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The politics of pity and the individual heroine syndrome: Mukhtaran Mai and Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan

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Using Lilie Chouliarki’s questions regarding the ethical responsibilities of spectators towards visual suffering in our mediatized age as a start-off point, wherein she states, ‘the mediation between spectator and sufferer is a crucial political space because the relationship between the two of them maps on to distinct geopolitical territories that reflect the global distribution of power’, this article looks at a recently staged operatic performance in NYC about the story of Mukhtar Mai’s rape called Thumbprint, as well as the performative memoir I am Malala (2013) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. This article raises the following questions: is Thumbprint a ‘spectacular performance’? Does it reproduce the image of the ‘third-world woman as monolith’ – or did it allow for the figure of Mukhtaran (as she is sometimes called) to speak to the audience assembled at Baruch Performing Arts Center in ways that brought forth the historical context of Pakistani and US politics? Does Malala’s self-representation in her memoir, her staging of herself as the ‘voice’ of a Pakistani young woman, similarly exemplify the competing motives animating the spectacle of being placed in the center of a supposedly ‘universalist’ human rights discursive framework? How far do these two women’s performances of Self/Voicing (as presented in the theatre of the West) – force us to ask anew, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’. To what extent do these two performative instances of ‘voicing the other’ call attention to the West’s ongoing obsession with ‘the cultural politics of recognition’, which, based on an ‘identity-based politics of visibility’, has dominated western liberal feminism since the end of the twentieth century, and been responsible for directing ‘public attention away from the regressive politics and growth of global capitalism’– and which in turn is implacably intertwined with the politics of US Empire in the twenty-first century? How do these two performances of individual women refusing victimhood feed, paradoxically, into a neo-liberal politics of redemption?
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Keywords: Islamophobia; Malala Yousafzai; Mukhtar Mai; Pakistan; neoliberal feminism; politics of pity; spectacular human rights

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Montclair State University

Publication date: December 1, 2015

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  • merging from an international network project funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economics and Social Research Council, and research collaboration between academics and practitioners, Performing Islam is the first peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal about Islam and performance and their related aesthetics. It focuses on socio-cultural as well as the historical and political contexts of artistic practices in the Muslim world. The journal covers dance, ritual, theatre, performing arts, visual arts and cultures, and popular entertainment in Islam-influenced societies and their diasporas. It promotes insightful research of performative expressions of Islam by performers and publics, and encompasses theoretical debates, empirical studies, postgraduate research, interviews with performers, research notes and queries, and reviews of books, conferences, festivals, events and performances.
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