education within their core. Following this, the documentary cuts to a scene of Malala speaking about her favorite books, then jumps to televised news stories discussing how “I Am Malala” has been banned in some schools in Pakistan. This gives the viewers the idea that because knowledge is seen as a threat, being knowledgeable can increase one’s power, thus, making him or her more threatening. This is also displayed through the hate she received from so many Pakistanis who are in disbelief that Malala was able to do what she did without the aid of her father or outsiders.


“West is Best”

The documentary reinforces ideas regarding the importance of modernization in terms of westernization in order to develop. This begins with Malala’s voice addressing how she woke up from the coma and knew that she was not home. The viewers are shown a first-person perspective through blurry shots showing advanced hospital equipment. A clear comparison is also made of her simple hometown in Swat Valley to Birmingham in England. Scenes of humble houses, torn flags, and worn-off shoes are taken in contrast to a post-industrial city with cars and big buildings, which fosters the idea that westernization is essential to wealth and progress. This thought is intensified as Malala’s family’s above average home in England is shown in comparison to their simple one in Swat.

The belief that “west is best” is also applicable to tradition. The reality is, being the hegemonic powers, western ideologies are rarely questioned; in fact, they are often applauded, “while the Middle East is portrayed as restricting, male dominating, inferior, and repressive” (Qutub, 2018). For some viewers, both Malala and her father signify a rebellion against tradition and the embrace of western ideologies at the expense of their own, in which accepting western ideologies have led them to economic prosperity. Furthermore, Malala asserts that her father is not an ordinary man – the exception to the rule – stating that if he were ordinary she would be “married with two children by now” (Guggenheim, 2015). What distinguishes him from a common Pakistani man are his progressive anti-patriarchal beliefs, which are generally thought to belong to the west. In addition, Ziauddin says that he used to encourage his students to rebel against “traditions and customs,” painting a picture to the viewer that the socio-cultural norms of Pakistan are what limit one’s progress in life (Guggenheim, 2015).


The Representation of Middle Eastern Muslim Women

The documentary compares Malala to her mother, Toor, who seemed to be her daughter’s polar opposite, as she, like most Pakistani women in Swat, has not received an education. Malala speaks about how her mother asks her to cover her face and not look at men, in which she replies, “If a man can look at me, why can’t I look at them?” She then points to the fact that she thinks her mother is “not dependent and free because she is not educated” (Guggenheim, 2015). This is brought into contrast with herself who is portrayed as hardworking, intelligent and influential. Her father also stresses his wife’s lack of education, and hence, Toor becomes a sign of what an average Pakistani woman is: passive, dependent, unschooled and ignorant. Even in news articles focused on Toor, they use headlines such as “Malala Yousafzai’s mother: Out of the shadows”, which continue to emphasize her passivity (Tighe, 2018). Such representation reinforces the image that has been established for Middle Eastern Muslim women by Western media, particularly after 9/11; “When the American public was being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, images of veiled, depressed Afghani women under Taliban control were widely circulated in the mass media” (al-Ariqi, 2018). When used in a documentary, such images solidify stereotypes regarding Middle Eastern Muslim women being oppressed and abused by men and the system, especially when extreme Islamism is involved. As Moghadam states in “The Middle East and North Africa: Social Change and Women’s Rights,” with the rise of Islamist movements, stereotypes about the region begin to be reinforced, which includes that “women’s status is low everywhere” (Gelb & Palley, 2009).


The Representation of Islam

When asked who shot Malala, her father said, “it was not a person, it is an ideology” (Guggenheim, 2015). It is a clear reference to the Taliban’s extreme views; however, the meaning of the phrase depends on the historical context and thus people will understand it differently. A scene of a man killed by Taliban for supposedly playing music preceded this quote. Although it highlights the extreme conditions people had to live in and gives insight into the extent of the danger Malala was in when she chose to speak up, it does not just do that. It is important to understand the historical context and how it shapes people’s understanding of this particular sentence. Since 9/11, “Large media corporations, like TIME, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Post brought the news about Islam and also the Middle East in a discriminative way, through articles like ‘The dark side of Islam’ and also ‘Should we fear Islam?’” (Fitriyani et al., 2015). Consequently, people tend to associate Islam with extremism and terrorism, and Middle Eastern men with violence regardless of the existence of varied circumstances.

