How the West exploits brave Malala

Malala Yousafzai, a brave young Pakistani woman, is being used to give a positive sheen to external intervention.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

Malala Yousafzai seems to be a remarkable and courageous young woman by any standards. She has stood up for education and women’s rights in Pakistan, a desperately poor country that has the second highest number of children without schooling (the first being Nigeria), with more girls than boys out of school, and in which the lives of many women and girls are severely bound by harsh and oppressive tribal and religious customs.

Malala first came to international prominence when she wrote a blog for the BBC Urdu Service in 2009, expressing her fear that the Taliban would stop girls attending school in the contested Swat region of Pakistan. She was a vocal campaigner. Last year, there was international outcry when the Taliban attempted to murder her. Happily, she survived and is now well, and she and her family are living in Britain.

Malala has been lauded since that terrible assassination attempt. She has been tipped for a Nobel Peace Prize, has signed a $3million book contract, has been named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, is having a film made about her life, and has had a day named after her by the UN. Last week, she gave a speech at a special youth day at the UN, calling for governments to guarantee education for all children. (Her appearance was organised by former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, now UN special envoy for education.)

However, whatever Malala’s many personal attributes, the reason for her lionisation has little to do with her and much to do with Western agendas.

Championing Malala allows Western politicians some easy moral grandstanding on the subject of Pakistan and the Taliban. Never mind that the West has contributed hugely to Pakistan’s destabilisation, including the spread of militancy, through the not-so-secret war that America, supported by allies, is waging there. Pakistan’s Western paymasters pour billions of dollars into the state while at the same time killing its citizens with drones. Moreover, in Afghanistan, after more than a decade of deadly warfare, America is finally to make peace with the Taliban – who, of course, the US funded in the first place.

There is no personal trauma that can’t be taken up and used by Western politicians desperate for a bit of ersatz moral authority and easy virtue, especially one that allows Western politicians to push under the carpet the whole history of Western involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan and stand by a young girl. See, that’s why we are the good guys!

Moreover, while Malala’s demands for education and women’s rights seem unarguable, they will not resolve the problems within Pakistan nor in the developing world more broadly. Her simple message echoes the West’s depoliticised, pious agenda for the developing world, as laid out in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. These goals abstract problems associated with a lack of economic development and present them as causes of that lack of development.

However, Pakistan will not develop simply by ensuring all its children go to school, nor through ensuring that girls are educated. In recent years, it has become an orthodoxy that education and women’s rights transform societies, yet these things do not drive development in themselves (although they often, though not always, accompany economic growth and development).

Pakistan will develop through establishing some kind of political stability and policies to achieve economic growth. An end to the Western meddling in the region would help considerably with that process.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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