In 2009, when she was 11 years old, Malala Yousafzai took up the cause of the right to education for girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Over the next two years, as she grew into a teenager, her ideas also gained influence. From championing girls’ education in Swat, she took up the bigger challenge of advocating for education for all children across Pakistan — and in later years even on a global scale.
Today most people think of Malala, one of two recipients of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, as an anti-terrorism icon. On Oct. 9, 2012, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants shot her in the face for demanding the universal human right to education. Threats and violence have silenced even the most vocal rights activists, but Malala was unfazed. Her courage is extraordinary, but this violent act by the TTP should not have transformed her into a champion for anti-extremism. The truth is that Malala’s fight has always stood for education.
But this is just one of the many confusions regarding Malala, the youngest Nobel laureate in history. Another puzzling claim about her public role is that Pakistanis allegedly despise her. If she stands for the betterment of Pakistan by promoting education, the worry goes, why is she hated in her native country, as so many Pakistani and international news reports have claimed?
The truth is far more complex and has more to say about Pakistan than about Malala. First of all, the claim that she is widely hated in Pakistan is incorrect. When she was first nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, more than 2,000 people were asked their opinion about the nomination, and 44 percent of respondents said they were pleased, 44 percent were on the fence, and only 11 percent were displeased.
Similarly, at the end of 2012, Pakistan’s Herald magazine, in partnership with Dawn, the country’s most widely circulated English newspaper, conducted a poll to determine its person of the year. Malala received the most votes, 30 percent of the total, and won the award. By this point, she had also been awarded two national awards, including the Sitara-e-Shujaat, Pakistan's third-highest civilian bravery honor.
Surveys often fail to encapsulate the sentiments of the average Pakistani, but they provide better evidence than the rants of Pakistan’s conservative middle class that proliferate on social media and of right-wing news anchors that crowd the airwaves on Pakistani television. This is not to say that everyone in Pakistan reveres her either. There are segments in our society that regard her as worthless. There are even those who are ashamed of and angered by her. But this does not negate the swaths of Pakistanis who stand behind her; there are many who are thankful that a girl has had the courage to live out her unselfish dream.
So what is responsible for the conflicted feelings that Malala generates in Pakistanis? To be sure, Pakistani perceptions of her changed after the TTP attack. Through no fault of her own, she was blamed for revealing to the world how powerful the TTP was in certain areas of Pakistan. While some Pakistanis considered this revelation valuable and necessary, others viewed it as a national affront. Pakistani commentators accused her of shaming the country by airing its dirty linen in public. It is extraordinary that Pakistan’s urban middle class, which is so proud of its free media, objected to that free media’s revealing the problems of Pakistani society.
Public outrage against Malala began to grow from there. Right-wing commentators and conservatives in the urban middle class claimed she is an agent of the West. To some degree, the situation worsened after the release of her 2013 autobiography, “I Am Malala.” Critics claimed that the book, which was banned by private schools across the country, proved that she was against Islamic laws and wrote like a Westerner. In The Herald’s subsequent person of the year poll, Malala came in third. It must be noted, however, that in a 2014 Pew Research poll, 30 percent of the nation still held a favorable opinion of her activism for girls’ education, 51 percent had no opinion, and only 20 percent held a negative view.
As she became more prominent and had contact with world leaders, including President Barack Obama, some Pakistanis asked why she fraternized with those responsible for drone attacks. They, of course, overlooked the fact that when Malala met Obama in the White House last year, she challenged U.S. drone policy. “Drones fuel terrorism,” she told the president face to face. This was a public statement that even the most seasoned Pakistani politicians have not had the courage to make when they visited the White House.
The ultimate problem, it appears, is the inability of Pakistanis to distinguish between Malala’s brave resolve to fight for what she believes in and the Western accolades she has received for displaying this courage. The segments of Pakistani society that hate her are the ones that are willing to divorce themselves from her because their anti-West sentiments disallow them to trust her. Their base logic is that the enemy’s friend is my enemy.
In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Malala said that she will continue to love Pakistan even if its people hate her. If Pakistan distances itself from Malala, however, we Pakistanis will be the ones who lose yet another hero. The fact that U.S. leaders and other perceived agents of imperialism are attempting to co-opt her should not diminish her worth. In these times when heroes and heroines are few and far between, Malala is a true champion, and Pakistan should hold on to her.