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Malala – loved abroad, maligned at home

Shamil Shams
March 29, 2018

Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai has returned to Pakistan for the first time since she was shot by the Taliban in 2012. DW examines why Malala – loved around the world – is not so popular in her home country.

Malala Yousafzai
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is currently on a four-day visit to Pakistan. She held talks with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Thursday and was expected to meet with other government officials and civil society representatives during her stay in her home country. But much of her engagements in Pakistan have been kept secret because of security risks, local media said.

Although many of those who attacked Malala in 2012 are behind bars, her life could still be in danger due to potential threats from Islamists. Also, right-wing groups in Pakistan oppose her vehemently.

The 20-year-old delivers lectures all over the world advocating the right to education for girls, but it took her almost six years to return to her own country. Pakistan is still unsafe for Malala and the massive level of security arranged for her is a testimony to the fact.

A global icon

Malala was shot by militants in October 2012 in the Swat valley of Pakistan's restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said in a statement that Malala had been attacked for promoting "secularism" in the country. After receiving initial medical treatment in Pakistan, Malala was sent to the United Kingdom where she now resides with her family.

Before being shot, Malala had been campaigning for girls' right to education in Swat and was a vocal critic of Islamic extremists. She was praised internationally for writing about the Taliban atrocities in a BBC Urdu service blog.

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan (AP Photo/Ishtiaq Mahsud, File)
Taliban have vowed to attack Malala againImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Malala has come a long way since then. She has now become an international icon of resistance, empowerment of women and right to education, and has received numerous awards, including the European Union's prestigious Sakharov human righths prize. She was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

But in her own country, she is looked down upon by many, who accuse her of being a US agent, set out to malign Pakistan and Islam.

Read more: Malala Yousafzai joins Twitter to global fanfare and Pakistan censure

A polarizing figure

Last year, Malala was named as the UN Messenger of Peace. At a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave Malala the top award, saying he was inspired by her "unwavering commitment to peace" and "resolve to foster a better world."

In her speech, the women's rights activist didn't forget to mention her country, where she was shot and wounded by the Taliban. She expressed her love for Pakistan and insisted that the South Asian country not be considered extremist.

"I want people to know that I represent Pakistan, not the extremists, not the terrorists. They are not Pakistan," Malala said.

But do Pakistanis also believe that Malala Yousafzai represents their country?

"Girls like Malala symbolize defiance, and there are many in Pakistan who don't like that, especially if it comes from a female," Karachi-based journalist and documentary filmmaker Sabin Agha told DW.

Malala with German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Malala with German Chancellor Angela MerkelImage: dpa

Despite the fact that liberals hail Malala as a symbol of pride for the country, she has become an extremely divisive figure in Pakistan. A majority of conservatives allege that she is working against Islam and Pakistan's sovereignty.

Many in Pakistan believe that local and international media are unnecessarily creating hype around the young activist. Right-wing parties claim that the "campaign" to promote Malala is proof that there is an "international lobby" behind the whole issue.

"I don't think that Malala deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. I think there were more deserving people in Pakistan who should have been given the award," Karachi-based Shiite activist Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi told DW. "Just because she (Malala) got shot by the Taliban does not make her worthy of these prizes," he added.

The mindset

Supporters of the Pakistani Nobel peace laureate say the "Malala haters" are running a smear campaign against the 20-year-old. They argue that until the mindset of the people is changed, Malala can't live permanently in Pakistan.

"Malala has been portrayed as a western agent in Pakistan — a country brimming with anti-West sentiment. Anyone seen as pro-West in the country becomes a target for scorn, ridicule, hatred, and even violence," Farooq Sulehria, a UK-based researcher and activist, told DW.

Read more: Taliban's criticism of Malala 'reflects a mindset'

Filmmaker Agha insists the issue is not just about Malala but the overall situation of women's rights in Pakistan.

"Isn't it ironic that Pakistan is considered a safe place for national and international terrorists but not for its own female population?" Agha asked. "We have to change this scenario, and also the patriarchal mindset which supports violence against women."

Malala Yousafzai as the youngest Messenger of Peace

Pakistan 'still not safe' for Malala

In 2013, the Pakistani military announced the arrest of the men suspected of trying to kill Malala. But experts say the fact that some of her attackers are now in the military's custody won't make the country any safer for her.

"A country which cannot guarantee the safety of its former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — who was assassinated during a public rally in the city of Rawalpindi in 2007 — cannot protect Malala or any other activist critical of the Taliban," Sulehria underlined.

Agha says that Pakistan is still not a safe place for rights activists, government and military critics, as well as journalists: "In the past, the army had conducted many operations against the terrorists; however, we have not seen the level of violence go down."

Many analysts and activists accuse Pakistan's powerful military of backing a number of militant Islamist groups to be used as proxies in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir. The Trump administration in the US has cut much of its military aid to Pakistan until the Islamic country's army takes decisive action against Islamists. Pakistan denies it is aiding militant groups.

Malala Yousafzai visits a refugee camp in Mosul

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