An advertisement agency is in trouble for using a gory image of Malala Yousafzai in an advertisement. It depicts Yousafzai being shot, recovering, and then "bouncing back" to international prominence and receiving an award. People are naturally offended, with the company behind the advertisement, Ogilvy and Mather, apologizing and promising an internal investigation into the matter, according to Business Insider.
What is interesting is that more people are concerned that Yousafzai is being used to sell mattresses, which are harmless and functional, than they are with Yousafzai using herself to sell U.S. imperialism. She recently lent her name and face (along with First Lady Michelle Obama) to the Twitteratti-led social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls, demanding action from world leaders about the girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Considering that this action would mean involvement of the United States and the primary mean it acts – through military force – it can be understood that when Yousafzai and Michelle Obama say "Bring Back Our Girls," what they really mean is "Bring Back Our Girls Using Military Death and Destruction." Drone liberal Brittney Cooper is even more explicit, writing in Salon: "if the Nigerian government asks for the help of the US military, I support it all the way."
We can understand why drone liberals like Cooper – who sincerely believe that they care more about the victims of military aggression they consistently support than the people who want to stop that same military aggression – would call for military intervention in Nigeria, but why is Yousafzai lending her name to this new imperialist cause?
Yousafzai, the 16-year old Pakistani schoolgirl-turned-international celebrity, is an odd sort of peace activist. Yousafzai gained international prominence after surviving a brutal Taliban attack for her outspoken advocacy for girls’ education, and for this she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize. The speed in which Western media and politicians took up her cause was just as remarkable. She has been widely honored by various groups and politicians, interviewed on the Daily Show by Jon Stewart, given a speech at the United Nations, and she even has a memoir out. There is no denying Yousafzai’s bravery in the face of Taliban brutality, but what is odd about this Western love affair with Yousafzai are who her biggest boosters are: pro-war neoconservatives and the liberal Drone Caucus.
From the very beginning, Yousfzai’s cause has been taken up by neoconservatives who argued that the supreme crime against humanity that is the Afghanistan War is justified in defense of human rights. Neoconservative writer Noah Rothman wrote in Mediate that "to acknowledge [Yousafzai’s] accomplishments is to confirm that war yields victories which benefit humanity." According to war apologists like Rothman, Yousafzai is a vindication of all the violence and brutality under which the United States has subjected the Afghan and Pakistani people, from the 12-year Afghanistan War to the expansive drone attacks in Pakistan. They argue against withdrawal in Afghanistan because to stop American violence against the Afghan and Pakistani people is to endorse Taliban violence against the same. War is good, because human rights!
Is Yousafzai is being complicit in the appropriation of her image in support of American violence? In her various media interviews, she has spoken forcefully against violence. She told Jon Stewart, "You must not treat others with cruelty… You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education." In a meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama, she spoken out against his drone program, stating that "drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people." However, it is worth noting that while she has been outspoken regarding Taliban violence (and hence neoconservatives’ fixation on her), it was only last year – after her high-profile speeches, nominations, awards, and an audience with the American president – that she has condemned American violence. This silence has led her own countrymen to question her allegiance. According to the New York Times, some believe that Yousafzai is "part of a nebulous Western plot to humiliate their country and pressure their government." Yousafzai pushed back at these claims at a BBC interview last year, claiming she was no "figure of the West."
If she is not a "figure of the West," why is she letting herself be used in an effort to potentially subject Nigerian girls – and mothers, and boys and their fathers – under US military violence? Before her participating in this naked plot to expand US military presence in Africa, she penned a groveling piece in the pages of TIME celebrating Hillary Clinton. This is the same woman who as senator voted for the annihilation of Iraq, who as secretary of state advocated for regime change in Libya in 2011, and supported the expansion of President Barack Obama’s drone carnage in Pakistan and Yemen. Each time, Clinton’s efforts led to the deaths of girls and women in those countries. Is this really the kind of woman Yousafzai would fete as a "symbol of strength for women across the world"?
Yousafzai declared in an op-ed that the “girls in Nigeria are my sisters," but how about the girls in Iraq and Afghanistan? How about the girls in Yemen who suffered from drone-induced miscarriages? Is this the kind of daily terror she is advocating for in Nigeria? Yousafzai needs to understand that when she asks the US to “save my Nigerian sisters,” what she is really saying is “bomb my Nigerian sisters.” To me, Yousafzai actively selling US imperialism is a lot more offensive than an illustrated image of Yousafzai selling mattresses.
Jayel Aheram is a writer, antiwar and libertarian activist, Iraq War and Marine veteran, and photographer. Follow him on Twitter at @aheram.