Author: Erin Snyder, Goucher College
Earlier this month, Malala Yousafzai made history as the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient ever. An articulate and courageous champion of womens’ education, Malala has been in the international spotlight ever since her public advocacy for educational equity and human rights in Pakistan (specifically in her home region, Swat Valley) earned her a spot on the Taliban’s hit list. The Taliban views education, especially the education of women, as a threat to their power. By 2012 the Taliban had occupied Swat Valley; despite the occupation, Malala continued to advocate for education rights. One day, a Taliban militant sought out the then fourteen-year-old Malala on her school bus and shot her in the head. The road to recovery was not easy, but Malala regained her strength and heath and has continued her activism. Since 2012, she has been named on of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, spearheaded Pakistan’s ratification of the Right to Education Bill, written a worldwide bestselling book about her experience, and traveled the world to campaign for women’s education and peace in Pakistan.
Refusing to let the Taliban’s violence stop her, Malala has become a role model for many young girls and an emerging world leader. She has addressed the United Nations, had an entire day dedicated to her by the UN (Malala Day was July 12, 2013), and received the Nobel Peace Prize; it is clear that the international community values Malala’s story and supports her campaign. Malala was even able to get President Obama’s ear in a personal meeting with him a few weeks ago. Yes, Americans have rallied behind Malala. Frankly, why wouldn’t they? She is advocating for women’s education and many Americans would say that the U.S. and Malala share a common “enemy” – terrorism. However, while political leaders have been lauding Malala’s bravery and achievements, they have not been listening to everything she has to say. If political leaders truly see Malala as a young voice worth listening to, they must acknowledge that she isn’t just pro-education; she’s anti-drone too.
On October 21, just days after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala spoke at the Forbes Under 30 Summit. Malala spoke at the Forbes Under 30 Summit. At the summit, Malala told the crowd that she recently met with President Obama and spoke about violence and drone strikes during the meeting. The young activist said that she told the President that she believes “the best way to fight terrorism is through education” and that “a drone attack may kill two or three terrorists, but it will not kill terrorism.” Essentially, her message to the President was that if drone attacks continue, so will the spread of terrorism. The image of Malala speaking out on drone strikes in front of a welcoming crowd of thousands of people contrasts starkly with the image of Nabila Rehman speaking at an under attended Congressional hearing last October. This comparison may not resonate with you because, like most people, you probably have never heard of Nabila Rehman.
In 2012, Nabila Rehman, her brother, and her grandmother were picking okra in a field in their rural Pakistani village when a U.S. drone struck. Nine-year old Nabila and her brother were injured; their grandmother was killed. Seeking answers, Nabila’s family came to Washington, D.C. in October 2013. Nabila’s father, a schoolteacher, pleaded, “Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.” According to the Rehman family and an Amnesty International report, only one person was killed that day – an innocent grandmother. Nabila asked one, poignant question in the hearing: “What did my grandmother do wrong?” Unfortunately, the Rehman family’s questions fell on deaf ears. Of the 430 Congressional representatives elected to uphold democracy and represent the American people, only five had the heart to attend the Rehman family’s meeting. With such contemptible Congressional attendance and little media coverage, Nabila’s story went unnoticed by many. Flash forward to October 2014; fresh out of a meeting with President Obama, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai addresses thousands at a summit celebrating influential members of the international community.
The stark contrast between Malala’s and Nabila’s stories is a result of the selective memory and hearing of the American government. U.S. politicians have lauded Malala’s advocacy for women’s education and supported her educational cause, but have largely ignored her critiques of America’s use of drones; effectively picking and choosing what they want to hear and support. In Nabila’s case, the American government is choosing what they want to remember. When questioned about the ethical and moral complications of drone strikes, the U.S. has repeatedly insisted that drone attacks are precise and usually kill few civilians. However, just last year a United Nations report found that “American drone strikes have killed at least 400 civilians in Pakistan, far more than the U.S. has ever acknowledged.” By coming to the United States and seeking answers, Nabila and her family put a face to the civilian causality statistic. The lack of attention the family received from both Congress and the media suggest that the U.S. is neither ready nor willing to address the damage they have caused. Drone strikes are a third-rail topic and the debate surrounding their use is complex. Drone operations are kept so tightly under wraps, the U.S. has not released any data about their effectiveness or civilian deaths; most statistics come from international organizations like the UN and Amnesty International. However, if the U.S. continues to rely on them, defend their use, and make statements about the “few civilian causalities” caused, they owe the victims some answers. This would require American political leaders to view civilians as human beings, not as overlooked means to an end (the end being the eradication of terrorism and protection of U.S. security and power, of course).
The tales of these two Pakistani girls illustrate that the U.S. seems to be hearing only what it wants to hear. Malala Yousafzai was a victim of the Taliban, the U.S.’s own enemy. Nabila Rehman was a victim of the U.S. government and military policies. Unfortunately, it is not surprising that American leaders have scrupulously chosen which aspects of Malala’s platform to acknowledge and support while they have swept Nabila’s story, along with any critiques of U.S. drone usage, under the rug.