Hijacking Malala

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has become a symbol. Like most symbols, she will be used to pursue different ...

Oct 25, 2014

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has become a symbol. Like most symbols, she will be used to pursue different agendas by different groups. We need to make an effort to recognize how different groups use Yousafzai in order to understand what her story is, why some people believe she should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize at all and why her being awarded it should be met with caution.
Yousafzai has become part of the crusader narrative. After receiving an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh, Yousafzai raised her Master’s degree in triumph. But it’s important to notice that in pictures of the ceremony, she is standing between two old white men who are smiling gleefully. Of course, there is no single way to interpret a picture. But one message is that women of color are helpless victims in need of saving. Yousafzai’s story has successfully been hijacked by a group that wants to reduce the War on Terror to a dichotomy: Either you’re with the good guys, or with the evil terrorists. This is not true. Just because Yousafzai receives praise from the West, does not mean the West is actually helping, or has ever helped, her cause, nor does it mean that Yousafzai sides with the cause of the U.S.A. or its allies. Yousafzai has, on more than one occasion, advocated for a more peaceful resolution to the War on Terror and spoken out against drones. It is not surprising that the U.S. media has chosen to neglect Malala’s criticism of its drone policy. It does not fit within the narrative.
On the other hand, Yousafzai is sadly portrayed as a conspirator by her compatriots. After the failed assassination of Yousafzai, various conspiracy theories emerged. Some criticized the sensationalization of her story, while others claimed she was a puppet of the West. While these are fringe voices, they’re loud and overpowering. Given the fact that Malala the Traitor fits well into the anti-American, anti-Western narrative peddled, sometimes understandably, by ultra right-wing groups, it is no surprise that Yousafzai is seen by many as nothing but a symbol of oppression.
In criticizing Yousafzai, people forget they are criticizing only a construction of her. Yousafzai’s story has long been snatched away from her by people more powerful and more mature than she is. Perhaps that was always the case: Yousafzai’s initial claim to fame was writing for BBC Urdu, documenting the Taliban influence in Swat under the pseudonym Gul Bano – now she has the Nobel Peace Prize.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize will do much for Yousafzai and not just in monetary terms. Nobel laureates gain much from the fame and fortune that comes with the award. That is great. Yousafzai is an incredibly brave individual who managed to do something extraordinary and stand-up for her values. However, the award, now held as the highest achievement in various fields, is just a Western stamp of approval and perhaps nothing more. It sits in tidily with the notion of seeking approval from the West because Western ideals have been imposed as obvious and universal and the ones that people should strive towards. While Yousafzai deserves recognition for being a symbol of hope and empowerment, her Nobel Prize is nothing more than the West giving a thumbs-up to another apparently liberated person of colour.
Muhammad Usman is deputy opinion editor. Email him at
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