Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Malala Yousafzai – honored abroad, maligned at home

Rights activist Malala has been named as the UN Messenger of Peace. The 19-year-old delivers lectures all over the world on girls' right to education, but there is one place she can't visit - her home country, Pakistan.
At a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday gave Malala Yousafzai the top award, saying he was inspired by her "unwavering commitment to peace" and "resolve to foster a better world."
In her speech, the 19-year-old activist didn't forget to mention her country, where she was shot and wounded by the Taliban in 2012. She expressed her love for the Islamic country and insisted that Pakistan shouldn't be viewed as an extremist country. 
"I want people to know that I represent Pakistan not the extremists, not the terrorists. They are not Pakistan," Malala said.
But do Pakistanis also believe that Malala Yousafzai represents their country?
Some of the alleged militants who tried to kill Malala are now behind the bars. The Pakistani government says it is ready to provide the activist adequate security if she chooses to return to her home country. But can Malala actually go back to Pakistan?
Karachi-based journalist and documentary filmmaker Sabin Agha says that if Malala decides to return, she could be targeted once again. "Girls like Malala symbolize defiance, and there are many in Pakistan who don't like that, especially if it comes from a female," Agha told DW.
And Malala did pay a big price for her "rebellion" when she was in Pakistan: She was shot by militants in October 2012 in the Swat Valley of Pakistan's restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the attack and said in a statement that Malala had been attacked for promoting "secularism" in the country. After receiving initial medical treatment in Pakistan, Malala was sent to the United Kingdom where she is presently residing with her family.
Before being shot, the teenager had been campaigning for girls' right to education in Swat and was a vocal critic of Islamic extremists. She was praised internationally for writing about the Taliban atrocities in a BBC Urdu service blog.
Malala has come a long way since then. She has now become an international icon of resistance, empowerment of women and right to education, and has received numerous awards, including the European Union's prestigious Sakharov human rights prize. The teenager was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. However, in her own country, she is looked down upon by many, who accuse her of being a US agent, set out to malign Pakistan and Islam.
Malala attackers 'arrested'
In 2013, the Pakistani army announced the arrest of the men suspected of trying to kill Malala. But experts say the fact that some of her attackers are now in the military's custody won't make the country any safer for her.
"A country which cannot guarantee the safety of its former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - who was assassinated during a public rally in the city of Rawalpindi in 2007 - cannot protect Malala or any other activist critical of the Taliban. I don't think that Malala can return to her homeland anytime soon," said Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani researcher and activist.
Agha says that Pakistan is still not a safe place for rights activists, government and military critics, as well as journalists: "In the past, the army had conducted many operations against the terrorists; however, we have not seen the level of violence go down."
A polarizing figure
Despite the fact that liberals hail Malala as a symbol of pride for the country, she has become an extremely divisive figure in Pakistan. A majority of conservatives alleges she is working against Islam and Pakistan's sovereignty.
"Isn't it strange that many Pakistanis share the Taliban's views on Malala?" asked Shareef Ahmed, a Karachi-based peace activist. "I think it shows that the Taliban ideology is popular in the country. Malala has exposed quite a lot of people, even those who are not hardcore extremists."
Many in Pakistan believe that local and international media are unnecessarily creating hype around the young activist. Right-wing parties in the South Asian nation claim that the "campaign" to promote Malala is proof that there is an "international lobby" behind the whole issue.
"I don't think that Malala deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. I think there were more deserving people in Pakistan who should have been given the award," Karachi-based Shiite activist Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi told DW. "Just because she (Malala) got shot by the Taliban does not make her worthy of these prizes," he added.
The mindset
Supporters of the 19-year-old say that the "Malala haters" are running a smear campaign against the teenager. They argue that until the mindset of the people is changed, Malala's return to Pakistan is almost impossible.
"Malala has been portrayed as a western agent in Pakistan - a country brimming with anti-West sentiment. Anyone seen as pro-West in the country becomes a target for scorn, ridicule, hatred, and even violence," Sulehria said, adding that the country's progressive section was too weak and fragmented to ensure Malala's safety.
Agha insists the issue is not just about Malala but the overall situation of women's rights in the South Asian nation.
"Isn't it ironic that Pakistan is considered a safe place for national and international terrorists but not for its own female population?" Agha asked. "We have to change this scenario, and also the patriarchal mindset which supports violence against women."

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