This ‘frail young girl’

Last Friday, on her sixteenth birthday, Pakistani child rights activist Malala Yousafzai made her first speech to the United Nations.

Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on 9 October 2012 because of her campaigns for compulsory education and the right for girls to attend school. A bullet hit her above her left eye and grazed the side of her brain, smashing part of her jaw and skull, but missing enough of the vital organs that her life was saved.

This wasn’t a random attack: Yousafzai has been an activist since she was very young. At the age of 11 she was speaking out against the Taliban presence in her homeland. Writing a blog for the BBC (under a pseudonym) about her life in Swat under Taliban rule, she quickly rose to prominence as a spokesperson for child rights.

In one respect, Yousafzai’s presence at the UN is nothing short of remarkable. Already her short life is shaping up to one of global significance, and her aspirations of becoming a politician are well on their way to being realised.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to be cynical about the capacity of existing political structures to achieve substantial change when many of the people now applauding Yousafzai’s bravery are the very same people who would denounce her as a lunatic in other circumstances.

Yousafzai’s presence at the UN was thanks to former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education. He used the slogan ‘I am Malala’ to launch a petition for child education: an extraordinarily hypocritical campaign, most notable for its emotive language, sweeping platitudes and complete avoidance of the economic and political circumstances that bring about child labour, poverty and exploitation in the first place – circumstances for which imperial powers like the UK bear considerable responsibility.

Yousafzai is a sympathiser with a Trotskyist tendency in Pakistan that traces its origins back to a group once known in Britain as Militant. In the 1980s, Brown’s Labour Party launched a campaign to expel and discredit Militant supporters – a precursor, in many ways, to the New Labour project that Brown embodies.

If Yousafzai were British, it’s very likely she would have been branded a dangerous radical. Instead, she’s been appropriated by the institutions of global politics and the interventionist rhetoric of conservative politicians, including Brown himself:

This frail young girl who was seriously injured has become such a powerful symbol not just for the girls’ right to education, but for the demand that we do something about it immediately … There will be no compromise with any religious extremist who says girls should not go to school or stop going to school at 10.

It is, after all, only a few years ago that the need to ‘do something … immediately’ with ‘no compromise’ was used to justify the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions which Brown continues to back.

Yousafzai, on the other hand, has other ideas.

‘I am convinced socialism is the only answer,’ she told the 32nd Congress of the Pakistani Marxists in March this year:

[I]n terms of education, as well as other problems in Pakistan, it is high time that we did something to tackle them ourselves. It’s important to take the initiative. We cannot wait around for any one else to come and do it. Why are we waiting for someone else to come and fix things? Why aren’t we doing it ourselves?

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. This is an excellent piece. I have been torn between the conflicting strong emotions of admiration for Malala and deep nausea at the usual suspects trying to co-opt her for their contemptible symbolism, to hide their own complicity in the very issues she raises.

    From the little I know of her – and your article gives some welcome insight – I have hope she can rise above and side-step the efforts to co-opt her agency. However it’s a daunting task for one so young, as it’s a marathon of intellectual resistance and access to other thinking and support that she will have to work for. More power to her.

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