FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Malala Yousefzai and the Modern Subject

by KANISHKA CHOWDHURY

On October 10, Malala Yousefzai, the darling of the West, was awarded the European Union’s Sakharov Human Rights prize. On the occasion, Joseph Daul, the head of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), announced, “Today, we decided to let the world know that our hope for a better future stands in young people like Malala Yousafzai” (BBC News, Oct. 10, 2013). This prize comes on the heels of Yousafzai receiving a standing ovation at the United Nations earlier this year, as well as accolades from numerous human rights organizations and governments.

An appearance this week on the Jon Stewart show also indicated her normalization within the American mainstream. Certainly, no one doubts the courage and the resilience of this young teenager, and she well deserves the many plaudits she has received, but it is hard to ignore the obvious irony of her reception as hero in the same week in which over two hundred African migrants died in the waters near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa as they tried precisely to fulfill their hope for a “better future.”

Why is there this vast distance between the standing ovations and the accolades that one person receives who aspires for self-improvement and the silence and indifference that meets the fate of others who have similar dreams? Why is one in line for receiving the Nobel Peace prize, worth over a million dollars, while the survivors of the boat disaster are to be charged with a 5,000 euro fine ($6,780) for engaging in “clandestine immigration” (BBC News October 7, 2013)? Does the answer lie purely in our love for the stories of the heroic individual and our relative inability to conjure up sympathy for collective tragedies? Or is it that the fight for the education of girls against a recognizable foe, the Taliban, resonates in ways that the everyday economic struggles of more than 500 men, women, and children from Eritrea and Somalia cannot, merely collapsing into predictable stories about African poverty and desperation?

These explanations certainly constitute possible ways to understand the differences between the reception of these two narratives of self-improvement, as could our recognition that Yousafzai’s story fulfills the global media’s desire to craft stories about heroic individuals’ lifting themselves out of their subjugation through grit and determination. Clearly, though, the grit and determination of migrants willing to undergo a death-defying journey cannot be in doubt, so wherein lies the explanation for the fascination for one self-empowerment narrative versus another? I would suggest that there are some more politically complex reasons for the vast gap that separates the way these narratives are received and circulated. Malala Yousafzai’s story is fundamentally one about the modern subject and what that subject represents for the West. Her fight for education rights offers a vast store of symbolic value for the West, calling up at once the West’s central role in the narrative of modernity, as well as acting as an implicit justification for the intervention in Afghanistan, even for those who oppose the war.

As a modern subject who is fighting for the rights of girls, for education, and for self-empowerment, she becomes a legitimate and legitimizing part of the Western project. She is the inheritor of the qualities that the West has striven so hard to promote in the face of what it views as the backwardness of the Taliban. Her assimilation into the project of modernity (one of the reasons she was targeted by the Taliban was because she blogged for the BBC about a girl’s right to an education) can be directly contrasted with the Taliban’s aversion to that project. In his recalcitrant embrace of regressive values, the Talib represents in stark contrast the “dark” forces that are holding back Western progress.

Of course, a major element of this progress is to assimilate Afghanistan into the larger project of Western capitalism, and here is where one begins to uncover some of the reasons for the silence around the Lampedusa tragedy. If Yousafzai’s heroic story of individual empowerment lends credence to the necessity for “backward” countries to embrace capitalist assimilation, the Lampedusa tragedy highlights the brutal economic inequalities of contemporary capitalism. The nameless migrants who died off the coast of Sicily are the visible faces representing the continuing inequalities between the West and the Global South. The tragic stories of these migrants are a stark reminder that the Western narrative of progress is dependent on draconian laws of exclusion and  continuing global inequalities.

If their hopes for a “better future” are to be taken seriously then the story of Western modernity will unravel, revealing the contradictions at the root of the narrative of empowerment. If Yousafzai’s fight for education and for fundamental rights are legitimate and worthy of praise, then surely so are the migrants’ struggles? They, too, risked their lives in order to improve their conditions. Can the taint of “illegality” that is thrust upon these migrants rescue the West from the illegality of its contradictory claims about rights? The migrants’ stories can only resurrect historical memories of drowned black bodies who were then and now the dispensable commodities of Western capitalism. Why, then, is it any surprise that the same Europe that seals its gates against those who would interrogate its civilizational credentials honors one who grants it an abiding legitimacy?

Kanishka Chowdhury is Professor of English and Director of American Culture and Difference at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of The New India: Citizenship, Subjectivity, and Economic Liberalization.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
Steve Horn
What Do a Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66
Brian Saady
Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising
Luke Meyer
The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing
Binoy Kampmark
Adolf, The Donald and History
Robert Koehler
The Great American Awakening
Murray Dobbin
Canadians at Odds With Their Government on Israel
Fariborz Saremi
A Whole New World?
Joyce Nelson
Japan’s Abe, Trump & Illegal Leaks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump 1, Tillerson 0
Yves Engler
Is This Hate Speech?
Dan Bacher
Trump Administration Exempts Three CA Oil Fields From Water Protection Rule at Jerry Brown’s Request
Richard Klin
Solid Gold
Melissa Garriga
Anti-Abortion and Anti-Fascist Movements: More in Common Than Meets the Eye
Thomas Knapp
The Absurd Consequences of a “Right to Privacy”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail