The West reveres Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Pakistanis resent and envy her.
- By Michael KugelmanMichael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at email@example.com
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 survey found 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. 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. 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.
Photo Credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images