Today, parents of 17-year-olds everywhere are asking their kids, “So what exactly have YOU done?” Two years to the day after Malala Yousefzai was shot in the head for advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan, Malala, now 17, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Well, that’s a little less and more than the truth.
One truth is that Yousefzai shares her Nobel with a man she has never met, Kailash Satyarthi. Joint Nobels aren’t that unusual; in the two years of 1993 and 1994, the Nobel Prize went to five men, Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk, and Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yassir Arafat. Presumably Yousefzai would get along better with her co-honoree than some of these co-honorees did with each other.
Satyarthi is no slouch, no free-rider. He runs the Global March Against Child Labor, established Rugmark (a.k.a. Goodweave) to stop child labor in the carpet industry, and has participated in hundreds of peaceful demonstrations – and a few raids against child-employing factories – fighting against the exploitation of children. The Norwegian team went out of its way to laud the joint efforts: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.” In a way, there’s almost an irony in the pair sharing the prize, because Yousefzai is a teenage worker (for example, she writes books), and Satyarthi fights so that people like Malala don’t have to punch a clock.
But this is the real world, and rallying for a great cause means not stopping yourself at every irony. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee has drawn our attention to two people who didn’t always follow the rules. Is Yousefzai the first Nobel laureate to come to prominence through her blog? She began blogging in 2009, when she was only 12, showing how girls were being kept out of schools in and around her home in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Satyarthi was an electrical engineer who led raids against factories that employed children. There was no humanitarian “playbook,” no models of Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or anyone else, to tell these two how to act. They saw injustice and spoke out and acted out. That’s it, and that’s everything.
Satyarthi and Yousefzai fight together, even if separated by a few thousand miles, for the right of every child to have an education. Someday, and that day is coming very soon, the rights of men and women will need to be etched in a document, or heck, just a website, agreed upon by the United Nations and the G-20 and NATO and everyone else who matters. On the list: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not on the list: everything in the DMV Manual. Knocking on the door of the list: the right to marry who you choose, the right not to live with pollution, the right to food free of toxins, the right to peace, the right to an education. When the Nobel Committee moves this way and gets it right, that helps to establish one more right.
No doubt, somewhere, radical Islamists are seething at the news of Yousefzai’s Nobel Prize. No doubt, they plan to use this news as further proof of the corruption and decadence and hypocrisy of the West. No doubt, Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, and his ilk, would like a second attempt to do to her what Al-Qaeda did successfully when in 2007 it killed Benazir Bhutto, the first female president of any Muslim country. How should we react to that? We should let them spread their hate, let them expose their allies. If they insist on closing girls’ schools, if they want to support the barbaric ideology of Boko Haram, that adolescents are better instant brides than someday baccalaureates, then yes, this is war. It’s a war we can and must win, because as Nicholas Kristof has explained with statistics in many of his columns, there is a direct relationship between girls’ education and improved society by all metrics. And as Bob Marley said when he advocated war (in his song “War” – thought he was a peacenik, did you?), “We know we shall win, as we are confident, in the victory, of good over evil.” We are also confident in demographics – if 60% of the Muslim world is under 25, then you can only suppress so many of their girls for so long.
But let’s be clear that the Nobel Prize’s canonization of Malala is not only a message to fundamentalist Islam – it’s also a message to secular Britain, where she lives, and secular America. Britain and America are now jumping into another war in an Islamic country and shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back for our righteousness. Maureen Dowd has already pointed out that we’re allying ourselves with countries that disenfranchise women. Also, Britain is still reeling from the Rotherham scandal, where authorities are accused of looking the other way while 1400 girls – all younger than Malala is now – were raped and abused by (mostly) Pakistani men. Charges of political correctness and misunderstandings of Pakistani culture have been flying fast and furious since the revelations, and both sides like to point out that the Koran prohibits rape, abuse, alcohol, and drugs. But we don’t have to thread the needle of “despite” and “because of,” because Malala has already done it for us. Malala is what it looks like when a teenage girl – of any race – is able to have an education unmolested, as she has in Britain since her attempted murder. Britain has a right to be proud that Malala can feel safer in Britain than in Pakistan (and presumably safer than her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Barack Obama, feels in the White House). Now Britain just has to remember to prosecute everyone, Pakistani, white, or otherwise, who would suppress the next generation of Malalas.
The star of America’s #1 movie, Ben Affleck, appeared on Bill Maher’s HBO show last week only to get drawn into a shouting match with the host about whether ISIS-like principles constitute the fringe (Affleck’s position) or the heart (Maher’s position) of the worldwide Muslim community. Kristof, siding with Affleck, mentioned Malala before the news of the Prize, as an example of the kind of Muslim that we need to venerate. Whether you agree with Affleck or Maher, it’s easy to say that we need more Malalas. What’s much more difficult is for Affleck and Maher, and their allies at Fox (which released Gone Girl) and Time Warner (which owns HBO), to put anyone like Malala on TV or in movies. That’s a failure for all of us, who could be demanding more.
As of the release of the show Transparent on Amazon, transsexuals are officially better represented than Muslims on our screens. Adam Sandler has his flaws, but he blazed a trail with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan – about an Israeli-Palestinian romance – that no one else seems to have gone down. With the very rare exception of a Tony Shalhoub or two, if you see a Muslim on TV, you can pretty much guarantee that s/he will be speaking with a foreign accent – that guarantee just isn’t true of any other onscreen ethnicity. Shows and movies use Muslims as angry or decadent terrorist men, or ululating, burka-clad terrorist women (or belly dancers). Even stories set in the future – try The Hunger Games or Divergent – don’t bother to have Muslims even in the supporting cast. We need more role models, more Malalas – in the world and on screen fiction. History shows that one follows the other.
Let me finish by giving you an example. Exactly two years ago, a Taliban asshole got on a school bus and shouted “Who is Malala?” He wanted to kill the blogger who’d been pointing out the suppression of girls’ education. You’d like to think of the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and Yousefzai standing up, taking the attention away from everyone else. Sometimes real life isn’t like movies. Sometimes it’s more profound for not being part of the hero-playbook. The other kids turned their heads to the one child not wearing a hijab (head cover), and Yousefzai got a bullet to her brain. However, you might say that Yousefzai emulated Spartacus a year later, when, a year after a somewhat miraculous recovery in the U.K., her book hit stores with the title “I Am Malala.” What an amazing declaration of identity, what a reminder that in these post-modern times, there are still such things as heroes and causes worth fighting for. Now that the Nobel Prize has put her in the canon, there’s one bit of emulation left to do. That’s for the rest of us to stand up, a little like the others did in the Kubrick movie, and shout it loud and proud: “We Are Malala.”