Teen Activist Malala Yousafzai Impresses UN, Polarizes Pakistan

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who was shot by the Taliban on her way to school less than a year ago, celebrated her 16th birthday by delivering a powerful speech to the UN youth assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Malala has already become a symbol for child education and women empowerment around the world, but some in her country Pakistan continue to spin conspiracy theories to malign her.

At the special UN session on July 12, 2013, on what the UN has declared “Malala Day“, she called upon world leaders to provide free and compulsory education to the children around the world. She also said that something must be done for the 57 million children today who go without access to education.


Malala's speech was widely quoted all over the world, including within Pakistan. She and her family were cordially congratulated on social media, with many Pakistanis expressing their pride of her standing at the UN sitting next to world leaders.

Bushra Gohar (@BushraGohar), senior vice president of the Awami National Party and former member of the national assembly from the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province where Malala is from, tweeted:

@BushraGohar: “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world,” #Malala

Dentist, Senior Ted fellow and blogger Dr. Awab Alvi (@DrAwab) wrote:

@DrAwab: #MalalaDay Pakistan needs heros to be applauded, and I applaud her for her standing up for Women, Children, Education & Peace in Pakistan

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, called for world leaders to protect rights to equality and education in an address to youth at the United Nations on Friday, her 16th birthday. Image by Nancy Siesel. Copyright Demotix (12/7/2013)

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, called for world leaders to protect rights to equality and education in an address to youth at the United Nations on Friday, her 16th birthday. Image by Nancy Siesel. Copyright Demotix (12/7/2013)

Salman Lateef (@SalmanLateef), author and blogger at the Express Tribune, described Malala's qualities:

@SalmanLateef: Calm aplomb, unfazed confidence, clear speech, wise words – #Malala is indeed the pride of this nation. #MalalaDay

Raza Rumi (@RazaRumi), a journalist and director of Pakistani think-tank Jinnah Institute, tweeted:

@RazaRumi: I was in tears hearing Malala's speech. How many macho ghairatmand (masculine honor) Pakistanis display such courage in the face of extremists. Proud of her!

Many on Twitter questioned why Malala's speech was not given much importance by the national media. Beena Sarwar (@beenasarwar), a journalist, artist and documentary filmmaker, observed:

@BeenaSarwar: So how come no TV channel in Pakistan (except PTV World) gave live coverage to #Malala‘s speech in the UN yesterday?

Ammar Aziz (@Ammar_Aziz), a left-wing documentary filmmaker and founder and director of SAMAAJ, lamented:

@ammaraziz: It's a pity that our ‘free media’ didn't bother to braodcast #Malala‘s speech live – they only showed that in parts later. #Pakistan

Also to mark Malala's 16th birthday, her father joined a Grammy Award-winning producer to release the song “I am Malala” to support the education and empowerment of girls in Pakistan and around the world.

Not everyone on social media responded positively to the celebrations of Malala, however. The Chief Minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz), tweeted one day after Malala delivered her speech:

@CMShehbaz Good speech by Malala! Could have been better – seemed to be written for global consumption ( & tried to please everyone at home & abroad)

His comment was roundly criticized, and in the next few hours it was deleted.

Even worse on social media was a concerted anti-Malala campaign that was launched. Since the attack on her last year, Malala has been called a drama and a fraud by many Pakistanis. Hailing from right-wing ideologues, these people hold her as a CIA agent who is now a tool in the hands of the West. Her pictures with US envoy Richhard Holbrooke were circulated by right-wing conservative political party Jamat-e-Islami on social networking websites, and party leader Samia Raheel Qazi tweeted the pictures and called Malala and her father CIA agents.

A Facebook page Josh e Junoon (Tsunami of Imran Khan) with 127,000 likes shared a poster maligning Malala and rejecting that she was attacked by Taliban:

Facebook hate campaign against Malala

Facebook hate campaign against Malala

The eighth wonder of the world: Malala. This is the first neurosurgery in which they didn't shave her head. These are first Talibans who fired with Klashinkov but the bruise was of air gun. First patient of neurosurgery that asked for pen and paper after coming to senses. “Where am I” First gunshot of the world that didn't leave a hole but the bullet got to our media's mind. And who doesn't agree to this story is enemy of humanity.”

Anti-Malala tweets were comparing her and the victims of drones attacks in Pakistan.

Fawad Khalid (@FawadKhalid), an electrical engineer and Scottish Tech Award winner, tweeted:

@FawadKhalid: If Malala really was representing #Pakistan , why did she forget about Drones attacks which spreads terrorism & why did she forget Afia ?

@IbneBattuta, a blogger from Kashmir, wrote:

@IbneBattuta: Opportunism for many is now Malala'ism. Bake your cookies while the drones are away.

Faiza S Khan (@BhopalHouse), the editor of Random House India and a blogger, tried to talk some sense into those criticizing Malala's silence on drones:


Mohsin Sayeed (@MohsinSayeed), a Pakistani journalist, turned the tables on those same critics:

@MohsinSayeed: To all those who are droning about drones while maligning and condemning Malala: What have you done about drones apart from droning on?

Saad Hamid (@SaadGH), TEDx Ambassador to Pakistan and curator of TEDxIslamabad, described the experience of being openly in support of Malala on Facebook:

@SaadGH: Talking in support of Malala's message on Facebook is like inviting a pack of wolves to attack you and eat you alive.

Sara B Haider (@bohotsaara), a Pakistani twitterati, highlighted the negative reactions and shared the screenshots:

@bohatsaara: The pakistani mindset and #MalalaDay pic.twitter.com/8nDG5NH8Zz

Reactions on Facebook

Reactions on Facebook

Shehrbano Taseer (@shehrbanotaseer), a journalist and the daughter of assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, wrote:

@shehrbano: My Facebook timeline is nauseating. The only thing worse than the Taliban are the ‘para likha jahils (educated illiterates)’. Malala, we are with you

Zainab Imam (@zainabimam), a journalist and blogger, summed up the situation on her blog Gulaab Jamun:

Yes, a key takeaway is that Malala and her family has been maligned because she was attacked by the militants we so love to please. But here is another deeper problem that it points to: the bias against women so strongly ingrained in our heads that our nation can hardly believe in a confident woman who actually wants the best for this country. In Pakistan, you cannot be a well-wishing female citizen until you’re acquiescent and respectful of “social norms” no matter how much they pull you down.

Ajmal Jami, a journalist, wrote on the blog Laaltain [ur]:

آپ کے دشمن بھارت اور امریکہ سمیت پوری دنیا کے مندوبین نے ملالہ کو خراج تحسین پیش کیا اور اسے پورے عالم کے لیے قابل فخر قرار دیا۔۔ شاید ہی کوئی ایسا ملک ہو جہاں اس بچی کا چرچا نہ ہو۔ یعنی دنیا بھر سے چار ملین بچوں نے دستخط کر کے ملالہ کے عزم اور اس کے مشن کو تقویت دی۔۔ لیکن یہ بچی خود جس ملک سے تعلق رکھتی ہے وہاں کا ملا “ذہن” اسے “سازش” قرار دے رہا ہے۔۔ دلیل اور منطق جب دم توڑ جائے تو بجا ہے کہ ہر شے “سازش” دکھتی ہے

Your enemy country India and the US and also the experts from all over the world paid tribute to Malala. And called her a pride for the whole world. There would be hardly any country where she is not popular. Four million children from around the world signed to strengthen the cause of Malala. But the Mullah [religious man] in the country from which this girl belongs to declares her “conspiracy”. When arguments and logic ends then everything looks “conspiracy”.


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