By Yara al-Wazir
At 17, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Prize. This year, she shares the prize with fellow children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi from India. Her advocacy for women and children’s education was shot into the spotlight after the Taliban made an assassination attempt on her life two years ago today. The white saviour complex, the sensitivity of the issue, and the significance of children’s education under oppressive rule and during wars made Malala Yousefzai a household name in activism.
What many don’t realize is that Malala did not only touch the lives of people in her home country of Pakistan, but that we can take the lessons she has learnt throughout her ordeal – and taught through the Malala Fund – to heart right here in the Middle East.
Terrorists are threatened by education
In the Islamic faith, the first word revealed in the Quran was “read.” Reading, knowledge, and education are the strongest weapons, especially when it comes to overcoming terrorism, and that is precisely what terrorists and oppressive regimes are afraid of. Outdated education systems from the countries that witnessed revolutions bear testament to how fallen governments managed to keep their people under control for decades.
Inspirational figures can only do two things: inspire a generation, or be a topic of discussion
Conversely, one of the first things ISIS did when they took over Syria’s Raqqa was impose their own school curriculum. The powers that be realize that knowledge is power, but what will it take for us to realize the same?
Cynicism aside, Malala is a saviour
When Malala’s story first shot into the spotlight, many were critical (and understandably so) of Western media rhetoric. The white saviour complex resurfaced and the very country that only accepted 24 Syrian refugees throughout the conflict, managed to accept Malala and her family.
Likewise, the Nobel Peace Prize itself has many critics. Unlike other prizes such as physics or chemistry, peace seems to be significantly more controversial. Regardless of one’s feelings towards the prize itself, and putting the cynicism towards Malala’s fame aside, the story is consistent: knowledge and education are the most powerful tools to fighting oppression.
A message to refugee camps
Malala’s case is not one of men against women, or literates versus illiterates, it is a case of peace against war. Whether it is the Taliban, ISIS, or even large corporate donations to education institutions, our freedom to be educated and harness more knowledge is under threat every day, and it is up to us, as individuals, to fight it.
Girls must stay in schools, particularly refugees who have been displaced during the Syrian conflict. Boys too must stay in school, and learn to cohabitate with their peers. Kids must also grow to understand and realise that education isn’t about numbers on a page or grades on a report card, rather about an experience.
As a Palestinian refugee, my late father always pushed me to treat every experience as a learning experience. When Palestinians in his generation were exiled, they lost their land and wealth, but had their education. That is precisely the message Syrian and Iraqi refugees must keep in mind.
What I wish, however, is that Arabs appreciate female leaders and Nobel Peace Prize winners like Malala Yousafzai and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman as much as the West seems to appreciate them. Inspirational figures can only do two things: inspire a generation, or be a topic of discussion. Either way, people learn, think and develop.