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Malala Yousafzai: Pakistan’s divisive figure

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OPINION by Bina Shah – Malala Yousafzai, the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, is the subject of a new documentary film, He Named Me Malala, which has been premiering in cinemas in Europe and the United States.

Yet, in Pakistan, she remains a divisive figure, loved and hated in equal measure. Young girls in conservative communities struggling to complete their education hold her up as a role model, while young men and women with access to social media despise her for being a Western puppet.

When and why did it all go wrong for Malala in her own country?


In Pakistan, there is one teacher who really holds a grudge against her: Kashif Mirza, the head of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF), who last year held an “I am not Malala” day and this month followed up that scintillating programme with a book called: I am not Malala, I am a Muslim, I am a Pakistani.

In the rebuttal of Malala Yousafzai’s life and autobiography, he explains his theories about Malala’s role in promoting secular education, anti-Islamic propaganda and loyalty to “Jews and the West”.

Nobody is really taking the attention-seeking Mirza or his ideas seriously, but the fact that he is the head of an association of about 25,000 private schools raises serious questions about the home-grown hatred that has long been focused on Malala. Why would a country turn on one of its most celebrated figures? Are the Malala-haters jealous of the attention Malala has received?

Certainly, Malala is maligned by many in Pakistan as an “agent” and a fake, shameful exhibition of our own insularity and paranoia, as well as with a certain amount of misogyny against a girl with a powerful voice and the respect and attention of world leaders.

Yet, it’s not Malala the person, but Malala the symbol whom Pakistanis have wrongly identified as a Western provocation against the entire nation. This illustrates clearly what the controversy over Malala is truly about: Who’s controlling the narrative?


Malala had been a symbol of girls’ education, encouraged by her father and championed by the prominent media anchor Hamid Mir, who is mostly known only inside Pakistan.

She began writing the secret Diary of Gul Makai for the BBC, describing life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban, but her identity was kept hidden for her own safety. Then she was shot, rescued, flown to the UK, and began the long road to recovery, “catapulted to international fame” as the BBC puts it.

Suddenly, the entire country was portrayed as a place where little girls were shot in the head simply for going to school. Instead of being embraced as Pakistan’s own heroine, Malala became a global symbol, but for the country she was portrayed as a source of international embarrassment.

If the media inside Pakistan had been as savvy as the international media, they could have easily staked their claim to Malala as a symbol of resistance and resilience, typical of Pakistanis in the war against terror.

Instead, they publicly and visibly threw up their hands in horror at how the Malala narrative was wrested away and fashioned by anti-Pakistani groups to suit a “Western” agenda and malign the country.


Contrast this with the December 2014 Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 141 people, including 132 schoolchildren, were killed. No Western nation swooped in to lay claim to those children or their stories: This was a Pakistani tragedy, with Pakistani heroes and victims.

The military’s strong control over the situation after the tragedy ensured that the narrative stayed firmly in the hands of the Pakistani nation. The responsibility to react and retaliate against militants also belonged to the Pakistanis themselves.

Certainly, while Malala was in Pakistan, the military took responsibility for her treatment and protection, and every national leader came out in support of her courage. But once she flew to Birmingham for treatment, her narrative could no longer be controlled by the Pakistanis, nor even by herself or her own family.

Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who has received plenty of praise abroad and criticism at home for his key role in Malala’s success, were eager to expose the situation for schoolgirls in Swat, but they were naive about the machinations of the powerful global media juggernaut.

They couldn’t envision how the media and other figures would take ownership of their story once Malala was shot. Needless to say, events were completely out of the family’s hands as they concentrated only on caring for their critically wounded daughter.

Later, the publication of the book I am Malala with co-author Christina Lamb’s anti-military insertions added to Pakistani suspicions that Malala’s story was being used to promote an anti-Pakistan agenda.

This brings to mind the case of Anne and Otto Frank: the brilliant daughter facing death with courage, the protective but proud father doing all he can to spread her message to the world. Had Anne Frank lived, she may have indeed faced the same accusations that Malala does now of using her fame for financial gain and attention.

There is a controversy even today about her legacy, as the Anne Frank Foundation and the Anne Frank House fight over what is to happen to the copyright of her diary 70 years after her death.

Malala Yousafzai’s story is a cautionary tale about the power of the media, which is in the business of fashioning heroes and villains for global audiences.

Their siren call is hard to resist for anyone, least of all a teenaged girl who lies dead or wounded in hospital, unable to speak for herself.

Yet, Malala’s life is more than a narrative: it has now entered the realm of the epic and the legendary. And it’s not just Pakistanis but the whole world that is made nervous by heroines who can never be truly controlled. Al Jazeera

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