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The Birth of Malala Yousafzai: The Real Worry About the Youngest Nobel Prize Winner in History

10/23/2014 10:03 EDT | Updated 12/23/2014 05:59 EST

Recently, North America awoke to the news that Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who fearlessly advocated for female education in Pakistan's Swat valley, had received the Nobel Peace Prize. Those among us who remember Malala's rise to global prominence following the Taliban's sickening attempt to murder the 14-year-old education activist rejoiced. In what seems like a geopolitical powder keg, and at a time when seemingly any large-scale event can be derided by a progressive voice for falling short of the platonic ideal of political correctness, opting to give Yousafzai the Peace prize seemed as staid as picking that perennial favorite, the International Committee of the Red Cross. Despite the lack of controversy, a diligent handful of curmudgeonly voices emerged to dully criticize the Nobel committee.

Following a torrent of laudatory phrases about Malala's activism, The New York Times piece chronicling the announcement made certain to include the following qualifier:

"'This is not for fine people who have done nice things and are glad to receive it," said Fredrik Heffermehl, a Norwegian jurist who has written a book on the prize. "All of that is irrelevant. What Nobel wanted was a prize that promoted global disarmament.'"

Heffermehl, of course, might strike one as a cantankerous whinger, but he has been vocally and consistently singing this refrain for many years. In large part, he is right. Contrary to the generally (if often, in a professional sense, begrudgingly) respected prizes for Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, and Literature, the Peace prize has become the equivalent of the Nobel Committee's participation award. President Obama had received the prize merely for showing up. To my knowledge, however, his is hardly the most egregious case: Yasser Arafat's brazen violence, Mother Theresa's insidiously effective campaign of human suffering, and, perhaps most shameful of all, Henry Kissinger's award for ending the Vietnam War which he, with shocking duplicity, authored and prolonged, all vie for this dubious honor. To mourn the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize today is akin to elegizing the rotary phone; neither is likely to make a plausible return outside a comedy skit.

Harder to ignore, however, is the irrepressible wisp of unease which arises while watching Adam Ellick's Class Dismissed (2009). The bulk of Ellick's rightly-lauded documentary was filmed in the Swat Valley during a deadly tug-of-war between the Pakistan military and the Taliban. While prominent, Malala arguably takes on a secondary role supporting her outspoken father, Ziauddin. The longtime owner of a girls' school, Zia is a fiery standard-bearer for female education. As the Taliban declares that all girls' schools in the valley must shutter and the Pakistani army attempts to intervene, Zia and his family are forced to flee; Malala remains with relatives in the countryside, while her father heads to Peshawar to launch an ardent campaign of social activism -- Zia, the fearless, moustachioed lion of education.

This, certainly, is the way that Malala views him. The majority of her conversations revolve around Zia -- his safety, his passions, his struggle. Malala's views, as expected of an 11-year-old, are budding versions of his. He the lion, she the cub.

It is at this point that I should disspel any misconceptions regarding the direction of this piece. I have a profound admiration for Malala, and see no wrong in her inheriting the crusade of her father. Rather, my discomfort stems from the unavoidable through-line of Zia's dominance that Ellick points out in his short New York Times documentary film, The Making of Malala (2013).

In one segment, Malala sits beside her father, and tells Ellick of her future.

"I want to become a doctor. It is my own dream, but my father told me that you have to become a politician. But I don't like politics."

Malala's change of course from these medical aspirations to her present political career signifies little in itself, considering her youth at the time of filming. Like other children her age, she is liable to repeatedly change her mind. It is odd, however, that this change would come (as Ellick's documentary suggests) when Malala is missing her father most. While he is fighting for girls' education in Peshawar, she pines for his presence and affection, expressing her frustration with a precocious equanimity:

"Today is my birthday and he doesn't know. I have told him yesterday that today's my birthday."

In the following scene, Zia, sitting in a backseat of a car alongside Ellick, reads the text message she'd sent.

"They brought a birthday cake for me. My birthday has been celebrated. Now I am happy from them but not from you."

The smile on his face betrays no indication that forgetting the birthday of his prized daughter bothers him.

To be sure, children often aspire to take up their parents' careers when they are younger and have yet to develop their own interests. In this case, however, it is difficult to shrug off the sense that the change of heart is inextricably linked to Malala's love for her father.

Indeed, Zia has made his position on Malala's future abundantly clear. From childhood, Ellick remarks, Zia has groomed his telegenic daughter to be a potent and charming tool in his push for female education. Skeptical viewers may, doubtless, dismiss hints of his control of Malala's life -- such as his shepherding her during a press conference -- as concerned parenting. Nonetheless, one would be remiss to allow Zia's admirable struggle for female education represent the totality of his character.

If Ellick's first documentary was emphatic in its praise for Zia, the second, shorter version which emerged in 2013 took a more measured tone. Although advocating female education, Zia is not all grinning liberal largesse and progressive loftiness: "In the home, all the activities... [are] done by the wife. Outside of the home, for example earning money, doing some business or job, that is done by the man."

Investment in one moral cause is all too frequently seen as a pledge of support for all such campaigns, and one may be tempted to fault Zia for his limited views on women's rights. Certainly, from the comforts of a Western perch, his stance seems crudely circumscribed; but from the vastly more conservative Pakistani standpoint, he remains a progressive advocate who has wagered his life for his cause. After all, Martin Luther failed to support the socially democratic ideas espoused by many Anabaptists after affixing his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, yet remains responsible for a monumental shift towards greater individual liberty.

In some ways, Zia's bond with Malala is reminiscent of James and John Stuart Mill. Like Zia, James Mill was a highly driven man, although his deep convictions concerned the benefits of Jeremy Benthams' philosophy of utilitarianism. Like Zia, too, he played a monumental role in his son's life, steeping the precocious James Stuart Mill in Greek, Latin, physics, astronomy, and economics. In his autobiography, brimming with talk of his father's influence, John Stuart fails to make any direct mention of his mother (a boon, perhaps -- an altogether unflattering description of her in an early draft reads, "to make herself loved, looked up to, or even obeyed, required qualities which she unfortunately did not possess"). Malala's mother, likewise, remains occasionally seen but unheard.

In addition to John Stuart Mill's exquisite intelligence, his father's emphasis on strict education resulted in a man whose intellectualism crippled his emotional faculties. At the age of twenty, Mill lapsed into a depression which lasted several years, and was compounded by his struggles to bring about an intellectual separation from the father he so deeply loved and esteemed. The melancholia, which would return sporadically throughout Mill's life, eventually lifted when the young man immersed himself in Wordsworth's poetry. As Mill's father led his son to rarefied intellectual peaks, so too did Malala's father lead his daughter to an exalted position among the liberal minds of her time. She, like Mill, has already faced a grave crisis; in light of her father's complex views on women, further intellectual upheavals seem sure to follow. One hopes that she, too, will find a Wordsworth to solace her in times of need.