When it was announced that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) won the Nobel Peace Prize, many were stunned by the decision. This sparked a divisive discussion about why Malala Yousafzai, the clear favorite to win the prize, was overlooked.
Although many were disappointed in the decision, multiple scholars and media outlets felt the Nobel Prize committee was spot on and accused Malala of simply being a stooge for Western ideals. Some pundits were more courteous than others; the Washington Post said the Nobel committee did Malala a favor, because, “Awarding Malala the highest honor in peacemaking, at the pinnacle of the campaign to remake her into a Western celebrity, would have validated that effort, deliberately or not. It would have reaffirmed that too common Western habit that, by giving a powerful symbol a greater platform and lots of accolades, we’ll have fulfilled our duty. Like a sort of slacktivism writ large, awarding Malala the Nobel would have told us what we wanted to hear: that celebrity awareness can fix even the worst problems.” The New York Times reported that many in her home, the Swat Valley of Pakistan, felt that she either didn’t do enough for her home, was part of a larger western conspiracy, or that there were plenty of other female advocates for education who should equally be recognized. Some even went so far as to assert that Malala’s rise to fame was the result of a western, white savior complex, and that Malala herself was a puppet of the west, incapable of criticizing Western Governments or society.
Are these criticisms really all that fair?
Coincidentally, the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded was also International Day of the Girl. The Day of the Girl is a response to a massive problem facing the world today: the inequality girls face in all aspects of society. The day was a call to action to do more to ensure and achieve gender equality. Gender equality is an absolute necessity for global peace and stability. In India, adolescent pregnancies result in the loss of nearly $10 billion USD in potential income annually. In Uganda, 85 percent of girls leave school early. Globally, 14 million girls are forced to marry against their consent before turning the age of 18. Do not think for a second that this is merely a developing world problem; in the U.S., 1 in 5 girls is a victim of sexual abuse.
Education has the ability to reduce the social, political, and economic equality gaps that every girl faces at some point in her life. A little over a year ago, Malala was shot by the Taliban for advocating girls education, as well as women’s rights. Although she quickly rose to fame after nearly dying from her critical condition, the notion that the West has used her to promote western values is grossly exaggerated. The violation of the rights of women and girls, particularly the challenges of access to education has and will be one of the biggest challenges the international community faces. Despite the tragedy she suffered, Malala continued to stand up for her rights, as well as the rights of others, rather than be cast as a victim or spend her life in hiding from the Taliban. She continues to speak out for the rights of girls to be educated, despite the fact that Pakistani Taliban members vowed this week to kill her, given the next opportunity.
As for her media tour: so what? Causes don’t get noticed unless there are interviews, speeches, compelling stories, and cries for action. It’s also where you can find sympathetic donors to your cause. Speaking at the United Nations gave her the ear of the entire world, and interviews with Jon Stewart and other members of the media introduced her to new audiences that may have not known about her work. Increased awareness of one of the most ubiquitous and uncontroversial human rights violations of our time is good for everyone, because it promotes peace and security for the world.
Finally, let’s remember Malala is a person that can make her own decisions. To simply paint a picture that this is an instance of the West saving a poor little brown girl is to deprive Malala of her own agency, and to privilege the Western (and her critics) reaction over Malala’s actions. She demonstrated multiple times last week that she is a free-thinking individual, especially when she visited the Obamas in the Oval Office and requested that the President stop using drone strikes as a counterterrorism measure in Pakistan, telling him that it led to resentment from the Pakistani people. Reasonable people can agree that it takes some bravery to tell the leader of the free world to stop doing something.
It’s very easy to get bogged down in a debate about human rights, privilege, agency, and imposing values on others. This is not an instance where this discussion is necessary. To criticize Malala for being a stooge of the west, or the west for helping her become a successful advocate is wrong. This is not about the West vs. the rest of the world, white vs. brown, the privileged vs. the unprivileged. This is about closing the gap on inequality in global education for girls. A world where all children are educated can only be a more beneficial and peaceful one.