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ARGUMENT

Why Pakistan Hates Malala


The West reveres Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Pakistanis resent and envy
her.
BY MICHAEL KUGELMAN
| AUGUST 15, 2017, 10:16 AM

Pakistani NGO activists hold placards during an event to celebrate the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to
Pakistani child education activist Malala Yousafzai in Islamabad on October 14, 2014. New Nobel peace
laureate Malala Yousafzai wasted little time living up to the accolade last week, inviting the leaders of
traditional foes India and Pakistan to accompany her and fellow winner Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian child
rights activist, to the award ceremony. But, just hours later, a fresh exchange of fire between troops in the
disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir provided a stark reminder that the prospect of lasting peace
remains as distant as ever. AFP PHOTO/ Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR
QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 7, Malala Yousafzai posted her first tweet. Within hours, she had earned
several hundred thousand followers and a warm welcome from the Twittersphere.
Over the next few days, as word emerged on social media that she had recently
graduated from high school and celebrated her 20th birthday, she garnered effusive
praise and hearty congratulations from scores of Twitter users,
including philanthropists, politicians, and entertainers.

The reaction seems only natural, given Malala’s story — her journey from getting shot
in the head as a schoolgirl by a Taliban gunman in 2012, to becoming a Nobel Prize-
winning advocate for female education worldwide, working out of her home in the
United Kingdom since 2013.

And yet, as always, some of her fellow Pakistanis reacted in a starkly different fashion.

Many on Pakistani Twitter decried her as shameful and traitorous. When I posted a
tweet lamenting such characterizations, Pakistanis responded with fresh torrents of
opprobrium for their compatriot. The criticism boiled down to this: There’s nothing
special about Malala. Many Pakistani children suffer worse fates than Malala. What
has Malala ever done for Pakistan? Why does the world love Malala so much? And if
Malala really cares about Pakistan, why doesn’t she come back? The vitriol also
included a bizarre but common conspiracy theory: Her shooting was staged.

To be sure, many Pakistanis admire and embrace Malala. Readers of the Herald, a
Pakistani magazine, voted her person of the year for 2012. In 2014, a Pew
surveyfound that 30 percent of respondents had a favorable view of her (a relatively
low figure, but still higher than the 20 percent with unfavorable views).

But Malala is no national hero. Revered by many abroad, she is reviled by many at
home, including among middle-class Pakistanis one might imagine would be her
greatest fans.

In media interviews over the last few years, Pakistanis of various stripes — students,
traders, shop owners, journalists, housewives, and even rights activists
— have registered their disapproval of Malala. Such disapproval occasionally takes
more organized form: In November 2014, just a month after she was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation — which claimed to
represent 150,000 schools — announced an “I Am Not Malala” day and called for her
memoir, I Am Malala, to be banned. Enmity even emanates from her own
community. In May, a Pakistani parliamentarian from Swat, Malala’s home
region, said the attack was preplanned and staged by a variety of players — and with
official Pakistani government connivance no less. And her best-selling book hasn’t
exactly flown off the shelves across Pakistan (though admittedly some bookstores
have refused to sell it because of threats from the Taliban and urgings from local
police).

On one level, such sentiment owes to the power of conspiracy theories, which a
Pakistani journalist once quipped represent the country’s only growth industry.
On one level, such sentiment owes to the power
of conspiracy theories, which a Pakistani
journalist once quippedrepresent the country’s
only growth industry.
They’re ubiquitous in Pakistan, where they’re seen in school textbooks and
heard in religious sermons and on prime-time television shows. Partially
that’s the power of extremism, and a byproduct of a poor education system.
But the reality of national politics also plays a role. Opaque institutions, such
as the powerful military, have a big hand in shaping the nation’s fate, and
major policies — including, most recently, the China-Pakistan Economic
Corridor — are often executed with little transparency. At the same time,
government and military officials frequently assign blame for a range public
policy problems — from water shortages to militancy — to outside forces. In
an environment where information is often scarce and blame games are
routine, conspiracies breed.
In 2013, the website of Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper that caters to the country’s
English-speaking, well-educated elite, published a savagely satirical blog post on
Malala’s shooting. It “revealed” how a CIA mission orchestrated the shooting. The
triggerman? American actor Robert De Niro (“posing as an Uzbek homeopath”). Such
are the depths of the power of conspiracy theories in Pakistan that some readers
actually believed this absurd tale. Dawn had to add a caveat that the piece was
fictitious.

Pakistan’s middle class — a rapidly growing demographic given to conservative, anti-


American views — is the top conjurer and consumer of such conspiracies. But others,
including some members of the political elite and even Pakistani-Americans, embrace
them too. A young, well-educated member of the Pakistani diaspora — born and
raised in America — once looked me in the eye and insisted the CIA, not the Taliban,
shot Malala.

The implication is clear: If you believe the attack on Malala was staged, then you have
no reason to respect her, much less revere her.

Conspiratorial thinking about Malala is strengthened by Pakistanis’ deep mistrust of


the West, where she is now based. Many suspect it of harboring designs on their
country. This perception, to be fair, is at least somewhat valid. The CIA, as detailed in
Mark Mazzetti’s book The Way of the Knife, has enjoyed an extensive role in Pakistan
— perhaps captured most vividly by its enlisting of a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to
launch a fake vaccination campaign in the effort to track down Osama bin Laden.
Little surprise, then, that many Pakistanis contend that the West — through its strong
embrace of Malala and the allegedly unlimited access it grants her to prominent
platforms and top power corridors — is using her for its own purposes, whatever they
may be.

