Malala and the Drone Wars



On Friday, October 10th, 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the second Pakistani Nobel laureate ever, and the first-ever of the Peace Prize. She is also now the youngest Nobel Prize recipient in any category by some eight years. Her campaign to promote girls’ education in Pakistan has become an international movement that has galvanized civil societies across the world to advocate for education and children’s rights. Her story is undoubtedly one of bravery, heroism, defiance, and grit in the face of great danger, and for her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize is the hallmark of what is already an outstanding career in children’s rights and education advocacy. She is also seen—perhaps only by the West—as the figurehead of the fight against increasing Talibanisation and Islamisation in Pakistan. All these things make her perhaps the most prominent and influential teenager in the world.

The problem, though, is that Malala’s story is told entirely without context. It is told as the story of a girl standing up to patriarchal values and terrorism, fighting with the pen, rather than the Kalashnikov, to promote peace. While this is true, it is incomplete. Malala’s story is ultimately not unlike that of thousands of girls in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province in Pakistan where she is from. In other words, she is not alone in her fight to promote education and children’s rights, and to paint her as a stand-alone figure in a sea of extremism is incorrect. The reason Malala is heralded as she is in the West is in some ways due to the orientalist, colonialist, and interventionist nature in which she has been used. Malala, after being shot in the head, was flown to the UK to receive treatment, where her story of dramatic recovery became a media sensation for the weeks that it was pertinent. She became a child of the West, rather than one of Pakistan. As Assed Baig writes in the Huffington Post:

“This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her. The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, ‘see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives.' ”

This is, in essence, the very problem with Malala’s story, especially as seen in Pakistan. There are thousands of Malalas, dozens of whom are killed at the hands of the U.S. in drone strikes, at the hands of the Taliban, or at the hands of their countrymen in honor killings, who are never heard of. George Galloway, a British MP, tweeted: “If Malala had been murdered in a drone-strike the UK media would never even have told you her name #sickhypocrites”.

The Prize was awarded as the U.S. starts new wars across Iraq and Syria to deal with problems that it in many ways helped to create. Potential Malalas across these regions are being made refugees, or are dying, in what is becoming an increasingly devastating conflict. While Malala is applauded and celebrated across the Western world, as she should obviously be, her story should not be told without context. Many, particularly across the Greater Middle East, feel that she is used as a puppet to promote the West's agenda, and while this too is an incomplete narrative, it does aide our understanding of how and why Malala is viewed as she is by many, especially in Pakistan.

Pakistanis were not overwhelmed with joy at the news of Malala receiving the Nobel Prize, as they should have been. Congratulations were offered hesitantly, and many were angered outright at what they perceived to be the implicit condescension and disdain the prize offered with it. Conspiracy theories, such as those of Malala being a CIA agent, aside, there were plenty of legitimate reasons for protest, not just in Pakistan but across the Greater Middle East: The bombing campaigns the West carries out have been detrimental to social and economic development and only enhance anti-West feelings in these areas. For Malala, a seventeen-year-old girl, to be handpicked for the Nobel Prize is a difficult fact for many Pakistanis to understand.

That said, Malala handled winning the prize incredibly well. She was her usual humble self, dedicating the prize to those she termed the ‘voiceless’. But for her prize to really mean something (unlike those of Barack Obama in 2009 or the European Union in 2012), it must represent something greater than Malala. Real change has to be brought about. Perhaps we can take Malala’s own words to heart:

“Drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact."