By Alena Sadiq.
Seventeen-year old Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person, and the second Pakistani, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on October 10th. As expected, she didn’t receive a unanimous response back home. Many were ecstatic at her success, but others remained unimpressed or suspicious. What was less expected was the criticism that came from commentators outside Pakistan.
In the past week, a blog titled “Why I can’t celebrate Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize” has gone viral on social media. In the piece, the author draws from a similar article, written last year by Assed Baig for Huffington Post. The gist of the two pieces is that Malala is the “perfect candidate for the white man to relieve his burden.” The Nobel appears to be a calculated move, “loaded with secret agendas and tons of hypocrisy”. Moreover, the West has chosen to demonize the ‘other’ while conveniently ignoring the “thousands of Malalas [the] West helped create with endless wars, occupations, interventions, drone strikes, etc.”
Such anti-imperialist narratives are self-defeating. They not only make the same kind of generalizations about the West that they accuse the West of making about the “natives,” but they also deprive the “East” of her own heroes, who could greatly empower her, by downplaying them as nothing but pawns in some game being played by the West.
Firstly, these articles oversimplify Malala and her experiences. They reduce Malala’s struggle to her shooting. They fail to mention that Malala was already fighting for education. They omit the fact that she put her life at risk and wrote an anonymous diary for the BBC, accounting life under the Taliban in Swat, when she was just a seventh-grader. They also ignore that long after that she continued to raise her voice publicly for education in Pakistan.
The oversimplification continues as Baig writes that Malala was flown to the UK so that “the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation.” This argument, again, ignores the facts. She was treated by the Pakistani Army’s doctors and was only taken to the UK for post-treatment care because the hospital in Birmingham was highly specialized in treating wounds of the armed forces. Moreover it was the Pakistani government that paid for her treatment and for her family’s upkeep. Even the aircraft that brought her to the UK was provided by the UAE, not by the “white man”.
Baig continues about how the West’s narrative causes the “demonization of the non-white Muslim man”—another oversimplification. A vital part of Malala’s story is the incredibly empowering role of her father, who (surprise, surprise) happens to be a non-white Muslim man. It would be incorrect to say that the Western media has not acknowledged and reported his role in Malala’s life.
It is also said that Malala is a “good native who doesn’t criticize the West”. This is simply not the case. We should not assume Malala is a powerless victim in the face of others’ manipulations—that is the very thing she has proven herself not to be. For example, she has spoken out against drone strikes. In fact, she told President Obama herself that drones “fuel terrorism.”
The next generalized claim is that the West has “always used women to justify the actions of war mongering men.” Although this view may have elements of truth in it, in the particular case of Malala, we should be careful and not ignore her personal agency. Author Shelina Zahra Janmohamed wrote in The National, “As a woman, she is challenged about whether standing up for women’s rights really is of her own will. This worldview asks: can a woman ever really be a superhero?” This sentiment may explain why so many find it easy to believe that Malala is a puppet of the West. The fact that she is an intelligent, multi-dimensional and complex individual is ignored.
In addition to oversimplifying Malala and her experiences, the articles also wrongly equates Malala with victims of drone strikes. One of the most prevalent criticisms within Pakistan, and one repeated in both the articles, is that the West hypocritically praises Malala but ignores the girls who die at the hands of drone strikes. British politician George Galloway made a comment on twitter that is quoted in the blog: “If Malala was a drone victim, no one would have known her name.” Gul Bukhari answers such questions excellently by pointing out that we fail to differentiate “between the girl who had the courage and the vision to broadcast to the world the Taliban’s atrocities at the risk to her own life, and the children who were just children and became victims of the hellfire brought upon them because of the very Taliban little Malala defied.” This by no means suggests that drones or the deaths they cause are justified; it is only meant to point out that the parallels drawn by the authors, frankly, make little sense.
Celebrating Malala’s unwavering bravery and criticizing the damaging role Western imperialism has played in the world don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, the narrative in the articles implies that they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. This has led to confusion among Pakistanis about what they should think of Malala. Does being praised in the West automatically mean one is hatching conspiracies against Pakistan? This line of thought deprives Pakistan of her heroes and limits the nation’s opportunities for self-reflection and progress. It is crucial for Pakistanis to embrace their heroes and feel pride, not shame or suspicion, when the world embraces them as well. Only then will voices of reason, like Malala’s, lead us to a path of progress.
Ultimately, this raises the question: what should people do if they think elements in the West are indeed manipulating Malala to serve their own agendas? Should we just not celebrate her win? Definitely not. If we believe a selective and limited story is being put out in the media, we should celebrate Malala in her entirety and promote the holistic reality of her views and of her struggles.