The Price of a Nobel Peace Prize

Malala Youzafzai is one of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her story has become a mediatized phenomenon. She received a Nobel Prize for her human rights activism in promoting education, especially for women. At the age of seventeen, she is the youngest individual to have received this award. With this honour bestowed upon her, she joins a long line of famous Nobel laureates who fought for peace, such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. Due to her young age, it seems almost implausible for her to be the recipient of such a prestigious award, when Ghandi himself has never made it to the list of Nobel Laureates. I aim to assess the strategic component to her nomination, drawing onto a Western agenda in Middle East, particularly relating to the Taliban regime.

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most controversial Nobel Prizes, as, unlike others, it does not denote an academic breakthrough. Indeed, it has often been criticized for being highly politicized and promoting United States policies rather than the objective principle of peace. For instance, it is unsurprising to see Barack Obama on the list of the laureates ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.’ Moreover, Shirin Ebadi, who is from Iran, was awarded a Nobel Prize for ‘her efforts for democracy and human rights.’

Image courtesy of the UN Information Centre, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the UN Information Centre, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Without a doubt, the promotion of democratic values has been on the Western Agenda for the past few decades. Many wars, such as the war in Iraq, have been fought partly in the name of democracy. Indeed, according to countries such as United States, democracy is the holy grail of systems, and any other political aspiration cannot compare to the Western notion of democracy. While this notion is indeed vague, it is without a doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize prefers the system of Western democracy, and has thus been used to exercise Western normative domination and suggest that certain wars are justifiable.

A Nobel Prize is said to be given ‘to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.’ What makes Malala special and eligible for said award? Malala is from Pakistan and was first chosen to be a BBC blogger narrating her experience in a regime under Taliban rule. She has always been a strong advocate for access to equal education, especially after the multiple Taliban orders that banned girls from going to her school. Her political engagement became more and more recognized and she was approached by a New York Times reporter for a documentary. She was further nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize for standing up for herself in a country where women are oppressed. As her fame grew, so did threats against her and her family. On 9 October 2012, an armed man came onto her school bus and asked for her by name, then shot her in the head. Beating all odds, Malala survived this tragic incident.

Media outrage followed this event. A petition for education was created, a reward for information about Malala’s shooting was offered, and many world leaders commented on the incident, labelling it an ‘atrocity.’ Ban Ki Moon called it ‘heinous and cowardly act’. The Malala Fund was created in her honour. We can therefore conclude that this was a highly mediatized event which brought attention to the situation in Pakistan.

Malala also addressed the United Nations in 2013 about education rights. She stated that she is not speaking ‘in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban,’ though she still describes them as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’. Her assassination attempt is thus used to villify the Taliban, label them as terrorists, and essentially establish them as a diametirc enemy than can be justifiably crushed by war. Although her intentions may only be to promote education in the Middle East for all children, her story has been used as a narrative to paint of a picture of heroes and villains.

In Pakistan, reviews have not been as empathetic as in the West. A Pakistani columnist writes: ‘Her fame highlights Pakistan’s most negative aspect (rampant militancy); her education campaign echoes Western agendas; and the West’s admiration of her is hypocritical because it overlooks the plight of other innocent victims, like the casualties of U.S. drone strikes.’[1] Malala is a justification for legitimate retaliation by the West against the Taliban, further justifying Western domination. Her Nobel Peace Prize only served to emphasize her role as a pawn for Western strategies.

How is Malala a perfect figure? One cannot answer that question without acknowledging the gendered nature of her fame. As a young Pakistani girl, she is the perfect ‘beautiful soul’ to save from the ‘evil terrorists.’ Dr Laura Sjoberg reflected on previous women Nobel Peace Prize laureates Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for ‘their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.’ In a way, their work is similar to Malala, who received the award for the promotion of education rights and women’s rights. Sjoberg criticizes this association of women with peace as it often constrains women into a peaceful role in wars and conflicts.[2] Malala is therefore exploited and used as a double asset. As a young, peaceful, female, she is the perfect victim for whom an audience would have sympathy.

Although her voice and her story have made a difference, her reception of a Nobel Peace Prize at only the age of seventeen needs to be put into question. I would conclude that despite her admirable braveness, narratives and discourses surrounding Malala’s stories have been used for the benefit of Western imperialism.

[1] Huma Yusuf (18 July 2013). “About the Malala Backlash”The New York Times.

[2] Sjoberg, Laura. 2013. Gender, War, and Conflict. London: Polity Press.