October 15, 2013

In the face of Goliath

An international symbol, Nobel Peace Prize nominee reveals challenges of grassroots activism.

Few biblical parables have as much contemporary staying power as the tale of David and Goliath, the classic tale of an underdog humbling a seemingly-invincible oppressor. The tale itself retains no real significance, but the trope that has emerged from the pages of lore creeps into modern culture: Something about the tale of a mere mortal standing up to a well-oiled machine when all seems futile has had the capability to persistently capture public imagination. This motif is pervasive in popular culture’s conception of what it takes for a brave crusader to overcome insurmountable odds, be it a cruel conqueror, an invading army, a greedy corporation, or really any organized system of oppression.

There is more truth in this parable to the way human beings are wired than superhero movies will reveal. Historical narratives are abundant with examples of large swathes of a population undertaking a valiant struggle to defy an authoritarian entity, and so are contemporary equivalents in the form of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, or really any form of revolutionary fervor that underlies the most vital of protest movements. The public imagination, it seems, finds few greater joys in life than real-life and fictionalized accounts of the overcoming of supreme injustice by unlikely means. Indeed, that concept of heroism is so powerful that few recognize how ruling elites, fascist oppressors, or even society at large can willfully obscure and twist it into a monolithic image of who among us is qualified to be David.

In a recent interview with Kamila Shamsie in the Guardian, Malala Yousafzai, the famous Pakistani 16-year-old girl who survived a bullet to the head from a Talib in Swat, Pakistan, for fighting for girls’ right to an education, displays all the signs of a saintly and poised David, but none of the self-righteousness. Referring to the shooter who entered the bus and identified her before shooting her in the head, Yousafzai said, “He was young, in his 20s.… He was quite young, we may call him a boy. And it’s hard to have a gun and kill people. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking. Maybe he didn’t know if he could do it.”

Yousafzai is a defiant and infinitely brave young woman, of that there can be no doubt. Nor can there be any doubt that she represents the epitome of a feminist backlash against repressive Taliban policies that decree that cloistered, burqa-clad girls be prevented from seeing the inside of a school. Regardless, there is a distinct impression that Yousafzai, who blogged for BBC Urdu at the age of 12 about what life under the Taliban regime was like, is nervous about her new mantle—not that of the responsibility she is meant to assume but the person she is meant to be and the things she is meant to say: At a speech at the UN General Assembly she began with “I don’t know where to begin my speech. I don’t know what people would be expecting me to say.” It’s understandable then, that she insistently shies away from subverting her original cause: the fight for the right to education for girls and people, everywhere, regardless of prevailing political circumstances and belief systems that dictate otherwise. She is, in essence, today’s best advocate for universal education. And she leaves it there, because that’s enough of an agenda to occupy many lifetimes.

In my native Pakistan, what Yousafzai represents is a polarizing matter: There are those who laud her ideals, her bravery, and her representation as a strong, willful young girl determined to knock down barriers against the right to education; and there are those who fear another representation, that the cause of Yousafzai has been subverted and subsumed, that she has been put on a pedestal ruled entirely by Western standards, and indeed, is now more of a reflection of a broader criticism of Pakistan.

Those in this second camp, a vocal one, vary from a lack of interest in high-profile activism for women and education, to conspiracy theorists who insist that Yousafzai has, in essence, defected and is now a Western sounding-board, or worse, a CIA spy. On this, Yousafzai says in an interview with Mira Sethi in The New Republic, “I don’t blame them. There is a severe dearth of leaders. The people don’t trust anyone anymore. They are constantly searching for answers and there are no good answers, so I don’t blame them.” Now here is a girl, cognizant of the fact that she has been perceived as “betraying Pakistan,” whatever that means, but who has thought carefully about how she can reconcile that with her stance on education and the fact that she grew up in Pakistan. Someone who recognizes, as Sethi wisely argues, that one consequence of being David in a country where many feel betrayed by corrupt politicians, politically-motivated religious or military leaders and intrusive foreign forces is that few will identify you as being on their side.

But Yousafzai, while consciously restricting herself to her ideals of education for all, has many other interesting, and aggressively intelligent, views about other things. When asked by Shamsie what she feels about the United Kingdom’s discourse about a possible ban on the burqa, Yousafzai responds with an astuteness almost eerie for a girl her age on a question that has divided feminists for decades. “I believe it’s a woman’s right to decide what she wants to wear, and if a woman can go to a beach and wear nothing, then why can’t she also wear everything?” As obvious to many women from the Muslim world, Yousafzai clearly feels that taking away the right of a woman to wear a burqa or a niqab is a direct assault on the perspective that women need to be liberated, a view echoed by the National Secular Society of Britain thusly, “a law which prohibits the burqa and niqab also punishes the very women society is seeking to liberate.” Clearly it is key to recognize that if Yousafzai is indeed David in this entire story, many who champion David have yet to catch on to the full gamut of what he stands for.

