Is Malala the new Mother Teresa?

Teen turns icon as her face appears on mugs and T-shirts

Irena Barker

Her courageous story and best-selling autobiography have inspired millions to espouse her call for girls' education. And her thoughtful speeches, poise and determination have won her admirers around the world.

But now the image of Malala Yousafzai - the schoolgirl shot by the Taliban in Pakistan after advocating education for all - is being used for another cause entirely: merchandising. Everything from fridge magnets and mugs to pendants and T-shirts for dogs can be found bearing her image.

Some of the merchandise plays on the political aspect of her work: online shoppers can buy T-shirts with the slogan "I'm with Malala and her dad - no to sharia law and talibans everywhere". Another T-shirt shows her face in black against red, alongside the words "Malala, Revolutionary".

But other items up for sale are less engaged with her message. On Etsy, a website where artists can sell their work, discerning fans can buy a one-off Malala mug, handmade in Indiana, US, for the equivalent of almost pound;24. A graphite portrait of the campaigner, with her head atop a pile of books, is pound;153, although the seller says the price is "negotiable".

Among the weirder offerings on one site is a pair of women's leggings bearing the slogan "I am Malala - Educated Girls = Economic Growth". And a copy of her autobiography, signed on a visit to Harvard University, will set you back pound;90 on eBay.

Malala's own publicist, PR giant Edelman, declined to comment on the burgeoning merchandise industry, but experts have claimed that it demonstrates how people have attached themselves to her incredible story, making her into an iconic figure like Mother Teresa.

"Her narrative is straight out of a movie, really," said British PR agent and author Mark Borkowski. "A single girl doing what most people in the Western world take for granted, which is seeking a simple education.

"Then we have her bravery. There are only seven plots in films and she embodies one of them: the hero overcoming tragedy. But it felt organic and, particularly for the young people who bought into her story, it became a huge social phenomenon."

Mr Borkowski said that Malala provided a contrast to other media narratives, such as US pop star Miley Cyrus "twerking" her way into the limelight. People latched on to Malala's story because it was "very, very pure", he said. "She is the girl who just wanted to go to school. That is the simplicity of the message."

The wide range of gifts bearing Malala's image were part of a wider cultural phenomenon of "genuflecting to the feminine icon", Mr Borkowski said. "There's a through line to the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi."

By buying goods bearing Malala's image, people were essentially buying a badge of commitment to her cause and "hoping for some kind of good karma", he added.

Schools have also proved keen to use Malala's message. As reported in TES last week, Fife Council in Scotland is spending more than pound;11,200 to provide each of its 161 schools with a "Malala desk" inscribed with her signature, to inspire students to think about children who do not have access to education.

US-based artist Justin Rothshank, who is selling a handmade Malala mug, told TES: "I've been interested most recently in figures that represent social justice causes and human rights issues. It's not about the sales of the pieces. I'm interested in honouring the work that has been done by these figures to bring awareness to issues that I'm also supportive of."

Watch We Day

Malala Yousafzai will be speaking today (Friday 7 March) at the first We Day to be held in the UK. The event, which encourages young people to volunteer and take action on social issues, is taking place at Wembley Arena in London and will also feature Prince Harry, former US vice-president Al Gore and musicians Dizzee Rascal and Ellie Goulding.

Around 12,000 young people earned tickets to We Day by pledging to take part in the year-long We Act citizenship programme.

The event is being streamed live at www.tesconnect.comweday and highlights will be available to view afterwards.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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