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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.