Malala Yousafzai: Why the global hero is scorned in Pakistan

Malala's Western connections are increasingly being viewed through a conspiratorial lens.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
In this Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, photo, Pakistani girls gather under a poster of Malala Yousafzai in her old school in Mingora, Swat Valley, Pakistan. The giant poster of her that once emblazoned the wall of the assembly hall has been removed. While Malala is a global icon for her courageous defense of the right for girls to attend school, at home her star is viewed more dimly.

Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban – is publishing her autobiography worldwide today and may cap the week by becoming the youngest winner ever of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet while Malala is a global icon for her courageous defense of the right for girls to attend school, at home her star is viewed more dimly.

Anti-Malala material has popped up in Pakistan through social media – a Facebook page called "I Hate Malala" originated in Pakistan. Images of the teenager with Western leaders have been circulated with rumors that the leaders are Malala's CIA connections. The Pakistani Taliban, meanwhile, has said it would target her again if she returned to her home country.

“As soon as Malala was taken abroad to the UK and celebrated there and worldwide, she became a villain in Pakistan because … people in Pakistan who peddle theories about the West being an enemy said that since Malala also joined them, she could not be a friend anymore,” says Fahd Husain, the anchor of a leading Pakistani news channel.

“If for example she had been taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment and became the voice against the Taliban from there, the reaction would have been much different,” he says.

Although Pakistan and the US are allies in name, the Taliban enjoys continued support in some pockets of the Pakistani population and public opinion polls show consistently high anti-American sentiment. A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that 74 percent of Pakistanis considered America an enemy, up from 69 percent the year before. 

Bushra Gohar, a former lawmaker who belongs to one of the few secular political parties, says public perception is influenced by the fact that many Pakistanis don’t consider the Taliban an enemy. Rather, the state is viewed as providing tacit support to the group.

“Pakistani state elements, of which the military is the most powerful, continue to give shelter to the Taliban in Waziristan, in Punjab, and elsewhere in Pakistan – and to protect that policy, they propagate a narrative that supports these elements,” she says. “Hence the Taliban are friends of the state while Malala, who challenges that narrative, an enemy.” 

The Pakistani government condemned the Oct. 9, 2012, attack on Malala and gave $10 million to the Malala Fund created to send girls in Pakistan to school. The fund is currently paying for the education of 40 girls in the Swat Valley, where Malala lived before the attack. 

Education experts warn that the international attention should not gloss over the state of education in Pakistan: More than 5 million school-age girls are not getting any education, and there continue to be far more schools for boys than for girls. In the Swat Valley, for instance, there are 717 primary schools for boys compared with 425 for girls, according to official figures.

For some, Malala’s dream for educating girls in her own country remains far from being fulfilled. 

Samar Minallah, a documentary filmmaker and human rights activist, has worked on women and children issues in the Pakistani tribal belt, where the Pakistani Taliban are headquartered. She says that while Malala’s struggle raised awareness worldwide about the need for girls’ education, the attention has only led to cosmetic changes and a larger effort is needed to change the minds of Pakistanis about the importance of education.

“There are many areas in the country without schools, girls are still being given away as compensation to settle disputes between families and the curriculum taught in schools continues to teach hatred to children," she says.

“In Pakistan, girls cannot relate to Malala because there is still genuine fear in the society which has not been addressed. There is a lot more talk than action,” she says, referring to her recent trip to Malala’s hometown, where she met with schoolgirls who were reluctant to be interviewed.

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