Praise & admiration abroad, animosity at home for Malala

Barack ObamaThe Obamas hosted Malala Yousafzai at the White House on Friday. REUTErS

The question for the class of 10th graders at an all-girls school here in this picturesque mountain valley was a simple one: How many of them, a district official wanted to know, had heard of Malala Yousafzai?

The students stared at the official, Farrukh Atiq, in silence. Not a single hand was raised.

"Everyone knows about Malala, but they do not want to affiliate with her," Atiq said on Thursday, as speculation grew that Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago, might win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the end, Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Prize. But after a week of intense news coverage, during which she released her memoir and won a prestigious European award for human rights, Yousafzai's stature as a symbol of peace and bravery has been established across the world — everywhere, it seems, except at home.

It is not just that the schoolchildren fear becoming targets. "I am against Malala," said Muhammad Ayaz, 22, a trader who runs a small store beside Yousafzai's old school in Mingora, the main town in the Swat Valley. "The media has projected Malala as a heroine of the West. But what has she done for Swat?" he asked.

That sense of smoldering animosity toward Yousafzai, 16, in the Swat Valley seems to be animated in part by the tensions of a rural community still traumatised by conflict.

Many residents fear the Islamists could one day return to power in the valley, an anxiety that, paradoxically, has stoked simmering hostility toward the militants' most famous victim.

"What is her contribution?" asked Khursheed Dada, a worker with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, including Swat.

That cynicism was echoed this week across Pakistan, where conspiracy-minded citizens loudly branded Yousafzai a CIA agent, part of a nebulous Western plot to humiliate their country and pressure their government.

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