Scenes of Taliban militia burning books, DVDs and televisions show how the ideology is impeding human progress because the people of the ideology are rejecting advancements. The emphasis on the ideology furthers the myth that there is core evilness in Islam, an idea that has been circulating the media for several years now. This evilness is shown in specific scenes that are often blurry; for instance, there are scenes of men running in the dark and setting cars on fire. This brings us to an important concept to representation: Orientalism. In his book, “Orientalism,” Edward W. Said wrote that the term refers to “the misrepresentations of the Eastern cultures by Western scholars, writers, and artists” (Said, 2013). Malala may have narrated this documentary alongside her family to send a specific story, but the editing of the scenes send multiple other messages that are often in-line with Western ideologies. Another explanation, the Agenda Setting Theory, explains how powerful forces dictate the perception of certain topics in the media (Griffin, 2003). He explains that the media tends to focus on “particular behaviors of Islamic individuals and then advance the claim that all Muslims have the same attributes that are characteristically negative” (Adams, Harf & Ford, 2018).

However, the documentary addresses stereotypes regarding Islamists as it displays how the Muslim family believes that the fundamentalists are “misusing the name of Islam” and misinterpreting a religion that they view to be peaceful and liberating, and categorize them as “the enemies of Islam” (Guggenheim, 2015). There was a great focus on a Mulla who was the first to address women and speak to them directly about their struggles, which is essential in communicating that Islam itself was not the problem, rather it was the fundamentalist extremist Taliban, who targeted Muslims themselves.



The themes explored in “He Named Me Malala” are essential to understanding the world of Pakistani girls at that time, as well as the power in the words and actions of a single individual. Mainly, the documentary sits in the gray area between two opposites when it comes to representation. This is due to the excessive use of comparisons, which often have conflicting messages. For instance, Malala’s strength exemplifies women’s ability to be strong regardless of the socio-cultural norms and stereotypes that claim they are incapable. However, it is a double-edged sword because it glorifies Malala at the expense of other women, suggesting that she is the exception to the rule when in reality Malala was not the only girl who has had heroic actions against Taliban, nor was she the only one to suffer the consequences. Regardless, the myth created of Malala being a heroic yet ordinary girl creates an image that people can both relate and look up to. Nevertheless, Malala’s personality, however lively, does tend to disappear behind the myth, where her image has become bound to the child activist who got shot by the Taliban.





Adams, A., Harf, A., & Ford, R. (2018). A Critique of Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw’s Theory in Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theory. Chapman University.

al-Ariqi, A. (2018). Middle Eastern Women in the Media: A Battle Against Stereotypes. Reuters Institute For The Study Of Journalism, 2-8.

Bennett, C. (2013, Oct 13). Comment: Remember the young girl behind the public malala: With her huge intelligence and courage it’s easy to forget that she is still a teenager. let’s give her space to grow. The Observer Retrieved from

Fitriyani R.A., Karmidi S.M., Estiani P. (2015) Terrorism and Islamophobia: Media Representation on Islam and the Middle East. In: Omar R., Bahrom H., de Mello G. (eds) Islamic perspectives relating to business, arts, culture and communication. Springer, Singapore

Gelb, J., & Palley, M. (2009). Women and politics around the world (2nd ed., pp. 441-457). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Griffin, E. (2003). A first look at communication theory (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Guggenheim, D. (2015). He named me Malala [Film]. USA, UAE: Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, Participant Media.

Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. 2nd ed. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp.1-89.

Qutub, A. (2018). Harem Girls and Terrorist Men: Media Misrepresentations of Middle Eastern Cultures. Colloquy9, 139-155.

Said, E. (2003). Orientalism (Penguin classics). London: Penguin.

Shapiro, A. (1997). How Real Is the Reality in Documentary Film? Jill Godmilow, in conversation with Ann-Louise Shapiro. History And Theory36(4), 80-101. doi: 10.1111/0018-2656.00032

Tighe, S. (2018). Malala Yousafzai’s mother: Out of the shadows. BBC News. Retrieved from

9 thoughts on “Representations in “He Named Me Malala”

  1. Unfortunate truths about Western mainstream media.

    The main message: “Islam is bad full of terrorist perpetrators.”

    The real message: “We need an enemy to finance a war against that the American people will get behind. Because we need oil and money – we have yachts in the harbor to pay for…”

    Liked by 2 people

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