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Malala's Peace Nobel: Too much, too young?

The Nation/ANN | Saturday, Oct 18, 2014

Children's-rights activist Malala Yousafzai.

Last week the Nobel Committee awarded children's-rights activists Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India the Nobel Peace Prize "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education".

Satyarthi followed in the tradition set by compatriot Mahatma Gandhi, employing non-violent means to campaign against child labour and slavery.

But it is Yousafzai who has drawn the main spotlight for the latest development in her extraordinary life. Now 17, she garnered world attention two years ago when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head in retaliation for speaking out against the militant group's policy prohibiting education for girls. The story of her brave defiance growing up amid the violent and rigidly conservative Taliban heartland of the Swat Valley, where most girls are married off in their early teens, has been retold everywhere around the world.

For most people it was a breath of fresh air to see a Pashtun from Pakistan receive the Nobel. The ethnic group has for years been seen as a hotbed of militancy in the global war on terrorism.

But for some, Yousafzai is part of a sensationalised international narrative that panders to the assumptions and prejudices of the West. Critics quickly emerged, beginning with the Taliban, who accuse her of being part of a Western conspiracy to discredit it and Islam as a whole. The militants say they are waiting with sharp knives to exact revenge. However, if a bullet to the head didn't deter Yousafzai, why would a knife?

Next came complaints that Yousafzai lacks the long experience and credibility of most activists around the world, whose humanitarian work goes largely unrecognised.

But, given the "advocacy" power of the Nobel Peace Prize - shining a light on important issues that are often overlooked - no one should get worked up about a teenage girl becoming a recipient.

Each year the Nobel committee picks a theme and selects candidates accordingly. This year's theme was "protecting children", and the two people fit the bill.

The choice alerts India to the fact that, despite its thriving democracy and steady development, it still has a long way to go. It also suggests to the world that there is hope for Pakistan and that its future success lies in education for all.

In short, there is no absolute scale to measure an individual's contribution to humanity, and the Nobel Prize does not seek to provide one. If it did, a newly elected leader like Barack Obama would have never received it. Neither would South Africa's then-president FW de Klerk. The committee gave him the nod not for freeing Nelson Mandela from prison but as a way of supporting the wider process of post-apartheid reconciliation.

So timing is important. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the prize in 1991 because the committee wanted to throw a spotlight on the crisis in Myanmar.

If there were such a scale of humanitarian achievement, how would we measure a man like Mohandas Gandhi? The "Great Soul" never won the peace prize, though in handing it to Satyarthi, the committee did remind the world of his predecessor's trailblazing non-violent campaigns.

As for Yousafzai, in spite of what critics say, she spoke up against violence and repression when no one else would. She was shot in the head for it but survived to become a world-renowned activist for the rights of girls and women. Her story will be inspiring people around the world long after the Taleban have been consigned to history's dark footnotes.

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