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Is Malala really the 'pride of Pakistan'?

The Nobel Prize winner has stolen the global spotlight - but the reaction back home has been different

Alia Soliman , Wednesday 15 Oct 2014
Malala
File photo of Malala Yousafzai arriving for the We Day UK event at Wembley Arena in London March 7, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
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After Malala Yousafzai became the world's youngest Nobel Prize winner last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif hailed her as a "pride" to her country and welcomed her back home.

However, just the next day, the Pakistani Taliban tweeted that it had prepared sharp and shiny knives for her return, calling her a "kafira", or an enemy of Islam.

The fact that Malala can't go back home has left many to believe that she is not appreciated in her own country. While she made the front pages of newspapers all around the world, the news of her achievement was barely mentioned on Pakistani television and the reaction was mixed.

Some Pakistanis believe that the activist – who has fought for women's education in her home country – is part of a western conspiracy to fight the Taliban.

A Pew Centre poll from spring 2014 – months before she won the Nobel Prize – showed that only 20 percent of those surveyed didn't approve of the young campaigner – a number that Omar Waraich, a Pakistani journalist at Time Magazine, says is small enough to debunk the conspiracy theories.

He says that the army, media, government, and political opposition have all since hailed Malala has a hero – and he insists her name deserves to be up there with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

But if she has such broad support, why can't she go back to Pakistan? Most cite Pakistan's security situation for her exile.

The Pakistani government would like to have her back, but it is not safe right now for her, says Mosharaf Zaidi, ex-advisor to Pakistan's foreign affairs minister and the director of Alif Ailaan, a campaign aiming to improve the country's education.

Malala is currently in Birmingham, England, where she has lived since surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban in 2012. The attack came after she was revealed as the writer behind an anonymous BBC blog about education in Pakistan.

In September, the Pakistani army announced the arrest of Mala's attackers – but this isn't enough to allow her to return, as seen from the readiness of the Taliban's tweet last week.

Zaidi says it's not important where she is, though.

"She can fight for education from any part of the world, as she has already done, and she should return to her country only when she and her family feel secure in doing so," he said.

In her native Swat Valley, in northwest Pakistan, hundreds of schools were razed by the Taliban from 2007 to 2009. While militants have mostly been pushed into hideouts in Pakistan's tribal areas, problems still remain.

Some 25 million children aged from five to 16 in Pakistan are out of school, 14 million of them girls, according to Alif Ailaan, the education campaign that Zaidi runs.

Malala
Books about Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, who survived the Taliban's attack, are on display at a book store in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014 (Photo: AP)

In one of many interviews before the assassination attempt, Malala said: "I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I'm afraid of no one."

At a government-run girls' high school in her hometown of Mingora, students are still sitting on the floor – cross-legged on sacks and sheets as there's not enough furniture, as Reuters recently reported.

Teachers at the school are angry – not at Malala herself, but at a world that lavishes attention on her while ignoring the neglect and violence in Swat Valley, Reuters said.

"It's all Malala, Malala, Malala," complained mathematics teacher Saima Khan. "There are hundreds of people who have sacrificed everything and lost everything. No one has given them anything."

But Waraich says that Malala's cause isn't limited to just Swat Valley – or Pakistan, for that matter.

"Malala's cause is global," he said, pointing to how she has lobbied heads of state and governments at the United Nations.

"She doesn't need to be in Pakistan for her voice to resonate across the world," he said.

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