Malala Yousafzai in 'Vogue': a genuine step forward for inclusivity or a sign of magazine's tokenism?

A fellow Pakistani and modest-fashion enthusiast reflects on what the decision means for veiled Muslim women's plight for representation

epa07697963 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai poses on the sidelines of the Education and development G7 ministers Summit, in Paris, France, 05 July 2019. France is hosting the rotating presidency of the G7 in 2019. The 45th G7 Summit will be held in August in Biarritz.  EPA-EFE/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / POOL
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Did you ever think a veiled, Pakistani woman would make the cover of British Vogue? I certainly didn't. Not in a post-9/11 western world where Muslims – particularly visibly Muslim women – still bear the brunt of Islamophobia, on a continent where nations have imposed hijab and niqab bans, and in a country whose prime minister notoriously compared veiled women to "letterboxes".

So, when I first saw a portrait of Malala Yousafzai with bold Vogue lettering on Instagram, I thought, for a split second, that it was a faux mock-up. Then I saw that the post originated from Edward Enninful, British Vogue's editor-in-chief.

It was true – a Pakistani woman in headscarf has had her face splashed across one of the world’s most prestigious fashion magazines.

The June 2021 cover of British Vogue featured Billie Eilish, in pin-up style photography, wearing a pink bustier and figure-hugging latex skirt. July's cover offers a stark contrast: Yousafzai, swathed in a Stella McCartney dress and simple scarf, lacks the celebrity sensationalism and sensuality of the publication's recent cover stars.

Despite not being an actress, songstress or fashion star, Yousafzai commands an inimitable presence. “Survivor, activist, legend” are the words emblazoned under the name of the 23-year-old who was shot by the Taliban in 2012, for being a proponent of female education in Pakistan.

She was flown to Britain for numerous surgeries and stayed on in Birmingham, graduating from Oxford University last year.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg meets Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai at University of Oxford in Oxford, Britain, February 25, 2020 in this picture obtained from social media. TAYLOR ROYLE - MALALA FUND/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai at Oxford. Malala Fund via Reuters

Dressing her in red for the cover shot – coupled with a solid red background – must have been a considered decision. The hue is symbolic of bloodshed and rebellion, and Yousafzai is, after all, a rebel of sorts, having courageously protested against the patriarchal extremists who denied her right to education.

Some traditionalists have also deemed red to be an eye-catching and “immodest” hue, and non-compliant with conservative interpretations of hijab.

One might argue that an affiliation with a fashion magazine that discusses party dresses and pedicures could dilute Malala's message

But as Yousafzai's British Vogue interview reveals, she wears her headscarf not out of religiosity, but rather as a proud emblem of her culture and to show that a woman can be both veiled and vocal.

Modest fashion, while being skin-covering, has gained a reputation for being attention-grabbing, thanks to the multitude of Muslim fashion bloggers who dress in designer threads and sport the latest trends.

It’s refreshing to see that Yousafzai remains relatively unadorned, without ritzy logos and OTT make-up, and channels modest fashion in its basic, effortless sense.

While women of colour the world over are thrilled to see one of their own on a Vogue cover, as a fellow Pakistani, Muslim woman and modest-fashion enthusiast, I have mixed feelings.

I think it’s commendable that a woman who has endured so much, and remained steadfast in her faith and kinship to her culture, has become an aspirational emblem of female empowerment and a face of Muslim women worldwide.

At the same time, I’m wary of veiled women being tokenised and objectified.

I am not denying that Malala's cover is a win – for Muslims, hijabis, South Asians, minorities and women of colour. But should we be satisfied?

In an industry that’s constantly under fire for its lack of inclusivity, perhaps placing Yousafzai on the cover was a genius and gumptious tick of the diversity box.

But while she may be a poster girl for female empowerment, I worry that with the appropriation of her image, she may inadvertently fall victim to the “feminist” white saviour complex – the sort that has historically justified invasive missions to “save” Muslim women.

Yousafzai is a powerhouse on her own ground – a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and influencer with more than 3.5 million followers on social media. She doesn’t need further validity – from western media, no less – to prove that, nor does she require further pedestalling: her platform is established, her legacy cemented in history. She has been telling her story to the media since 2009 (starting out as an anonymous BBC blogger), and has penned her own autobiography.

A Vogue profile doesn't shed any revolutionary light on the prodigious Yousafzai – in fact, one might argue that an affiliation with a fashion magazine that discusses party dresses and pedicures could dilute her message.

More than a day after the cover reveal, and Yousafzai's Vogue image is still dominating my Instagram feed.

I am not denying that Yousafzai's cover is a win – for Muslims, hijabis, South Asians, minorities and women of colour. But should we be satisfied?

Is flaunting an already-famous face to help sell magazines an authentic way to be more inclusive? Is it too much to ask publications to dig deeper for stories of everyday female role models and community heroes from diverse demographics in Britain? Don’t they, too, deserve to be spotlighted, to tell their untold, trailblazing tales?

These are the questions I ask myself while wondering if I should click the "share" button below the magazine's Instagram post of the young woman whom I've respected and celebrated – way before she got the Vogue treatment.