Like everyone, I am stunned by the elegance of Malala’s words. I am inspired by her bravery. There’s nothing that she says that any modern, progressive person wouldn’t agree with and cheer on. That said, something hasn’t sat right with me about how and why she’s been placed on the international pedestal. Primarily, I am concerned that how some people are framing her specific situation, as horrific and inspiring as it is, detracts us from some larger issues in educational development and simplifies the drive towards gender equity in the South in ways that might ultimately harm progress.
I get there by invoking Godwin’s Law, which in short form states that when Nazi’s or Hitler come up in a discussion or a debate, the discussion is effectively over. Nazi’s are so unambiguously evil that they can’t be accurately compared to much of anything else today. Unless one is comparing genocide to genocide, and fascism to fascism, it indicates that the conversation has reached a point where all nuance has been lost. It’s a very useful heuristic that informs us about the quality of a discussion.
I think the widespread hope that Malala might win the Nobel PEace Prize might have been our Godwin moment in the gender equality debate in development. Yes, the fight for gender equity in the South is both crucial and unfinished. But the Taliban are a strange political group with an unrepentantly violent view of the world, that control a relatively small patch of the Earth, and share a rare trait with the Nazi’s in having an unambiguously evil way of making change in the world – whether it’s shooting young schoolgirls in the face or letting loose suicide bombers in crowded markets, mosques, and churches. Basically, the Taliban might as well be Nazis and are just as unhelpful as points for comparison.
This is to say I don’t think Malala’s situation says much about girls and girls education generally. Further, using her as an icon of gender equity issues in education reduces to the issue to good versus evil, where we need only the will and bravery Malala has to stand up to this evil. Readers might be reminded that “standing up” to the Taliban has been one of dominant foreign policy challenges in what has now become America’s longest war, and the ways in which it’s fought (increasingly with drones) is the primary argument against Obama being a deserving candidate of the same prize.
At issue then is that the Taliban are too “perfect” a foe. This is an important because gender disparities in education in other places usually happen for more complex reasons than men with guns shutting down schools to disempower women. In China, for instance, it’s not casual sexism so much as cold calculations about the rates of return in educating sons versus daughters (vis-a-vis economic dynamics in and between families). There’s no evil to stand up to there, but rather cultural values and traditions that are on a long-term path of reform.
Finally, I worry that the focus on gender disparity sometimes misses the larger picture. As Keith Lewin often points out, educational disparities within gender sub-groups, between socio-economic levels, are usually far larger than differences between genders. The difference between a bottom quintile girl in Pakistan and a top quintile girl in Pakistan are far more inequitable than between the averages of boys vs girls.
Take a look at our Pakistan EFA report card from my Commonwealth book last year. First note that the Gender Parity Index in enrollment is on a strong upswing, such girls will out-enroll boys by a large factor in 2015 if trends continue. That situation is objectively getting better. The bigger issue is that 25% of kids aren’t enrolled and that 33% don’t finish primary. While primary net enrollment rates looks to move up to 83 by 2015, completion rates look like they’re going down. 45% of adults are illiterate.
In the big picture, and in terms of moral proportionality, shouldn’t we be more concerned about these kids who are offered no educational opportunities than a privately educated middle class girl who was derailed from a college track by a militia that was quickly chased out? Importantly, whither the voice of the street kid who was never offered any educational opportunity and subsequently can’t make elegant speeches in English to the UN General Assembly? This is to say nothing about the amazingness of this specific girl and the inspiration she brings – as she is both amazing and inspiring – but how our moral sentiments, and consequent development priorities, are distributed.