Comment: Malala must continue to speak out

Despite being a global activist for women's rights and education, Malala Yousafzai isn't without her critics - and it's not just the Taliban, writes Saman Shad.

It’s hard to believe that little more than a year ago Malala Yousafzai was a Pakistani teenager living in Swat Valley. She was well known for her activism and her strong beliefs in promoting women's rights, especially their rights to an education. While she was celebrated for these beliefs, she was by no means world famous - until the actions of a gunman, acting on behalf of the Taliban, made her face and name global news.

After she was shot in the head and rushed to the UK for medical treatment, the world sat down and paid attention to Malala. She was soon declared “the most famous teenager in the world,” according to Deutsche Welle. She graced the cover of Time magazine and was called one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was tipped to win, but didn’t.

Exposure of this magnitude leads to greater scrutiny. Many questioned why, out of the thousands, perhaps millions of girls whose lives are devastated by the Taliban was she picked out for special treatment? Why was she flown to the UK with much fanfare to receive treatment, when most girls meet their fate in Pakistan?

Some pointed to a “white saviour complex”: the West had to show that it cared, despite having indirectly and anonymously killed many girls like Malala under the US’s brutal drone program and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a collective Western guilt that drove the western media to focus on Malala. Plus, it was a “good news story”; her's was a tale of survival despite being shot in the head, neck and face. There are so few stories in the news with happy endings. Malala’s was one of the rare ones.

While all this may be true I believe there’s another reason that Malala has stuck around in the news cycles. And that’s because this young woman has an extraordinary presence about her. She also has an incredible gift for oratoration.

People tend to forget Malala's age when they talk about her. They think they are talking about a politician; someone who is used to barbs and harsh words. That she's someone who has developed a thick skin in response to years of criticism. That's wrong. This girl was only 15 when she stood up in front of the UN and gave an extraordinary speech that wowed heads of state from around the world.

This is the same girl who only last week at the age of 16 left Jon Stewart – a celebrated interviewer of politicians and celebrities alike – speechless when she spoke on his show. You only have to hear her speak to be caught under her spell. This is the reason why Malala is so loved in the West.

In Pakistan, however, it’s a different story. You would think that as a daughter of Pakistan, and one of the few people showing the nation in a positive light, she would be celebrated by her compatriots. Sadly, for the most part, she is not.

Pakistan is a country that has suffered and continues to suffer under poverty, corruption, terrorism, lack of education and opportunities. It's endured these hardships to such an extent that anything appearing to be good news isn’t taken at face value. I should know, I was born there. Everything in Pakistan is treated with the same level of suspicion and caution.

So rather than upholding Malala as a figure of admiration – someone who overcame odds to gain the world’s ear - many in Pakistan regard her with paranoia and suspicion. They question whether she was actually wounded. Photoshopped images of Malala have been circulated on social media sites that claim to prove she was never shot.  Then there is the commonly-held conspiracy theory that she is an agent or stooge of the west; that she works for the CIA, who orchestrated the assassination attempt.

Then there are those who criticise her based on a more practical and immedia level. The fact remains that while Malala has gained global recognition, nothing has changed in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, and for that matter in the lives of ordinary schoolgirls in the Swat Valley. They still live under the fear of the Taliban and US drone attacks. While Malala has gone on to be famous, their lives remain the same.

It’s only been a year since Malala was attacked by the Taliban. Most people take that time alone to physically heal from the wounds of such an attack. Emotional healing of course, takes much longer. In this short time so many expectations have built around this young woman, and so many people are pulling her in different directions. One can only hope she has the strength to continue to speak up, in spite of ongoing threats from the Taliban, and most importantly continues to be heard. Because while the lives of the schoolgirls in Swat Valley may not have changed, at least one of them is able to speak on behalf of those she left behind – which all the media hype aside, is an extraordinary thing.

Saman Shad is a storyteller and playwright.

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