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:
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail