By Rafia Zakaria
By Last Thursday, a young woman named Nadia Murad became the first Yazidi woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Murad, who documented her escape from Daesh in the best-selling book “The Last Girl,” was recognized for her incredible courage and bravery.
In the years since her 2014 escape, Murad has testified before the United Nations, the European Commission of Human Rights and spoken to people from all over the world. In each address, as in her book, Murad describes the horrors she had experienced at the hands of her captives and what it took to escape alive when so many others could not.
This is not the first time that a young woman, attacked and threatened by militants, has been awarded the Nobel. In 2014, the prize was conferred upon Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai for her courage in defying the Tehreek-e-Taliban militant group. Unlike Murad, who, along with the rest of the Yazidi community, was taken captive, Malala was shot in the head as she returned home from school one day. It was a targeted attack — the shooters had asked for the then 12-year-old by name before pulling the trigger on her face. They knew that her father was a well-known educator and the attack was the culmination of long-issued threats against his continued efforts to promote education in the Swat Valley.
In comparison, Murad, who is older than Malala and hails from the Sinjar Valley in Iraq, had no trouble obtaining an education. Her trial would come later at the hands of Daesh, who overtook the valley and declared all Yazidis as infidels. While all the Yazidi men were killed, the young women were awarded to Daesh fighters as war spoils.
Also like Malala, Murad has had to endure the pain of exile. After her attack, Malala, who was in a coma as a result of being shot directly in her brain, was air-lifted to London where she remained in hospital until 2017, following which she was finally able to return to Pakistan. Murad had to leave too, even though the recent recapture of Sinjar and surrounding areas by Iraqi and American forces has made it possible for her to return.
Despite the similarities, one hopes that Murad’s future is different from that of Malala’s. While one would expect that a young girl who exhibited such poise and courage in the face of adversity would be valued and venerated by her country, the opposite is the case for Malala.
Since the day she left Pakistan for the United Kingdom, and particularly after she won the Nobel Peace Prize, millions of Pakistanis began to criticize and castigate Malala as a “foreign agent,” a traitor insistent on making Pakistan look bad on the international stage and someone who was acting against the interests of the country.
In simple terms, the country that she loved so much refused to accept her victory as their victory and hail her as an unequivocal heroine. Anti-Malala posters began to be sold in markets in Peshawar, appearing on streets and plastered on the back of trucks. Pakistanis, battered as they were by terrorist attacks themselves, could not laud one of their own for fighting the fight that they too were fighting, with the general sentiment being — if we are doing it without a Nobel and without recognition, how dare Malala get a special mention for the same cause?
And yet, that is not the only misfortune endured by Malala. Recognized now as a global figure, she is bound by it, too. In one recent example, Pakistanis launched a diatribe of insults when a photograph of her dressed in an outfit other than the traditional gear that Pakistani women sport circulated on social media.
The clothes which Malala was wearing in the photograph, taken at Oxford University which she now attends, were entirely appropriate. The question remains whether the effort to shame her emerged from a real quibble or from the desire to keep her trapped in a single image?
Since then, Malala has only made public appearances in the traditional shalwar kameez. In this sense, while she may be wealthy and powerful, Malala can never quite be free, can never quite be anonymous or in charge of constructing her own identity.
That, then, may be the final tragedy for the young Nobel laureate, despite surviving the attack and being branded by her own country as a traitor and a spy.
Based on what Malala has had to endure, few may dare to construct themselves into something different than they hope to be. For Malala, honored for her courage as a girl, this has meant that she must remain frozen in time as just another teenager.
At least in this case, Murad may be better off. Already a young woman, she may have better luck and a little more freedom, not just to be who she is today, but who she wants to be tomorrow.
– Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.