Will Malala’s Nobel Prize Backfire?

Will Malala’s Nobel Prize Backfire?

Well done, Norwegian Nobel Committee! You managed not to shoot yourself in the foot by giving the Peace Prize to Pope Francis, the putative frontrunner for the award. Instead, it went the child rights campaigners Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi.

It’s hard to think of two more deserving candidates. For her efforts to ensure that all Pakistani girls are able to gain an education, Yousafzai, now 17, was shot in the head as a 15-year-old by Taliban militants. After her miraculous survival, she has emerged as a vocal, eloquent advocate for the right of all children to win an education. Satyarthi, meanwhile, is one of India’s most prominent anti-child labor activists. He has staged raids on factories employing children and is credited with freeing 80,000 children from slavery and labor.

The selection of Yousafzai, the youngest recipient in the Peace Prize’s history, and Satyarthi also forms an important binary. Yousafzai is a Pakistani Muslim, Satyarthi is an Indian Hindu. (Their joint selection is an obvious nod towards the ongoing global efforts to bring a peaceful end to Pakistan and India’s long-standing conflict with one another, which has recently seen firing across the contested quasi-border in Kashmir.)

Yousafzai is world famous, Satyarthi rarely gets much media coverage. Yousafzai is young, Satyarthi, 60, is old. The right to an education and freedom from child labor represent the two of the most important challenges to children around the world.

Satyarthi’s selection plucks him out of relative obscurity, and it’s a wonderful decision by the Nobel Committee. There are  some 60 million child slaves in India, a tragic figure that represents the dark side of that country’s dizzying economic development. With the country’s middle class rapidly expanding, India has seen an explosion in the demand for cheap labor. All too often that labor has come in the form of child workers, stripping them of their childhood.

"This is the most ironical part of India’s growth. The middle classes are demanding cheap, docile labour," Satyarthi, who heads the Save Child Movement, told the BBC in February. "The cheapest and most vulnerable workforce is children – girls in particular. So the demand for cheap labour is contributing to trafficking of children from remote parts of India to big cities."

For Satyarthi, the award brings recognition to decades of work on behalf of child laborers, but for Yousafzai, the prize arguably comes with risks. As my former colleague Josh Keating writes at Slate, the media’s treatment of Yousafzai often obscures the West’s complicated relationship with Pakistan, one marked in recent years by an aggressive campaign of U.S. drone strikes and huge amounts of U.S. aid. That coverage often strays toward a condescension that reduces the West’s relationship with Pakistan to, in the words of technology researcher Zeynep Tufekci, to "finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore."

That attitude — summed up by Jon Stewart’s quip that he wanted to adopt the young woman — risks obscuring the more institutional, boring work to find peace in Pakistan.

Moreover, in some quarters of Pakistan, Yousafzai has become a symbol of Western interference in the country, and conspiracy theories abound that her story was in fact created by the CIA, which carries out ongoing drone strikes in the northwestern parts of the country. That’s of course far-fetched, but the praise that she has received in the West has been equally matched in her home country. The Peace Prize will certainly elevate her stature — and also increase animus against her in some parts of Pakistan.

That strain of thought remained alive and well on Friday. "I condemn this decision in the strongest possible words," Tariq Khattak, an editor at the Pakistan Observer, told the BBC. "It’s a political decision, a motivated one, and a conspiracy to invoke [sic] people in the Muslim countries. And the father of Malala and Malala have done nothing at all. Her father is a good salesman, that’s it. And the daughter has also become a salesgirl. And they are dancing on the tunes of West."

How a 17-year-old activist goes on to build a career from that point is very much an open question. Since she was shot in 2012, Yousafzai has been perpetually mentioned as a candidate for the Peace Prize, and her selection this year probably has to do in part with the speech she delivered last year before the United Nations General Assembly, which created a sensation.

That speech showed how powerful a voice she can be on behalf ensuring access to education, but a huge international profile does not necessarily translate into change on the ground in Pakistan, especially when many of her countrymen remain deeply suspicious of her.

After all, it is highly unclear whether a Peace Prize does anything at all to advance the cause to which it is given. Repressive regimes have cracked down on activists they believe will receive the award, and there is little evidence to indicate that the aspirational winners — those laureates who have received the prize in support of the better society they seek to build — have substantively benefited by receiving it.

If anything, those in Pakistan who are hostile toward Yousafzai may only harden in their opposition now that she has received the Peace Prize. That may set her work back more than it advances her cause.