MINGORA, Pakistan: In Malala Yousafzai’s home town in Pakistan, schoolfriends hope to see her win the Nobel Peace Prize this week—but they dream in secret, under pressure from a society deeply ambivalent about the teenage activist.
Malala, who survived being shot by the Taliban on October 9 last year, has become a global ambassador for education, feted by celebrities and politicians around the Western world.
But in northwest Pakistan’s Swat valley, a deeply conservative area fearful of foreign influence encroaching on the traditions of its society, many regard her with suspicion and even contempt.
Her longtime friend Safia has no such doubts. Peeling off from a group of girls at a high school in Mingora, the main town in Swat, she spoke confidently about her friend, and women’s rights, in excellent English.
Malala is among the favourites for the Nobel, which will be awarded on Friday, and Safia said she deserves it. She supports Malala’s efforts to get all children—girls as well as boys—to go to school.
“A bicycle cannot run with only one wheel: society is like a bicycle, with the male education as the first wheel and female education as the second one,” she told Agence France-Presse.
Beautiful, verdant Swat was once a honeypot for tourists, but it was plunged into war in 2007 when the Pakistani Taliban took control and enforced a hardline Islamist rule until they were kicked out by the army two years later.
But pockets of militancy remain and a year ago a Taliban hit squad shot Malala in the head at point-blank range on her school bus.
Remarkably, Malala survived and has spent the past year in England—first for treatment and then to continue her education.
Safia’s sentiments are shared by many schoolgirls in Mingora, who want their country and their area to be known for something other than Taliban and bombs.
“Malala is a model, not only for us but for the whole Pakistan,” said 14-year-old Rehana Noor Bacha.
Education has improved in Swat since the Taliban days. Since 2011 the proportion of girls going to school has risen to nearly 50 percent, from 34 percent, while that of boys is close to 90 percent.
But the authorities say they are short of at least a thousand female teachers and 200 classrooms for girls.
‘America created Malala’
Malala has become one of the most famous teenagers in the world, attracting support from the likes of Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton, Bono and Gordon Brown.
But this rise to stardom in the West, and her frequent appearances in the media, have brewed suspicion in a society that expects women to remain out of sight and is always quick to blame foreign powers for its ills.
The head of girls’ education in Swat, Dilshad Begum, explained that in Pashtun society “people don’t like to see women in front of cameras”.
Maulana Gul Naseeb, a prominent figure in the JUI-F, one of Pakistan’s leading religious political parties, was more forthright.