On 10 December 2012, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari announced that his government and UNESCO were establishing the “Malala Fund for Girls’ Education,” and that Pakistan would contribute ten million dollars. This fund’s namesake, Malala Yousufzai, is a young activist for girls’ education. She was shot and severely wounded on 9 October 2012 by Taliban-led armed thugs on her way to school in the Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan. Given the marathon international media coverage of her story, Zardari’s jumping on the bandwagon illustrates how Malala has become the newest, youngest icon for the “War on Terror.” Even as the fifteen year-old recovers from the shooting, she is being turned into a brand that packages “feminism” and “human rights” to be marketed for international and local consumption.
The hawks of war have seized on Malala not only as the symbol of a cause to be championed, but also as a means of legitimizing their own policies and tactics. Her story is being appropriated in a master narrative of a just war between “good” and “evil,” replete with articles arguing for the moral warrant of drones, and casting hers as a lone voice in the “wilderness” where the patriarchal and fundamentalist Taliban holds sway. With the empathy and concern that Malala’s story evokes, the rates of return on this investment are high.
I wonder whether Malala herself, a strong advocate for peace and conciliation, would approve of the campaign marketing her wounds to advance militaristic politics.
Malala was a blogger for BBC Urdu, an advocate for girls’ education, and the subject of a New York Times documentary. The assassination attempt on the young activist appeared as an enforcement of a Taliban edict banning girls from going to school. Fortunately, Malala survived, was rescued, and was sent to the United Kingdom for treatment. Although she has now become an internationally symbolic reference for Taliban intolerance and the proxy war that rages in Northwest Pakistan, Malala is not the only young and innocent victim.
Communities across Northwest Pakistan have been in the cross-fire of US drones for years. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, drone strikes killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan, of who between 474 and 881 were civilians, including 176 children. In 2012 alone, according to New America Fund statistics, between 212 and 336 people were killed in drone strikes. While the US government consistently claims that most of the dead were “militants,” in fact a high number were civilians. An authoritative study by researchers from Stanford and New York University law schools, Living under Drones, concludes that only one in fifty killed is a known or verifiable terrorist. The plausibility of these statistics is buttressed by evidence that the Obama administration under-reports civilian casualties by characterizing any military-age male killed as a “militant” unless posthumously exonerated.
Sadaullah Khan is one such military-age male, who lost both legs in a drone strike. This 15-year-old’s story is not as marketable as Malala’s for Pakistani politicians and the international media. He remembers, “I used to go to school…I thought I would become a doctor. After the drone strikes, I stopped going to school.” Malala also would have been another faceless statistic had she been killed or maimed by a US drone instead of by Taliban thugs.
Samiullah Khan, a Waziristan-based reporter who encountered a strike on 16 September 2010, recounts his experience:
There was of course a drone up in the air – in that area they seem to be up 24 hours a day. About five minutes into the interview I heard a massive noise from an attack and all the glass in the house broke. I ran out, though the Taliban were urging me not to approach the site. I saw people crying “Help us, help us,” there was a huge fire. Since everyone in the [damaged] house was dead or injured, the only people who could help were other villagers or the Taliban I’d been interviewing.
Many people were badly burned. We put three in my pick-up truck and took them to Miranshah town – doctors there told us they were unlikely to live, each having 90 per cent burns to his body. Back in Danda Darpakhel more people had come to the attack site to help with the rescue, thinking that the danger had now passed after 30 minutes. But the drones returned and fired again. If I had been there I would have been caught in that explosion. People there were killed, including two of my friends. They were good people. One was a student; the other ran a stall at the local bazaar. Neither was involved with the Taliban.
Samiullah’s story indexes the drone policy of second-wave strikes targeting mourners and rescuers. According to Clive Stafford-Smith, a lawyer who founded the legal charity Reprieve, this policy of “double-tapping” is tantamount to targeting the Red Cross on battlefields. The voices and experiences of drone victims collected by activist organizations and investigative journalists bolster evidence that the very hawks of war who are now championing Malala are complicit in or supportive of actions that constitute war crimes. It is not surprising, therefore, that the seventy-nine young victims of the military’s Bajaur Operation of 2006 with ages ranging from eight to twenty-one—and whose names were documented in a rare compilation—were largely ignored, while Malala’s victimhood has evoked international concern.
Malala’s own voice is drowned out by this vociferous political gambit to tell and use her story. Her blog richly describes not only an interrupted education but a life encroached upon by war, shelling, bombings, and battles. She is equally accusatory of the military as she is of the Taliban. On 18 January 2012, three days after the Taliban issued its edict against the education of girls, Malala writes:
Our parents are also very scared. They told us they would not send us to school until or unless the Taliban themselves announce on the FM channel that girls can go to school. The army is also responsible for the disruption in our education. Today a boy from our locality went to school and he was told by the principal to go back home because a curfew was to be imposed soon. But when he reached home he came to know that there was no curfew, instead his school was closed down because the army was to move through the road near his school.
The Pakistan army has no qualms about commandeering schools as bases and battlefields. “Father told us that security forces have arrived at the boys’ and girls’ school in Haji Baba area,” she writes soon after. The Taliban were quick to react, and Maulana Shah Dauran, in Malala’s words, “warned that they would blow up those schools which are used by the security forces as security posts.” After a period of closures of both boys and girls schools because of turf wars between the army and the Taliban, Malala recounts that the Taliban lifted restrictions on girls’ primary education on 9 February. Unlike the media portrayal of Swat culture as backward and patriarchal, or the portrayal of the US-Pakistan war as a secular and democratic attempt to rescue victims like Malala, she blogs about how her war-weary society is full of supporters of women’s education and networks of educators who negotiate with the Taliban and improvise to secure their students.
Understanding these realities casts doubt on the portrayal that she was attacked for being a school-going fifteen year-old girl. According to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Malala had long before acquired a pro-West role in the war as a protagonist in the US-made documentary and as a blogger. In a letter justifying the attempt to murder Malala, the Taliban argue that they charged her with their defamation: “Yousufzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions” of Pakistan`s military and government “and was inviting Muslims to hate mujahideen.” Whereas the Taliban oppose coeducation and a secular education system, they “tried to bring the education system for both boys and girls under Shariah.” “If anyone thinks that Malala is targeted because of education, that`s absolutely wrong and is propaganda by media,” the letter contends. “Malala is targeted because of her pioneering role in preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation.”
In decontextualizing the attack against Malala, her hawkish, secular, and feminist champions participate in the production of amnesia about the devastating war and ignore the countless other young girls and boys who have been victims. As Mahmood Mamdani eloquently writes, “the point about ideological language, whether its idiom is religious or secular, is that it justifies the use of power with impunity. In the contest for power, each has eyes for none but the other.”