Malala Was Wrong: Feminism, Progress & Education

Deconstructing the narrative of education by those who rally around Malala Yousafzai in favor of a more consistent feminist, progressive perspective.

Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel Prize laureate who came to prominence as a result of her activism in Pakistan, which was centered on allowing the admission of females into state schools. Although this does give an appearance of progress and equality, there are many unexamined issues buried in this narrative. No doubt that Malala herself was an admirable and brave young woman who was fighting systematic misogyny. However the type of progressives in the west who made her a saint of secularism and female empowerment must ignore the very basic tenets of feminism to come to such conclusions about education themselves.

Equality & Personal Agency

If asked to define feminism most people who identify thusly or are sympathetic to that ideology would probably give you an answer that centered around equality. While I would not call that flat out wrong, it lacks any nuance and does not get to the specific reasons why equality is important, nor even what equality means. To do this we must examine the conditions present when feminism arose.

In the western world that means understanding the religious ideologies of Christianity that influenced social and political forms. What is most important to understand is that women (and children, non-whites, etc.) were considered to be literally devoid of will. Since it was widely believed that there was no female agency, women were not given equal consideration as individuals or political entities. They were limited or outright restricted from the privileges and protections that the state granted to men, and were also often treated like secondary citizens in their own homes and communities.

Institutionalized inequality was therefore a symptom or byproduct of the denial of female agency. Early feminists considered the acknowledgement and consideration of personal agency to be a central force of their ideology. As such many of the early feminists were also opponents of nation statism, as it was viewed as an intrusion on the personal agency of everyone, and was where patriarchal power had been organizing itself for thousands of years.

Today many feminist narratives focus on equality within the nation state. Because this violates the central ethic of feminism, personal agency, it should instead be called womenism. Womenists want patriarchy to work equally for everyone, where feminists want to end centralized authority altogether. Womenism is often little more than female festishism celebrated with endless signaling, which is a strong violation of feminist ideas about objectification. Setting womenism ideas aside, lets see what feminist ideas about personal agency look like when applied to compulsory state schooling.

Schooling as we know it is an essentially conformity-producing institution. Standardization of subjects, curriculum and perspective all combine to create a product whose intent is to achieve like-mindedness. When others decide what the contents of your mind must contain, you have been denied your personal agency.

This is where many might argue that the value of the knowledge prescribed takes precedence over personal agency. Not only do I find this stance presumptive and authoritarian, I find it self-refuting. For any knowledge to be valuable it must remain so outside of acts of aggression. If the value of knowledge requires it to be upheld by force, then education is nothing more than might makes right.

However if we dig even further we find that justifications for education based on the primacy of knowledge are themselves predicated on patriarchal thinking that feminism has already addressed on numerous occasions.