1. Opinion

Perspective: Don't make Malala a caricature

Published Oct. 10, 2014

So Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi have won the Nobel Peace Prize for, as the announcement put it, "their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."

The 17-year-old Yousafzai, who was shot in the by the Taliban in 2012 for campaigning for girls' education in Pakistan's Swat Valley, has become an international household name, particularly following her high-profile speech to the United Nations last year, and has authored a bestselling memoir.

Kailash Satyarthi, a 60-year-old campaigner against child labor in India, is much less well known. He's known for mounting raids on factories employing children — sometimes facing down armed guards — as well as running a rehabilitation center for liberated children, organizing the Global March Against Child Labor, and setting up a certification system to ensure that carpets are made without child labor.

Some find the Western media's fascination with Yousafzai a little troubling. When she was passed over for the prize last year, blogger and technology researcher Zeynep Tufekci argued in a widely read post that in the Malala narrative "our multidecade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore." Whereas, she continued, "what the world is desperately lacking, and the Nobel committee, for once, rewarded, is the kind of boring, institutional work of peace that advances the lives of people."

There is something irritatingly smug and condescending about some of the coverage of "the bravest girl in the world." It was a particular low point when, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said "I want to adopt you" to a young woman who's spoken very publicly about the support she's received from her father — a pretty brave guy in his own right.

But that's our problem, not hers. My guess is that someone's who's comfortable telling the president of the United States to his face that his military policies are fueling terrorism isn't going to let herself be reduced to a cuddly caricature. And in any case, it was probably wise for the Nobel committee to pair the very young global celebrity with a relatively unheralded activist with years of work behind him.

The committee gave its last two awards to institutions — the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the European Union — and not particularly popular ones at that. In a year in which governments and international institutions seemed particularly ineffectual in dealing with mounting violence and instability, giving the award to individuals seems appropriate. Dividing the peace prize between an Indian and a Pakistani also seems like a deliberate statement at a time when tensions are once again escalating between the perennial adversaries.

So, congratulations to the Nobel committee: If you were going to give the award to someone, you could have done a lot worse.

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