The West and the Making of Malala

My frenzied Facebook newsfeed this past week has hardly been
surprising. Pakistan has finally found its first Nobel Peace laureate, and the
world its youngest. 

To my astonishment, however, most of the posts and analysis I saw did not celebrate this milestone. They bemoaned the circumstances that led up
to it.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Malala
Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for their “struggle against the suppression of
children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” It
comes at an interesting time: Precisely when a Pakistani and an Indian accepted
the ultimate accolade for peace, the two states were busy exchanging fire
across the Line of Control over disputed territory in Kashmir.

To me, this contrast speaks to the idealism of the organizations that
confer such honors and their very specific orientation and interests.

I am certainly not the first to criticize the nomination
process or the selection criteria. The Nobel Committee’s choices of Obama and
the EU as recipients in preceding years revealed an ideological bias that
favors broader Western sociopolitical stakes in the world. These two
South-Asians won not only for their merit and service to humanity but also because
their work aligns with that broader theme.

This last claim gathers more steam when paralleled with
examples such as Nabila Rehman, the nine-year-old survivor of a U.S. drone
airstrike, who appeared before Congress’ House of Representatives to give a testimony to find that only five out of
the 435 representatives turned up to hear her—a striking image when contrasted
against the congested halls Malala often addresses so eloquently. 

Nabila’s
simple question “What did my innocent grandmother do wrong?” might never be
answered because modern warfare is complex and collateral damage a bitter
reality. But what perturbs me most is how her suffering is somehow
lesser in value than Malala’s and so much less worthy of attention.

Similarly, Yousafzai and Satyarthi’s recognition makes me
wonder if Abdus Sattar Edhi would have won a Nobel Peace prize by now if only
he had a tale of oppression to supplement his record services to humanity. He
is the founder of the world’s largest non-governmental ambulance service and, through the Edhi Foundation, runs free-to-all facilities that range from orphanages,
old age homes and shelters for women to drug rehabilitation centers and mental
health centers. It is one of the most efficient and transparent philanthropic
organizations in the world with operations across the globe. 

And yet, his work
has been largely ignored by the international media. How many of you have even heard of him?

To be fair, the problem lies not only with Western powers
and how they choose to employ their ideological hegemony in the world. Flawed
domestic polices in countries like Pakistan have actively helped augment
this power.

Abdus Salam won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. He was
the first Pakistani to earn this title and ironically, like Malala, he too was
not present in the country at the time of the conferment of the award. An Ahmadi
Muslim, Salam immigrated to London as an act of protest when Prime Minister
Bhutto, in a politically expedient move to appease the radical religious right,
approved a constitutional amendment declaring the Ahmadiyya community to be non-Muslims. 

Upon his death, Salam’s body was returned to his hometown and the
tombstone read ‘First Muslim Nobel Laureate.’ Based on an injunction by a local
magistrate, the word ‘Muslim’ was later removed from the stone. Salam’s legacy—or the lack thereof—in Pakistan makes me
wonder if Malala too can ever come home.

It is not only fear of the Taliban that might prevent her from
returning and joining politics as she has expressed a desire to do. The strong
Western support she has garnered in a relatively short time makes many
speculate if she is merely a product of U.S. soft power engineering in the
region, the poster child for America’s moralistic military mission in the Pak-Afghan
region. 

After all, her leftist views about ‘economic
democratization’ and her plea to Obama to end drone airstrikes were
conveniently obscured by the media. Have the very interest groups who helped spread
her voice appropriated it for their own purposes? Can she only be the little
scarf-clad victim of radical Islam, or does she have permission to advocate
socioeconomic justice beyond that designation?

Given the course Miss Yousafzai’s life has taken, her
lyrical name seems almost prophetic. The name ‘Malala’ finds its origins in the
Urdu word ‘malal,’ which literally translates to grief or regret. It took
gut-wrenching struggle and grief to reveal her indomitable spirit, progressive
vision and remarkable compassion. But I often wonder if Malala is
grief-stricken and empowered, or just
the former.

I still haven’t found a way to balance my respect for Malala
with my distaste for the corporate media and the Western world’s savior
complex. She makes me proud as a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin and as a
fellow human being. So for now, I am hoping that the peace prize successfully
silenced her critics and blinded supporters so that the world can turn its attention to building—and subsequently destroying—whichever demigod is next.

Aiman Chaudhary PO ’17 is a pseudo-philosophizing poet, politics major and proud Pakistani.

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