The disclosure in 2013 that Malala’s family had retained Edelman, a top American
public relations firm, to assist with her media management has only heightened these
suspicions. So have the views of Malala and her father, Ziauddin, which align with
many in the West. Ziauddin has been associated with the Awami National Party, a
leftist and secular political party in a conservative and deeply religious country. Even
before Malala was shot, they were both championing girls’ education. Malala was also
writing blogs (albeit anonymously) for the BBC and giving interviews to the New York
Times (she was the subject of a gripping 2009 Times documentary film). The core
themes in the messaging of Malala and her father in those earlier times — opposition
to the Taliban and the importance of educational opportunities for girls — resonated
in the West, and to a significant extent in Pakistan as well. However, in a conservative
and patriarchal society like Pakistan’s, such views nonetheless displeased many. The
fact that these opinions were imparted to prominent Western publications likely
attracted suspicion as well.

Tellingly, a Taliban commander later claimed in an open letter to Malala that his
organization targeted her not because of her education advocacy, but rather her anti-
Taliban “propaganda.”

Pakistanis’ conspiratorial thinking is so powerful that Malala’s actual work and


messaging, much of which serves Pakistan in the most concrete and unglamorous of
ways, is conveniently disregarded. The Malala Fund oversees several programs in
Pakistan. According to the fund’s website, these include providing educational
opportunities to girls that had been domestic laborers; establishing educational
programming for children fleeing conflict; and repairing classrooms and providing
school supplies for girls’ schools affected by flooding. In January, the Malala Fund
announced a new $10 million initiative to invest in local education advocacy
programs around the world, including in Pakistan. One of Malala’s first
tweets declared: “I’m proud to be Pashtun, Pakistani and Muslim.” She has said she
hopes to one day become Pakistan’s prime minister, and that she will always love
Pakistan even if Pakistanis hate her. She has even condemned the American drone
strikes — a grievance, ironically, harbored by the same urban, middle-class Pakistanis
who accuse her of espousing anti-Pakistan positions.

And yet, there’s more to this story than conspiracies. For all the talk of anti-Malala
sentiment being the product of delusional thinking, such hostility can also be
explained by a basic and ugly truth: Pakistan’s lack of upward mobility and rigid class
divides.

In Pakistan, upward mobility is a very tall order. The poor struggle mightily to escape
to prosperity. According to a 2015 study by Oxfam and the Lahore University of
Management Sciences, 40 percent of the Pakistani children in the lowest economic
quintile are expected to remain there for life. This entrenched inequality is easy to
understand. For many poor Pakistanis, access to two key resources needed to escape
poverty— education and land—is elusive. Nearly 60 percent of Pakistan’s poorest kids
are not in school, and 70 percent of Pakistan’s rural poor are landless.

Pakistan has few rags-to-riches tales; it’s not a nation overflowing with Horatio Alger
stories. There are exceptions; witness Jamshed Dasti, who famously escaped
poverty to become a legislator in a nation where wealth and family connections are
the tickets to political success. Yet Dasti is the exception to the norm. To be sure,
rapid urbanization has generated new jobs away from the impoverished countryside
and enabled more and more poor Pakistanis to graduate into the middle class. Still,
climbing all the way up the ladder to the ranks of the upper class remains a highly
difficult feat to pull off.

And yet Malala bucked the trend and rose to the very top, from schoolteacher’s
daughter to embodiment of the global elite.

And yet Malala bucked the trend and rose to the


very top, from schoolteacher’s daughter to
embodiment of the global elite.
True, Malala was not living in abject poverty in her early years; her
father owned a school and was an English-speaking activist. Additionally, she
enjoyed the privilege of strong connections to the Western media; she was
writing for the BBC, after all, even before she was shot. Still, she’s in a far
different place today — both literally and figuratively — than she was five
years ago.
Pakistanis aren’t used to seeing this type of transformation — and particularly one
that happens so quickly. And so, this disorienting reality provokes a range of
responses. For some, it’s admiration. For others, it’s jealousy. For still others, it’s
skepticism, suspicion, and outright hostility. As Aamer Raza, an assistant professor at
the University of Peshawar, recently put it to me, “Maybe the perceived repeated
failure of people to climb the social ladder … make[s] people distrustful of people who
become rich soon without visible reasons like a sporting or performing arts career.”

Additionally, in a deeply patriarchal society, Malala’s gender raises even more


suspicion about her transformation. A male Malala would be far more likely to be
welcomed as a hero, not slated as a traitor.

This all may help explain why some of Malala’s most vociferous supporters in
Pakistan come from the privileged classes (though to be sure, she has some poor
admirers and wealthy detractors). They see Malala as an unadulterated success story,
a brave young woman who survived tragedy to do great and inspiring things. For
them, barriers to upward mobility don’t exist, and so they have no need to feel jealous
or hostile if someone manages to surmount barriers that so many Pakistanis view as
insurmountable. For middle-class Pakistanis, some of whom may have risen from
poverty but are in no position to make the bigger leap to affluence and global
prominence, the tendency to feel aggrieved is so much stronger.

Malala personifies what is admirable about Pakistan and its people: youth, resilience,
bravery, and patriotism. But her story also holds up a mirror to the country’s dark
side, not just in terms of terrorism, misogyny, and conspiracy-mongering, but also its
deep class divides and the sharply divergent worldviews generated by such fissures.

This is the Pakistan to which Malala hopes to one day return: a complex and divided
nation where somebody’s hero is often somebody else’s villain.