CASEY ROEPKE ’21
Malala Yousafzai, the activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, returned to her home nation of Pakistan for the first time in six years on March 29. Due to security concerns, full details of Yousafzai’s visit have not been confirmed at this time, but The New York Times reported that she and her family landed at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad in the early morning.
Yousafzai has repeatedly expressed interest in returning to her home in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. In a speech following her meeting with Pakistan’s prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, she said, “I couldn’t control what happened, if it was my choice I wouldn’t have left my country at all. I had no choice, I had to leave for my life,” (according to CNN).
In October of 2012, Yousafzai and two of her classmates were shot by Taliban militants while onboard their school bus. All three of the girls who were shot survived the attack, but Yousafzai was left with a “bullet grazing her brain and lodging in her neck,” according to The New York Times. CNN reported that Yousafzai was “taken by helicopter from one military in Pakistan to another, where doctors placed her in a medically-induced coma so an air ambulance could fly her to Great Britain for treatment. ”
At 15 years old, Yousafzai was involved in activism and advocacy, specifically for girls’ rights to receive a formal education. Militant leaders in the region of the Swat Valley had banned the schooling of girls and young women, and specifically sought out Yousafzai for her activism. After months spent rebuilding her skull, Yousafzai returned to her work as an activist. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work.
For Yousafzai, returning to her home country was incredibly emotional. NPR host Diaa Hadid pointed out a unique feature of Yousafzai’s trip. “It’s a rare moment when Malala gets to do something ordinary,” Hadid remarked. “She’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She’s a U.N. ambassador. She runs a fund that advocates for girls’ education. She’s a humanitarian superstar. She’s just 20 years old.”
Yousafzai had not been able to return to Pakistan until now due to death threats from the Taliban. CNN reported that the Taliban released a statement after the first attack saying that they “would target her again if she survived.” Since leaving her home in 2012, she has been living in Great Britain, where she now studies at Oxford University. In a recent public interview with David Letterman, she said that she missed “the rivers and mountains” of Swat Valley, and that she wished for her “feet to touch the ground of home.”
The New York Times reported that Pakistan’s state minister for information, Marriyum Aurangzeb, said that Yousafzai “[did] not want to make it a public, official homecoming,” opting instead to spend her time with family and friends. However, Yousafzai made time for both her family and the public. According to NPR, “since arriving in Pakistan, she’s spent time with family, addressed the nation on national TV and met with the prime minister in Islamabad.” In her speech, Yousafzai spoke proudly of the six million dollars that Pakistan has invested in education, and expressed hope that “we all join hands for the betterment of Pakistan for our future, to empower our women so they can earn and stand on their own two feet,” according to CNN.
Tehreem Mela ’20 from Lahore, Pakistan, said that Yousafzai “has done so much for her area.” When visiting the Swat Valley a year after Yousafzai was shot, Mela said that “it is totally different. There are schools everywhere. I saw little girls going to school. [She’s had] a very positive impact on her community.”
Yousafzai’s visit to Pakistan has been met with many different responses. CNN reported that Prime Minister Abbasi remarked on his happiness that “our child who has earned so much fame internationally has come home.”
Many, like Mela, were excited and inspired to see her return. “I think for me personally I was so happy,” said Mela. “She was crying on national television. I know the feeling of going back to Pakistan, the place you’re from, everyone looks like you. I can never know her struggle, but I connected with the way she spoke of her longing for her own country.”
Critics of Yousafzai’s stance on girls’ education viewed her visit as serving some greater purpose. Hadid observed that “elections are just months away. On Twitter, people ask, is Malala here to improve the ruling party’s image? Maybe she’s improving Pakistan’s image.” Mela has also noticed this reaction, noting that “some Pakistanis feel like she had turned her back [on] Pakistan.”
Although her critics are vocal and visible, the most remarkable response has been from the young girls from her area. CNN interviewed Faryal Niaz, a student at Khushal Model School in Pakistan. Niaz said Yousafzai was her idol. “When girls like us go to school in Swat,” Niaz told CNN, “the only reason is Malala Yousafzai.”