What Does Malala’s Nobel Prize Mean?

(16th October 2014)

Last Friday, Malala Yousafzai became the second Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize. Amidst all the celebrations that unfolded on social media, there was the predictable response by some who chose those see this award as yet another way of humiliating our nation and portraying Pakistan in a negative light. As fans and haters rip each other apart on Facebook, it becomes depressingly clear that the ability to have a nuanced approach is a particularly alien concept for some in our country.

Malala’s struggle has no doubt been appropriated by some western politicians, corporate media and Islamophobes who have deployed her story to achieve their own bigoted ends. Much of the mainstream coverage of her activism completely effaces the fact that she is a Muslim feminist and socialist who has explicitly located her struggle for the rights of women and children within an Islamic framework and reiterated her commitment to socialist principles as a way of ending social inequality. Some of these commentators completely ignore the fact that her activism is a product of her cultural and religious heritage and chose to represent her as the epitome of western liberal values which magically materialized in her person and consequently made her the target of the so-called global menace that is Islam. Others while acknowledging her personal faith nevertheless construct her as an exception to the apparent norm which holds that nothing good can ever come out of Islam and Muslim societies – in this narrative Malala is not only admirable for her courage but because of the liberal values she managed to internalize in spite of being a Muslim. It is not even surprising that war mongers have and will continue to use her story to justify military intervention.

But Malala is not the first person to have her narrative manipulated by bigots nor will she be the last one to have her story hijacked by the project of humanitarian imperialism. However, these appropriations do not efface her courage or the import of her message: education for all. How is it her fault that the only new mainstream western media runs about Pakistan is centered on terrorism and religious extremism and that her story fits in with this dominant narrative? And it is certainly not her fault that the likes of my ill informed American landlord could not wrap his head around the fact that Malala was attacked by the Taliban who do not represent Pakistani culture and society and were (and still are) at war with the state of Pakistan. And far from encouraging drone attacks she has repeatedly voiced her  concerns regarding civilian casualties and the questionable ability of such attacks to curb terrorism. It is not her fault that her many international admirers including the Nobel committee prefer to direct attention away from her more political statements against military aggression.

In spite of these appropriations Malala should be allowed to tell her story. We cannot silence ourselves just because of the inability to control our narrative once it becomes public. There are those who could read this and use it to insist that the majority of Pakistanis are misogynist haters even though it is not my intention to feed this racist and inaccurate portrayal. But I’m not going to let that stop me from having my say.

Now, lets talk about this Peace Prize that has elicited such polarizing opinions. People have been talking about the prize’s dubious credibility and political motivations long before Malala was born. It would be insanely naive to expect award juries to exist above power dynamics in some idealistic apolitical realm. It is a prize awarded by a committee of five retired Norwegian parliamentarians. Why is it surprising that the award would be fairly consistent with Norway’s foreign policy interests? Moreover, giving awards to war mongers like Henry Kissinger has not helped the committee’s reputation. Malala deserves better than to be in such company. It is also pretty obvious that Malala would not have achieved her present international celebrity status if she hadn’t been the victim of the Taliban, designated enemy of the American empire. It should also be equally obvious that these facts do not diminish her accomplishments. Her bravery and message cannot be delegitimized because her goals have been aligned with western imperialism. Being cognizant of the fact that all awards are political to some extent does not imply that their recipients do not deserve recognition. Malala completely deserves this and many other awards.

So what does this Nobel Peace Prize mean? How do we think about it and what does it do for Pakistan?

For starters we can start thinking about Malala’s activism in its own terms. Getting a controversial prize does not automatically make you a fraud – something many Pakistanis have a hard time grasping. Instead of incessantly demanding why Abdul Sattar Edhi did not get the prize, lets grow up a little. Edhi Sahab’s work is not diminished because it was not validated by a European award. The education crisis in the country and Taliban terrorism are not suddenly western conspiracies just because an activist working on these issues became embroiled in international politics. Let’s take ownership of Malala’s accomplishment and use this opportunity to address these urgent problems. And at the risk of sounding insensitive I want to point out that equating Malala with innocent victims of drone attacks is ridiculous. Contrary to what some may think, Malala is not admired because she was shot. People get shot here all the time. She is admired because of the events leading up to the attack: she stood up to the oppression of the Taliban and refused to back down even after receiving numerous death threats. Children killed by drones are not singled out because of their activism.

It would also be a great if some of us could practice processing complex thoughts. And that goes for both Malala haters and fans. Thinking critically about the politics of western humanitarianism does not make you a Malala hater or a ‘radical new leftist’. Nor does it imply that Malala does not deserve international acclaim. On the other hand appreciating Malala’s unwavering courage does not make you a self hating western stooge. It is a complicated world, get with the program. It is possible to be critical of a Eurocentric award without delegitimizing the courage of the recipient. Unfortunately, most of the critique currently circulating on social media reeks of the mindless xenophobia expressed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman who once insisted that the late TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud was a martyr simply because he had been killed by an American drone. The claim was followed by these golden words, ‘anyone killed by the US is a martyr, even if it is a dog’. In a similar vein, Facebook and Twitter ‘activists’ these days seem outraged by Malala’s achievement simply because it was granted by the West. That is not patriotic. That’s just stupid.


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