The Nobel committee was right not to choose Malala
For all her intelligence, the girl who was shot by the Taliban is still just 16 and recovering from a life-threatening injury
Malala Yousafzai: her story will still be just as resonant in two or three years, when she has had space to recover, to complete her education and the process of growing up. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP Photo
I don’t know why the Nobel prize committee decided against giving an award to Malala Yousafzai, who until last week had been favourite to win. It presented the gong instead to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a recipient only slightly more thrilling than last year’s European Union.
But whatever its reasons, for once it has made the right call.
Not that Malala was not a worthy contender. She has wisdom, strength and courage way beyond her 16 years. Her story – schoolgirl campaigner and blogger who was shot in the head by the Taliban 12 months ago and has made a miraculous recovery – has powerful resonance, and she has the determination and the skills to use it for good.
For those of us in the West, with our penchant for black-and-white narratives featuring good guys and bad guys, Malala’s story has obvious appeal. In Hollywood terms, she’s the like an Erin Brockovich of the Swat Valley – only instead of a big team of pushy lawyers, the bad guys have guns.
But the awkward fact is that, for all her apparent intelligence, Malala is still just 16 – a child who is recovering from a life-threatening brain injury.
Before the shooting, she was a schoolgirl and occasional blogger, a girl who cried about her dead chickens, and who wanted to be a doctor. Now she is an icon.
Icons are usually dead, or at the very least, old. “Icon” is a tough badge to wear when, just 12 months ago, you were just a teenager who liked Justin Bieber and the Twilight books.
Her father’s role
If, as we watch her being propelled along by the global political and media machine – addressing the UN; meeting Barack Obama; at the World Bank; winning EU awards – we feel just the tiniest sliver of discomfort about whether all this is really in her best interests, we can console ourselves that there is perhaps no more enthusiastic a cheerleader for the iconisation of Malala than her own father. After all, it was Ziauddin Yousafzai who told her she must become a politician and not a doctor; it was he who named her after Malalai, “the Afghan Joan of Arc”.
But just because it is what her father wants for her – and, watching her speak in the US, it is safe to assume that this role is one Malala fervently wants for herself right now – we can choose, as the Nobel Prize committee may have done, not to be complicit.
Her story will still be just as resonant in two or three years, when she has had space to recover, to complete her education and the process of growing up, and to decide as an adult what she wants to do with the enormous power she has been given.
Right now, Malala may be reconciled to the likelihood that the circus surrounding her will make her a more urgent target for the Taliban. “I have already seen death and I know death is supporting me in my cause for education . . . Death does not want to kill me,” she said in Washington this week.
But who at 16 – an age when our understanding of consequences is limited – is really mature enough to take that risk?
Some voices of disquiet about the West’s “commodification” of Malala are emerging. When I interviewed the Afghan-Canadian film-maker and writer Nelofer Pazira earlier this year, she expressed deep reservations.
“When you make someone a hero like that, you also make them a target – they become a symbol of western influence, and they become delegitimised in their own country,” she said.
One of Malala’s earliest cheerleaders, the journalist Syed Irfan Ashraf, has been savage about his own role. Shortly after she was shot, he wrote an editorial in Dawn in which he excoriated the media and himself for “dragging bright young people into dirty wars with horrible consequences for the innocent”.
Speaking to Vanity Fair earlier this year, he said: “It is criminal what I did . . . We took a very brave 11-year-old and created her to get the attention of the world. We made her a commodity.”
In the Swat valley, some schoolchildren have torn down Malala signs from their schools, believing it will only draw the fury of the Taliban on them. They know that when the international circus leaves town, they will be the ones left to pick up the pieces.