LAHORE, Pakistan – To most of the world, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is an icon for girls’ education and empowerment.
In Pakistan, many despise her. Both celebrations and protests erupted last month during the 20-year-old's first visit home since she was shot in the head by a Taliban fighter in October 2012 on her way home from school.
In the eastern city of Lahore, numerous private schools observed “I am not Malala Day” on March 30 to condemn her visit. Videos of teachers and children chanting anti-Yousafzai slogans in their classrooms circulated widely on social media.
“Malala is working against Islam and Pakistan, and she has no right to come to Pakistan when she is only working against us,” said Taiba Ikhlas, a seventh-grader at a private school in Lahore. She and her teachers asked that the school not be named for safety reasons.
Ayesha Jaffri, a history teacher at the school, said Yousafzai's actions are not a model for Pakistani girls, because women should conform to the narrow cultural role that conservative Islam envisions for them.
Jaffri criticized Yousafzai's British-based foundation that promotes the right to education, her best-selling books and personal history of overcoming her injuries in Britain.
“We mark this day as a black day against this stooge of the West,” Jaffri said. “In our schools we are teaching our students to shun the ideology of Malala.”
Helping organize the protests was Kashif Mirza, president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation and author of the book I Am Not Malala. “We raised awareness how Malala Yousafzai has come to Pakistan as part of an international campaign to malign Pakistan,” he said.
Of course, many Pakistanis adore Yousafzai for her courage.
“I look up to her and want to make a difference in our society like she did,” said Arooj Nadeem, a 10th-grader at Beacon House, a private school in Lahore. “Malala is my hero. Young girls like me have a lot to learn from her bravery and breaking away from age-old customs.”
After Yousafzai was shot, she went to the United Kingdom to recuperate, but back home she was labeled by conservatives and traditional Muslims as an “American agent,” a “traitor” and “CIA/Jewish” child.
"People love conspiracy theories," said Muhammad Asif, an 11th-grader at Government College, a public school in Lahore. “Those who say that Osama bin Laden was never found by U.S. (Navy) SEALs in Abbottabad are the ones who alleged that Malala was never shot in the head. I feel we thrive on hate and conspiracy.”
Yousafzai responded to the criticism during an interview on local Pakistani television, saying her mother wishes the attack was staged.
“Those who criticize have an absurd kind of criticism that doesn’t even make any sense,” she said. “It is wrong to cast aspersions if you don’t have any evidence. It harms the work I’m doing for my people.”
The conspiracy theories became stronger after Yousafzai became the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize in 2014 and joined other Peace Prize laureates Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
“From age 12 to 14, Malala was our heroine. She was recognized by our society,” said Fouzia Saeed, a social activist based in Islamabad. “Malala represented the progressive side of Pakistani society, but everything changed when the West lapped her up individually and not as a representative of our country. The hatred for the West transcended into hatred for Malala.”
Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, physicist Abdus Salam, a member of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, was never acknowledged in his lifetime or after his death because of his faith. Many Pakistanis refer to his achievements today as “infidel’s work.”
Women who challenge Pakistan’s conservative society often face bitter opposition, said Tabassum Adnan, head of Khwendo Jirga, a women’s organization in Swat Valley, a former Taliban stronghold. She has won plaudits from the U.S. State Department and others, but that recognition can backfire in her homeland.
“In Pakistan, one man’s hero is another’s traitor,” Adnan said. “I challenged the set norms of the society. People like Malala or me who work under such circumstances get recognition internationally, but at home we are called ‘traitors’ or ‘agents’ — just because we dare to raise our voice.”