Asia

The antagonism towards Malala in Pakistan

  • 10 October 2014
  • From the section Asia
Malala Yousafzai Image copyright AFP

Winning any Nobel Prize - let alone the celebrated Nobel Peace Prize - is usually a cause for national jubilation.

But in Pakistan the excitement felt by some at the news that 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest person ever to win the peace prize has been met in equal part by antagonism.

On social media congratulatory messages were followed closely by scornful and sarcastic ones.

It did not even make the grade for Pakistani TV's typically hysterical breaking news marathons. Many Pakistanis would not even have known she was up for the award.

Indeed, journalist Tariq Khattack , actually condemned it, telling the BBC: "It's a political decision and a conspiracy."

"She is a normal, useless type of a girl. Nothing in her is special at all. She's selling what the West will buy."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some Pakistanis did celebrate Malala's win, as she became the youngest person ever to win the award

This kind of talk will seem utterly incomprehensible to most observers, including many in Pakistan, but it has been an all too common view expressed in the two years since Malala was shot in the head by Taliban militants.

Of course most political leaders said the prize was well-deserved. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Asif Zardari congratulated her and the people of Pakistan on this rare achievement, saying she had done the nation proud.

A few girls' schools in Punjab offered thanksgiving prayers.

No celebration

But in Malala's hometown of Mingora in north-western Pakistan, it remained a quiet Friday.

Many were busy with prayers when the news arrived. Most schools were closed for Eid, and those that were open did not have any special celebrations.

It was in this town that Malala defied the draconian edicts of the Taliban and made a bold stand in favour of education.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Malala campaigned for girls' education

As a schoolgirl she wrote a diary for BBC Urdu under a pseudonym, and when the Taliban were forced out of the region by the military in 2009, she launched an open campaign.

She became an international celebrity after she was shot in the head by militant gunmen in 2012 but she remain in the UK where she received treatment, largely because it is not safe for her to return home.

Conspiracy theories

While many in Pakistan have praised her for her desire for education and her courage to make a stand for it, many others view her as a stooge of the west, as someone the Americans have set up to become a role model and misguide Pakistani Muslims.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Some Pakistanis feel that Malala's plight was all a Western conspiracy

"The Americans and Malala's father conspired to get her shot so she can become a hero," was the somewhat surprising conclusion of one editor of a Mingora-based newspaper some months ago.

One Islamabad housewife said: "What has she done to deserve [the Nobel prize]? She may be brave, but she's only a child. They should have waited 10 years and let her make a mark among the deprived sections of the society."

It is a view that has infuriated many more liberal Pakistanis who made their anger known on Twitter, excoriating those who tried to belittle this win.

This division in views on Malala is for the most part symptomatic of a division that dates from the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.

Father's politics

Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who has been her guide and mentor, is associated with ANP, a political party that links up with the Red Shirt movement. This is a secular force of Pashtun nationalists that was allied to Mahatma Gandhi's All India Congress and opposed the Indian partition.

After independence, the Red Shirts were dubbed as traitors and Indian agents, and often persecuted by successive military regimes that used religion and religious groups to garner support and legitimacy.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There is opposition to Malala's father and his outlook on life and politics

As the only political party in the Taliban-infested north-west to publicly call itself secular, the ANP suffered major setbacks during the last few years when scores of its leaders and activists were assassinated by militants. And while it still has a large support base, opposition to its outlook has been growing.

Even Tariq Khattack felt the need to make mention of Malala's father in his BBC interview.

"Her father is a good salesman, that's it, and the daughter has also become a salesgirl, dancing to the tune of the West. They don't deserve anything," he said.

So the mixed reaction that Malala has attracted can be partly explained in terms of her political heritage in a society where religion - and an enduring perception of the West as the enemy of Islam - has come to dominate public discourse.

Pakistan's other laureate

Image copyright Keystone
Image caption Pakistan's first Nobel laureate was physicist Abdus Salam, who happened to be an Ahmadi

And she is not alone in this.

In fact, she is the second Pakistani to win the Nobel prize.

The country's first Nobel laureate, physicist Dr Abdus Salam, belonged to the Ahmadi community, which was declared un-Islamic in 1970s.

Nobody, not even the government, has in living memory observed either his birthday or the anniversary of his death.

Malala's pedigree may prove to be slightly more tolerable.

Correction 13 October 2014: This article originally referred to Tarik Khattack as editor of the Pakistan Observer. This was not a position he held with the paper, which he left earlier this year.

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