On Malala’s Return

It’s been 48 hours since Malala Yousufzai returned to Pakistan, five years after being shot in the head by the Taliban, who opposed her efforts to speak out for girls’ education.

In the last 36 hours, Malala took part in a special ceremony at the Prime Minister House, where she was lauded for her activism, for having won the Nobel Prize, and for having brought Pakistan’s name into high standing all around the world. She also met with women activists from all over Pakistan, including Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation (herself a winner of the Tulip Human Rights award for her work in online safety for girls and women), Muniba Mazari, an activist and motivational speaker, and Anis Haroon, former chairperson of the National Comission for the Status of Women.

Today Malala gave interviews to the press, including Secunder Kermani of the BBC, in which she told Kermani that Pakistan was her home and that she planned to move back permanently to work for “equality for all.”

Yet it’s been a strange 36 hours, with Malala’s supporters at first dominating the scene with reactions of happiness and surprise (the visit was not announced until Malala was already en route to Islamabad). Yesterday’s news items on Malala’s return focused on the official welcome, the reactions of prominent journalists, and women’s rights activists, who were unanimously pleased that the 20 year old had taken the brave step of returning to the land of her birth. Malala’s speech, in Urdu, Pashto, and English, in which she teared up while talking about how glad she was to be back home, was particularly moving.

And then, inevitably, the backlash, with dozens of men (and some women) taking to Twitter and Facebook to declare their undying hatred of this brave young woman. The usual vitriol that she has aroused ever since surviving her gunshot wounds, being taken to the UK for treatment, recovering, going back to school, and winning accolade after accolade, was on ugly display. Men jealously asked what Malala had accomplished, claiming without proof that Malala’s diaries for the BBC had been written by her father, that the whole attack was a “setup”, that her winning the Nobel was a conspiracy, that the US was behind her entire life story.

The slurs, abuses, and name-calling weren’t just for Malala, though; I saw a prominent journalist slut-shamed by dozens of men when she tweeted in favor of Malala. Malala was compared unfavorably to Abdul Sattar Edhi and Aitzaz Shabaz, both heroes in their own right, both dead. She was derided in favor of Afia Siddiqui, the MIT-trained scientist in jail for participating in terrorism in Afghanistan. She was accused of “becoming a millionaire” and “doing nothing” for the APS students, the other girls shot with her in her own attack, and girls’ education in Pakistan in general.

That prompted a response from Saad Malik on Twitter, refuting every single one of these potted responses:

saad

Perhaps the saddest response to Malala’s return was the popping up of Kashif Mirza, president of a private schools association in Punjab, who’d previously forced those schools to celebrate an anti-Malala day and decided to do it again, and make children and students wear black armbands while declaring they were “not” Malala.

I could go into the whys and wherefores of the backlash against Malala, but it would only be to revisit a peculiar mix of jealousy, sexism, insecurity, and paranoia that has infected a certain type of Pakistani, who derides the West but still stands in line for those US and UK visas; who feels powerless but resents anyone who actually tries to change society; who deals in conspiracy theories, rumors, and gossip, but can’t actually produce any evidence for their poorly-thought-out suspicions; who believes that his or her “feelings” and opinions trump facts and history.

There are some of us who might be tempted to tell Malala to go back to the UK because Pakistan doesn’t deserve her. But I think of those girls in Swat who are going to school because Malala is their role model. I think of those girls in Sindh who are able to wear a clean school uniform and their mothers who are even learning to read beside them for the first time. I think of those girls in Balochistan who aren’t in school and will never get to go to school. I think of those girls in Punjab who dream of being doctors or writers or engineers or soldiers. These are the girls that need Malala, that deserve Malala. We shouldn’t deprive them of her just because her success burns the stomachs of those who never want things to get better for those girls, and millions of others.

Welcome home, Malala.

 

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