Malala, Hailed Around The World, Controversial At Home
Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani activist, is among the five winners of the 2013 United Nations Human Rights Prize, an award that is only made every five years and was once won by Nelson Mandela. She receives the prize Tuesday in a ceremony at U.N. Headquarters in New York.
This addition to the swelling list of prizes held by Malala underscores the dramatic extent to which the teenager's life has changed since she was shot in the head by the Taliban in an attempt to silence her demand for all children to have access to education, especially girls.
Malala has become one of the most influential voices for human rights in the world: She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; she has published an autobiography, and been feted by celebrities far and wide, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
But, while she is widely viewed as a heroine in the West, Malala is the subject of fierce debate in Pakistan. As one commentator there put it, Malala "has become a battleground on which an ideological battle is being fought by conservative-fundamentalist and liberal-secular forces."
From Favorite Daughter To Subject Of Criticism
Malala was shot in October 2012, as she was leaving school in the city of Mingora in northwest Pakistan's Swat Valley. After being treated by Pakistani military doctors in Peshawar, she was flown to hospital in England. Since then, she and her family have lived in the United Kingdom — not least because the Taliban threaten to kill her if she returns home.
Back in Mingora, her hometown, says veteran Swat journalist Shazad Alam, attitudes to Malala have changed.
"People here in Swat used to have a lot of love and affection for her, but after she moved to England, they started hating her," he says, as he sits in the garden of the Swat Press Club.
He says the resentment directed at Malala became particularly evident last year when local officials tried to rename a girls' college after Malala.
"For the first time ever here, girls protested," he says. "They took to the street. They broke the big sign which had Malala's name on it, and threw mud at her picture."
In the end, the school's name didn't change.
Ahmed Shah is a close friend of Malala's family and, like her father, is a well-known peace activist in Swat. He says Malala has many supporters, including those who view her as a highly effective ambassador for Pakistan who is presenting a much-needed "soft image" of a country better known in the outside world for extremism and conflict.
Shah believes Malala's detractors in Swat are a small minority, but adds: "They are very powerful, extremist elements. They supported Taliban, they are inspired by those people, and they are very much against Malala."
A few months back, Malala's autobiography, I Am Malala,was published in English, and became a best-seller in the U.S. and elsewhere. The book, written with British journalist Christina Lamb, is on sale in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
In Swat, it is being criticized by the religious right, although Shah believes few people in the valley have read it. He says local bookstores will not stock it "because of fear," as the Taliban is threatening to target booksellers.
That fear is evident on the streets of Mingora. In a brief tour of a market area, NPR found people generally reluctant to talk about their city's most famous daughter, and nervous when her name was mentioned.
Malala's fame is the subject of much debate among Pakistanis. Some express unease over the fact that she is shining a spotlight on Pakistan's dismal failure to educate a multitude of its children, especially girls. Wild conspiracy theories have flown around the Internet, portraying Malala and her father as puppets of the West — even CIA agents.
Malala's cousin, Maqsood ul Hassan, finds it difficult when he hears people in Swat being so critical of her.
"I find it painful to see such negative attitudes," he says. "Whenever anyone says anything negative about Malala in front of us, we tell them it's not really like that."
Hassan blames resentment of Malala on basic human nature.
"It's in the heart of human beings. People around here are envious of the fame and respect that Malala received," he says. "There's no other term for it, except jealousy."
What Does Malala Actually Believe?
But some Pakistanis who admire Malala — and strongly support her message asserting the right of all children to an education — are raising questions about the position in which Malala now finds herself.
Mahvish Ahmad is a rights activist and journalist.
"I think the major question for me is what does Malala actually think? What does she actually believe?" Ahmad says.
"She is a 16-year-old girl. A lot of us remember that when we were 14, 15, 16 years old, we were still developing our own political opinions, trying to figure out what we actually believe in," she says.
Some Pakistanis believe that by championing Malala, the West is focusing on the Taliban's crimes and diverting attention away from its own abuses, including deadly drone attacks that sometimes kill civilians, says Farzana Bari, a civil society activist.
"(The) West's trying to take attention away particularly from what Americans are doing in our part of the world, policies that are completely violating human rights in our part of the world," she says.
Bari, who knows Malala, says people should guard against projecting their values on Malala, before the 16-year-old has had a chance to figure out her own: "She's a young woman. She's growing up. You know, she's 16 years old, you know. She's still a child."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.