World cheers Malala Yousafzai, but Pakistanis ambivalent
One year after the Taliban tried to silence Malala Yousafzai, she has published a book and is a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize
One year after a Taliban bullet tried to silence Malala Yousafzai’s demand for girls’ education, she has published a book and is a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the militants threaten to kill her should she dare return home to Pakistan, and the principal at her old school says that as Malala’s fame has grown, so has fear in her classrooms.
Although Malala remains in Britain and her assailant is still at large, police say the case is closed. And many Pakistanis publicly wonder whether the shooting was staged to create a hero for the West to embrace.
Shortly after the attack, Pakistani schoolchildren filled the streets carrying placards with the words: “I am Malala.” A year later, a popular refrain is, “Why Malala?”
In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the giant sign that once identified Malala’s school is gone. Rickshaws rumble to a stop as girls, their heads covered and faces obscured, scramble out and dash into the building.
The school made no plans to recognise the anniversary, although children in other parts of the country did. Teachers and students are afraid. Even a giant poster of Malala that once emblazoned the wall of the assembly hall has been removed.
Children scrambled to hide from the camera and the school principal, Selma Naz, spoke quickly and in hushed tones.
“We have had threats, there are so many problems. It is much more dangerous for us after Malala’s shooting and all the attention that she is getting,” said Naz. “The Taliban are very dangerous. They have gone from Swat, but still they have a presence here. It is hidden, but it is here. We all have fear in our hearts.”
An armed commando now stands guard outside the school’s massive black steel front door.
On October 9, last year, Malala left the school through that same door, laughing with her friends as they climbed into the back of a small pick-up truck used to transport the children. They laughed and talked as the truck rumbled over roads lined with pot holes.
The driver jockeyed for space on a narrow bridge that crossed a garbage-strewn stream. Suddenly a masked man with a gun stopped the truck beside a dusty, open field. A second masked man jumped into the back with a pistol.
“Who is Malala?” he shouted. No one said anything but automatically their heads turned toward Malala. He raised his pistol and fired and fired again. One bullet hit Malala on the top of the head. Two other students, Shazia Ramazan and Kainat Riaz, were also hit, but their wounds were not serious.
Malala was transferred to a military hospital near Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Her head swelled dangerously. Doctors performed emergency surgery. Her father, Ziauddin, certain that his daughter would not survive the night, sent a message to his brother-in-law in Swat to prepare a coffin and a vehicle to take her body back.
Malala woke up a week later at a hospital in Birmingham, England, where she was taken for specialist treatment. She gradually regained her sight and her voice and was reunited with her parents.
But the many awards that have since been bestowed on Malala, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is to be announced on Friday, have stirred anti-Western sentiments in Pakistan, where a brutal insurgency has killed thousands of civilians and more than 4,000 soldiers.
Frustrated by the relentless demands by the West “to do more,” many Pakistanis see Malala’s international acclaim as a Western drama played out to heap more criticism on their country.
Last December, students at a school in the Swat Valley protested a government decision to rename it the Malala Yousufzai Girls College. Eventually Malala’s name was removed and the school returned to its original name.
Malala’s battle for girls’ education began when she was barely 11 years old and at a time when the Taliban roamed freely throughout the valley, blowing up schools, beheading security forces and leaving their dismembered bodies in the town square.
“It was a very, very hard time. Malala spoke out on TV and in newspapers. She was threatened, her father was threatened,” said Ahmed Shah, a family friend and educator, whose battle for girls’ education has also brought death threats from the Taliban. He said the Pakistan government was the first to recognise her bravery with a National Peace Award in 2011, a year before the shooting.
Shah said Malala, who is now 16 and has just published a book about the assassination attempt, also is paying a price for her notoriety.
“I was talking to Malala’s father the other day and he said Malala is weeping and saying, ‘When will I study? I am going to America, to Austria, to Spain and for so many days I have not even had one class of geography.”‘
Naz, who started as school principal three months ago, said it doesn’t help that Malala’s assailant is still at large.
The attacker will likely never be caught, said Shah, noting that police rarely even investigate an incident if the Taliban take credit for it.
Fear among judges generally leads to acquittals anyway, said Swat lawyer Aftab Alam.
“No one can dare to appear before the court, even the police cannot dare to investigate” an attack by the Taliban because of fear of retaliation, said Alam. “It is just impossible.”
Military officials say Malala’s assailant, identified as Attaullah, has fled to Afghanistan, while the police say the case is closed.
Attaullah’s sister, Rehana, said at her mountain home in the Swat Valley: “We don’t know where he is, whether he is dead or alive.”
His uncle Painda Khan mumbled: “We don’t know why people are blaming him. No one has told us why.”
The Taliban, driven out of the once idyllic valley in a bloody military operation nearly four years ago, are slowly creeping back. In recent months militants have killed the regional commanding officer as well as dozens of men on pro-government peace committees, and warn of more assassinations until their repressive brand of Islamic law is imposed in Pakistan.
The militants remain unrepentant for the attack on Malala. Last weekend the Taliban again vowed to try to kill Malala if she returned from Britain to Pakistan, which she has repeatedly said is her dream.
“If we found her again, then we would definitely try to kill her,” Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said in an interview. “We will feel proud upon her death.”