When it was revealed on 11 October that Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl that captured the world’s imagination after being shot by a Taliban rifleman, was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it came as a relief.
Malala no doubt deserved it more than any other person in the world, but to tarnish her name by giving her the same prize given to such renowned peacemakers as Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin would have been a disservice to everything she had stood for.
The memoir of the young girl who had been standing up for her and her schoolmates’ right to an education since she was 11 is not at all as gloomy as it could have been. The book is filled with humour and charm as Malala (with the help of Christina Lamb) talks about her activism as well as the courage of her parents, particularly her father.
Malala was clearly lucky in having a father who was so dedicated personally in striving to give every child an education. Not everyone in that area of the world would have been as lucky as her, and it is sobering to think of how many girls there must be in Pakistan who might have shared Malala’s stand, but didn’t have the slightest hope of getting support for political and social action.
What is striking about her memoir is something that perhaps should be obvious; the fact that Malala is a teenage girl. We forget that she’s like any other person her age. She likes Twilight, and chatting to her friends.
When reading about the situation of girls and women in areas like the Swat Valley, it is easy to despair. Malala lived in a society where it is unthinkable that a girl wouldn’t get married at a certain age and then be expected to fulfil certain roles after marrying, but her continuing optimism is contagious, and reading her words reminds you that real progress on women’s rights is possible even in the most patriarchal societies in the world.
Sometimes, Malala’s writing seems naïve. When she recalls her feeling that even the Taliban wouldn’t go after a little girl, one’s first reaction is something like “they’re the Taliban, of course they won’t be sympathetic to your calls for women’s education”. But she wasn’t being naïve, she was being brave.
The naïvety about the Taliban comes from the western left, which sometimes allows legitimate and justified opposition to NATO imperialism’s role in the region to obscure the fact that the Taliban is also a deadly and reactionary force, and one which cannot be understood solely as a “reaction” to imperialism but which has its own programme for the transformation of society along reactionary lines.
It is sad that it took a young girl being shot in the head to remind us of such things, but one can hope that labour movements around the world will remember and solidarise with the struggles of workers and the poor in South Asia.
The book also plays down Malala’s socialist politics, feeding into the media conception of her as brave and courageous but nothing more than generically liberal in politics.
In reality, Malala is a socialist. She has spoken at meetings of the Pakistani Marxists, the Pakistani section of the International Marxist Tendency (represented in Britain by Socialist Appeal). In a written address to its 32nd Congress, she said: “I am convinced socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”
Her inspiring faith in the possibility of a socialist future explodes the contention of cultural relativists on both the right and the left that the ideas and values of socialist democracy are somehow “western” concepts, incompatible with the “culture” of people in the global south.
In the end Malala was luckier than the woman she was named after; Malalai of Maiwand, the Pashtun Joan of Arc, who rallied Afghans to victory against the British in 1880, losing her own life in the process. She has now moved away from Pakistan but hasn’t ceased in her campaigning, currently raising millions of pounds for Syrian refugees.
After all she has fought for, we can only hope that she now enjoys her life in Birmingham, continuing to remind the world that the battle for education, and freedom, is not yet over, but it can, and must, be won.