Celebrated abroad, Pakistani girl faces skepticism at home
Malala Yousafzai’s stature as an icon of peace and bravery has been established across the world — everywhere, it seems, except at home in Pakistan.
The New York Times
SWAT VALLEY, Pakistan — The question for the class of 10th-graders at an all-girls school in picturesque Swat Valley was a simple one: How many of them, a district official wanted to know, had heard of Malala Yousafzai?
The students stared at the official, Farrukh Atiq, in silence. Not a single hand was raised.
“Everyone knows about Malala, but they do not want to affiliate with her,” Atiq said Thursday, as speculation grew that Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago, might win the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the end, she did not win the Nobel Prize. That went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its work in Syria. But after a week of intense news coverage, during which she released her memoir, won a prestigious European award for human rights and met with President Obama at the White House (She was in Washington, D.C., to speak at two events), Yousafzai’s stature as an icon of peace and bravery has been established across the world — everywhere, it seems, except at home.
It is not just that the schoolchildren fear becoming targets, though that is certainly an element in their caution.
“I am against Malala,” said Muhammad Ayaz, 22, a trader who runs a store beside Yousafzai’s old school in Mingora, the main town in the Swat Valley. “The media has projected Malala as a heroine of the West. But what has she done for Swat?”
That sense of animosity toward Yousafzai, 16, in the Swat Valley — which she left aboard a military helicopter for treatment last year after being shot — seems to be motivated in part by the tensions of a rural community still traumatized by conflict.
Although the Pakistan army forced the Taliban from Swat during a major operation in 2009, pockets of militants remain, occasionally striking against soldiers or such activists as Yousafzai.
Many residents fear the Islamists could return to power in the valley, an anxiety that, paradoxically, has stoked simmering hostility toward the militants’ most famous victim.
“What is her contribution?” said Khursheed Dada, a worker with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party that governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which includes Swat.
That cynicism was echoed across Pakistan this week, where conspiracy-minded citizens branded Yousafzai a CIA stooge, part of a nebulous Western plot to humiliate their country and pressure their government.
Muhammad Asim, a student standing near Punjab University in the eastern city of Lahore, dismissed the Taliban attack on Yousafzai as a made-for-TV drama. “How can a girl survive after being shot in the head?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
The backlash seemed to stem from different places: sensitivity at Western hectoring, a confused narrative about the Taliban, and a sense of resentment or downright jealousy.
In Swat, some accused Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin, of using his precocious daughter to drum up publicity and of maligning Pashtun culture. Others said the publicity had cast their district in a negative light, overshadowing the good work of other Pakistanis in education.
Dilshad Begum, the district education officer for Swat, said 14,000 girls and 17,000 boys had recently started school after an intensive door-to-door enrollment campaign led by local teachers. The threat from the Taliban was exaggerated, she added.
“I have been working for female education for 25 years and never received a threat,” she said.
Even fellow students seemed to resent the recognition Yousafzai has received. At another school, a group of female students, assembled by their headmaster, agreed Yousafzai did not deserve a Nobel Prize.
“Malala is not the only role model for Pakistani girls,” said Kainat Ali, 16, who wore a black burqa.
Not all Pakistanis joined in the criticism. Many expressed pride in the bravery of their most famous teenager, who has taken tea with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace and received a standing ovation at the United Nations.
After the Nobel winner was announced, some openly expressed disappointment. In Swat, Shahid Iqbal, a music and movie store owner, said Yousafzai had made their district proud. “Malala is our daughter. She should have won the Nobel,” he said.
Yousafzai, for her part, has the consolation of knowing that her message of education for girls resounds across the world. When the Taliban gunman boarded her bus in October 2012, he called out “Who is Malala?” Now, as she noted in an interview this week, her voice is heard “in every corner of the world.”
Yet she insists that, come what may, Pakistan will always be her home. “Even if its people hate me,” she said in one interview, “I will still love it.”