The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize is always a source of grim amusement at this time of year. Only 5 years ago, the award went to Barack Obama, who, displaying commendable insight, said he had not deserved it. This year the recipient is Malala Yousafzai, a young woman from the Swat Valley in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban on her way to school in 2012. Following her recovery, Yousafzai has gone on to be lauded in the West as a champion of women's rights, even giving a speech on the subject at the UN and meeting with the British royal family. Indeed, while there is no doubt that Yousafzai has suffered bravely, she is now an establishment figure who is being used in the Western media as a poster girl for 'humanitarian' intervention. Earlier this year, for example, her name was attached to a Twitter campaign, supported by Michelle Obama, to 'Bring Back Our Girls' - an ostensibly progressive movement whose real intent was clearly to increase the US military presence in Nigeria against the challenge to its hegemony posed by China. Media figures such as Piers Morgan have also invoked the Malala story as a retrospective justification for the allied invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in 2001. In short, Yousafzai's story is being exploited to provide a bogus 'feminist' justification for imperialism.
Had Yousafzai been a victim of a US drone attack, she would hardly have received such a warm welcome in Washington, as this Al Jazeera article points out. To invoke Herman and Chomsky's distinction, Yousafzai is a 'worthy victim', because she was injured by the enemy. By contrast, victims of US aggression are by definition 'unworthy' and are therefore ignored by politicians and mainstream media. And while she is still only a teenager, Yousafzai herself cannot be entirely exempted from blame for this state of affairs. Although she has criticised the US use of drones in Pakistan, she seems to have actively participated in the 'Bring Back Our Girls' campaign and has thanked Barack Obama for the United States' work in supporting female education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite the worsening situation of women in Afghanistan since the US invasion (and let us not forget that US support for the so-called mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s was a major contributor to the oppression of Afghan women!).
WHITE WOMAN'S BURDEN
I am reminded of all of this watching Our Girl, a current BBC drama series about the experience of a young female medic working in the British army in Afghanistan. Written by Tony Grounds and starring former EastEnders actress Lacey Turner as Cockney Private Molly Dawes, Our Girl is an extrapolation of last year's one-off drama, which I had a good old moan about at the time. While not quite as tasteless as BBC Three's ongoing comedy Bluestone 42, in which young British soldiers in 'Afghan' crack bare jokes while under fire from faceless Taliban, Our Girl is a deeply problematic drama. The acting and the gentle soldierly 'banter' are unconvincing - Bluestone 42, actually, does much better in this respect - and the drama is deeply racist: Afghan men are presented as patriarchal brutes. Noting a certain lack of narrative definition in cultural images of the Afghanistan war, Brian Castner has described the Afghanistan war as 'a stage without a play' - but these productions do contain common elements and a remarkably similar cast of characters, including young, working-class and happy-go-lucky soldiers doing their best in a profoundly reactionary country whose backward citizens require civilizing.
Indeed, the real scandal of Our Girl is its unalloyed pro-imperialism. In an echo of the Yousafzai story - and a travesty of history - we are repeatedly reminded that Western soldiers are in Afghanistan to help the local children get to school and to provide medical assistance to the locals. One of these is a young girl, Bashira, who is beaten by her father and already promised in marriage... unless Molly can save the day. This focus on women and women's issues serves to obscure the workings of imperialism, serving as a 'sexual decoy', in Zillah Eisenstein's phrase. While mention is made of British soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan (worthy victims), massacres of the Afghan population are not acknowledged and no serious criticism of the occupation is voiced. On the contrary, the third episode, which follows Dawes's period of leave in England, has introduced a new character: a manipulative and neurotic 'middle class' anti-war campaigner who ought to be, according to Dawes's grandmother, 'rolled into a carpet and lobbed off a bridge onto the M25’. The sinister message of the drama is the one shared by many of the supporters of Yousafzai; namely, that Western imperialism is making the world a safer place - for women, for men, for everybody; and those who do not agree should be silenced.