“Instead of sending soldiers, sending guns, send books. Instead of sending weapons, send teachers, send pens, and this is how we can fight terrorism.” – Malala Yousafzai to President Obama, as related to Jodi Kantor during a recent TimesTalk interview.
On October 21, two years after surviving a brutal assassination attempt, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an activist for girls’ education–and a high school student herself–arrived in Philadelphia to accept the Liberty Medal during a ceremony at the Constitution Center. Awarded on the heels of her Nobel Peace Prize, the Liberty Prize is given to those who, in the words of the National Constitution Center website, “strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe.”
While the Liberty Medal announcement made significantly fewer headlines than the Nobel announcement, it nevertheless contributed to raising awareness about issues with regards to extremism and girls’ education. It may also make a tangible impact in Malala’s former home country of Pakistan: She plans to donate the $100,000 USD prize money to strengthening and improving education in Pakistan. (It is not yet known exactly how the funds will be distributed.)
The Education Rights Activist
The youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history, Malala has been speaking out against extremist forces that discourage and limit education since she was 11 years old, when she began blogging anonymously about the issue for the BBC. The Taliban had gained control in the SWAT valley of Pakistan where she grew up, and had banned secular education, along with girls’ education and coeducation, shutting down and destroying schools in the process. Yet Malala continued to attend the public school that her father founded–and to insist on her right to do so.
In October 2012, the Taliban targeted her. In an attempt to silence her voice, an assassin shot her on a crowded school bus. She survived to become an even more powerful global advocate for education: Among other accomplishments, she has spoken at the United Nations, published a bestselling memoir I Am Malala and founded the nonprofit Malala Fund. In the process, she has received a great deal of positive mainstream press.
Yet, some of her critics wonder if the courageous message of a teenage survivor and advocate is being co-opted by the West. As the author Fatima Bhutto expressed it in The Guardian, “there is a genuine concern that this extraordinary girl’s courageous and articulate message will be colonised by one power or other for its own insidious agendas.” In other words, there is mistrust and doubt as to the motives of the Western organizations that champion her. One has to only look at the language of the Liberty Prize quoted above to understand why: The rhetoric of the struggle to “secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe” (for which Malala was honored) has been used to justify vastly different viewpoints, not to mention controversial and possibly neocolonial actions (such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq).
Nevertheless, Malala’s message remains a positive and empowering one, focused on access to education, gender equality in education, and the concept of education as a human right. In her speech at the Constitution Center, Malala expressed the view that education can lead to peace and equality–to individual empowerment on a sociopolitical scale and to a better, more progressive world. Notably, she doesn’t link education to economic capital but rather to something closely resembling Freire’s conception of critical consciousness. With each accolade, the message of this young, courageous idealist spreads further.
DeHuff, J. (23 October 2014). Malala Yousafzai: Courage in the face of adversity. Philly.com. Retrieved November 2 2014 from http://articles.philly.com/2014-10-23/news/55323529_1_malala-yousafzai-malala-fund-liberty-medal
Matsa, M. (23 October 2014). Malala Yousafzai awarded Liberty Medal. Philly.com. Retrieved November 2 2014 from http://articles.philly.com/2014-10-23/news/55323572_1_malala-yousafzai-liberty-medal-swat-valley.
Akpan, N. (15 October 2014). What Will Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize Mean For Girls’ Education? NPR. Retrieved November 2 2014 from http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2014/10/15/355160473/what-will-malalas-nobel-peace-prize-mean-for-girls-education
Walsh, D. (10 October 2014). Two Champions of Children Are Given Nobel Peace Prize. The New York Times. Retrieved November 2 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/11/world/europe/kailash-satyarthi-and-malala-yousafzai-are-awarded-nobel-peace-prize.html?_r=0
Bhutto, F. (30 October 2013). I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai – review. The Guardian. Retrieved November 2 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/30/malala-yousafzai-fatima-bhutto-review
Yousafzai, Malala. (January 2009). BBC News. Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl. Retrieved November 2 2014 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7834402.stm.