The Other Malala: Drone Victim Nabila Rehman
I teach a master’s level class on international human rights. The other day we were discussing the brilliant new (2013) book by Alison Brysk, Speaking Rights to Power, which analyzes how you can get particular human rights abuses on the international agenda. One way is to have an appealing symbol of a human rights cause, and in that connection the name of Malala Yousafzai came up. Malala is the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was deliberately targeted and shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago (2012) because she was a vocal defender of girls’ right to education. Malala was brought to Britain for free medical treatment and now goes to school there.
Everyone knows of Malala. She won the 2013 European Union Sakharov Prize (named after the famed Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov), and was nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. She’s a heroine of the international movements for girls’ rights and the right to education. And so she should be. I have no patience with people who say she’s only a heroine because she fits in with the “Western” anti-Taliban narrative. Plenty of people in Pakistan detest the Taliban, as do people in Afghanistan. The Taliban use violence to subordinate women to men.
But as one of my students pointed out in class, there is a certain selectivity in lionizing Malala and not even noticing other Pakistani girls who suffer, especially girls who suffer because of US foreign policy. One policy that has a lot of human rights activists worried nowadays is the US use of drones to kill alleged terrorists in Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries.
|Nabila Rehman- Wiki Commons|
On October 24, 2012, eight-year-old Nabila Rehman was in a field in North Waziristan, an area suspected to harbor many Taliban terrorists, with her grandmother Momina Bibi, a midwife. Ms. Bibi was teaching Nabila how to recognize when okra were ripe enough to pick. Suddenly a US drone appeared overhead, there was a dreadful noise and a flash of two lights, and Ms. Bibi was dead. Nabila and her older brother Zubair were injured, Zubair quite seriously; their younger sister lost some of her hearing. And there was no free medical care for Nabila and her injured brother, as there had been for Malala. Like many other children in the region, Zubair no longer wants to go outside, even to play cricket. Many children in the region can’t sleep because of fear of drone attacks.
In October 2013 Nabila Rehman visited the US Congress with Zubair and her father, a teacher. The visit was organized in part by a British non-governmental organization called Reprieve. Her lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, who represents many victims of US drone attacks and is a director of a Pakistani human rights group called Foundation for Fundamental Freedoms, was not allowed to accompany them. The visit was organized by a Democrat US Congressman, Alan Grayson, but only he and four other Democrats showed up to hear Nabila speak.
|Speaking Rights to Power- Wiki Commons|
So why isn’t the world paying more attention to Nabila Rehman? According to Alison Brysk’s analysis, social movements need to have voices. Witnesses are one such voice, and Nabila is certainly a moving witness; even her translator was in tears when she visited Congress. Brysk also says human rights movements need to cultivate audiences, learn how to use mass media, and learn how to “perform” a human rights narrative. There’s lots of information about Nabila and her family on the Internet, but the audience seems to still be pretty small. The performance in the US Congress failed, because hardly anyone showed up.
Finally, Brysk says that human rights abuses get attention when they resonate with past acts that we know are wrong. Murder is wrong, but the US counters allegations of murder in Pakistan by claiming that drones are a much more efficient way of ridding the world of terrorists than, for example, a ground attack where many more civilians would be killed. You need a “frame” to make a human rights abuse stand out, but the frame of the US “war on terrorism” is much more powerful than the frame of “child victim of US policy.”
I think my student is right: even if there is every reason to admire Malala, other Pakistani girls, killed by the US rather than by the Taliban, deserve just as much sympathy and support. Nabila is one such girl.