And the full gamut of what Yousafzai is emblematic of, not just for people in Pakistan, but globally, is difficult to describe. Following Yousafzai’s surgery, calls of “I Am Malala” were ubiquitous: Schoolgirls in New Delhi wore "I Am Malala" masks as part of education drives in India. She was presented the International Children’s Peace Prize in The Hague. She was the youngest person to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Obscured by the titles and accolades, thus, is Yousafzai as a representation for the downtrodden. Not just of young girls in Taliban-controlled areas, but—because of the interactions between class relations and access to education—of people everywhere. Pakistan, for instance, is one of the countries which invests the least in its education (according to the Guardian, successive governments have allocated around 2 percent of GDP to the education budget). Taliban strongholds in some choice areas influences educational access. The lack of access to education affects labor as well, not just children. Recently, for instance, a Brick Kiln Workers’ Labour Convention was held where brick-kiln workers representing the Punjab province of Pakistan discussed issues of minimum wage and deplorable working conditions. Some of the discussion centered around how often brick-kiln workers’ negotiating power with employers and subsequent earning potential was hampered by the lack of primary and secondary education, a problem disproportionately affecting women but workers in general. Aren’t brick-kiln workers, and workers in general faced with employers refusing fair pay allowed to say “I Am Malala” too? Is the message delimited to those challenging the Taliban’s repressive rule, or is Goliath indeed taking many different forms? How is the educational access of workers and students any different merely because the oppressor seems different?

Extending the argument, if young girls in Pakistan and India can say they would like to be Yousafzai, why stop there? Why not apply the same principle to high school dropout rates in the United States as well? As a recent Pew study Pursuing the American Dream tells us, if, as an American citizen, you have the misfortune of being born into the poorest fifth of the population, you have an only 1 in 10 chance of earning a bachelor’s degree. Couple this statistic with the fact that within a given population, higher educational qualifications correlate extremely well with financial wealth, and you have precedent for the argument that no matter how different the problems of educating girls in Taliban-controlled areas and educating poor people to allow upward mobility are, the challenges are cut from the same cloth. Goliath, here, may be more amorphous, but there are very real societal forces constricting upward mobility via education. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Taliban preventing young girls in Swat from attaining secondary education or a classist system preventing poor teenagers from going to college: The potential for education is an important goal regardless of the scale.

Interestingly, Shamsie describes Yousafzai’s dismay that in the UK, she finds girls taking their education for granted, not “‘Aladdin’s lamp…the doorway to a magical world’ as it was for girls in Swat”, but a privilege granted by origin and birth. Perceptively, Yousafzai may be striking on the often depressing realization that rights acquired through decades of historic struggle by way of grassroots activists and women can be forgotten so easily by future generations who reap the benefits. Women all over the Western world fail to connect the historical narrative with their current struggle against institutionalized sexism merely because it seems so much better now than it used to be. (On that note, a 2010 YouGov poll found that one in every three 16–18-year-old girl had experienced sexual harassment in school—obviously, safe access to schools is a much broader problem) In a hypothetical Swat many years from now when girls no longer feel threatened to go to school and they can finally freely open up their books excitedly to sap up all the world’s knowledge, one hopes that we won’t find the vitality lost, the memory faded, the history forgotten.

Ultimately, the most charming parts of Mira Sethi’s and Kamila Shamsie’s interviews with Yousafzai is the striking impression one gets that Yousafzai has yet to betray her cultural, but also her humble, origins. Alongside her reassured, confident manner is a girl, clad in a simple woolen shawl, who talks about missing her friends back in Swat and the idea that she may one day go back to Pakistan.

Strip away the obvious sentiments of inspiration her bravery cultivates, and be even more surprised at the likelihood that a young girl from no privilege or wealth, in what the world considers a backwater, can be so courageous. It is heartening, and also disheartening that we don’t see it more often, and is a powerful reminder of the importance not merely of individuals like Yousafzai, who at best can shine a light on the most oppressive of oppressors, but of grassroots activism targeted at improving the life chances of the poor underbelly of the United States and the cloistered girls of Swat, Pakistan and all the other places in the world where the only differences are those of scale. When undermining fundamental rights, there are no injustices not grievous enough.

In reality, David rarely defeats Goliath. Yousafzai’s noble attempts to stand up to her oppressors have not yet borne fruit: The Taliban are still very much present, running roughshod over many numbers of promising young girls in want of an education. Protest movements fighting for equality of access to opportunity and education often amount to nothing more than street banter, police suppression, and the scattering of a once motivated movement to listless and dispirited people. One would not be amiss to link the futility of the David–Goliath struggle to the Chicago Teachers Union strikes last year, for instance. Grassroots activism is often predicated upon, and qualified to supporters as, a long, winding, often pointless exercise that may one day be able to see the light of day. Look close enough, and real-world examples of the David–Goliath trope begin to resemble more closely the drop-in-the-ocean trope, a reminder that the classic battle between man and beast typically takes the form of generations of people combating a Goliath with many guises and even more strategies to subvert or divide the cause.

Kamil Ahsan is a second-year graduate student in the biological sciences division.