Baruah: Of Nobel Prizes and pyrrhic victories

Mark Garten // UN Photo

The Nobel Peace Prize 2014 was awarded jointly to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”

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When the news of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded jointly to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi reached me Friday, I let out a groan.

Since I have pursued a reasonably successful career researching, teaching and writing about global social justice issues, more broadly, and gender justice issues, more specifically, my response may be considered surprising. The fact that I am, much like the awardees, a person of South Asian origin probably makes my response even more odd.

There are, however, very good reasons why I have had genuine difficulty sharing in the excitement about the Nobel Peace Prize.

BARUAH

BARUAH

As a scholar of gender and international development, I have, within a decade, watched women go from one end of the spectrum to the other – from being cast as problems to be solved and victims to be rescued to being saviors who can solve the world’s most pressing problems with just a little help from all of us. And Yousafzai represents an almost perfect culmination of the victim-savior ‘Third World Woman.’

She was victimized by the Taliban, but survived because of the goodwill of the West, so she can now devote her life to saving other women. Within that deeply ahistorical and apolitical framework, it’s almost difficult to imagine any scenario more perfect or any individual more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But what when we ask who created, or aided and abetted in the creation of, the monsters (Taliban, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussain, Gaddafi, ISIL, Boko Haram – it’s a long list) we so enthusiastically seek to rescue “women-and-children” (as feminist international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe puts it) from now?

When Muslim men hurt Muslim women, we’re only too eager to issue condemnations and to shower the women with prizes. But when the governments of powerful countries participate in killing completely innocent Muslim women, men and children in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen (I could go on), we justify it as a war against ‘terror.’

Yousafzai, deserving though she may be of the Nobel Peace Prize, has, albeit unwittingly, become a photogenic poster child for maintaining global structures of inequality and oppression we have all been complicit in creating. Let’s focus on dismantling those structures rather than holding up individuals who, through determination or luck, succeeded in surviving them, as saviors.

Yousafzai is an exceptional young woman. I’m sure she’ll do amazing things with her life. We do her (and innumerable other girls and women) a disservice if we chose to focus on her individual accomplishments without attempting to subvert the larger structures and institutions that perpetuate their marginalization and oppression.

I am, albeit for different, but related reasons, equally embarrassed and ashamed about the Nobel Prize being awarded to Satyarthi, an Indian child labour activist.

I’m having genuine difficulty sharing in the excitement in India and in diasporic Indian communities about his ‘win.’ He’s an exceptional human being and an outstanding activist, of that there is no doubt. But citizens of a country that prides itself today on being an economic and technological superpower should be able to devote themselves to more advanced goals than rescuing and rehabilitating children from bonded labour.

Why does India continue to live in so many different centuries at the same time? Why are 6-year-olds sewing footballs, if not in response to a global rush to the bottom for ever-cheaper goods and services? A country that successfully launched a Mars mission a few days ago (on which many of the lead engineers were counterintuitively, at least for Western observers, women), should be able to hold itself to minimally acceptable human development standards for all its citizens.

Satyarthi’s Nobel ‘victory’ is harsh and irrefutable proof of the fact the country’s celebrated and much-hyped economic boom has disproportionately benefitted the middle and upper classes and created a grotesquely unequal society.

And that’s nothing to celebrate.

Bipasha Baruah is the Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues, and an associate professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.