Pakistanis were outraged when Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl from the country's conservative northwestern region, fell short of winning the 2011 International Children's Peace Prize. She was one of the five nominees chosen from 42 countries. The award went to a handicapped 17-year-old South African girl, Michaela Mycroft, for her work on the rights of children with disabilities. Social media in Pakistan was flooded with criticism for ignoring Malala's courageous stand against the Taliban's atrocities
in her native Swat valley. She was especially praised for her advocacy of girls' education through an online diary she used to write for the BBC. To tap the sentiment of the nation, the then-Pakistani government awarded the 14-year-student their own National Peace Award for Children. A year later, on Oct. 9, 2012, a Taliban gunmen shot Malala, then aged 15, in the head when she was traveling home in a school van. She miraculously survived.
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One would have hoped people would demonstrate a show of support for the critically injured girl and her family. That was not the case. Instead of calling out the terrorist group for their cowardly attack on the schoolgirl, people in Pakistan started to doubt the authenticity of the attack, ignoring the fact that before being flown to Britain in an air ambulance, Malala and her parents were visited by many top-ranked civil and military officials during her treatment in local hospitals. The visitors included the then-army chief. The fake news mill was set in motion on Facebook by people sympathetic toward militant ideology. Many Photoshopped images appeared suggesting Malala had faked her injury. These went viral on social media. The propaganda machines have worked so hard that even newsrooms are not safe from their influence. Many journalists I spoke to about the anti-Malala campaign in Pakistan buy into the propaganda that she was a dupe for the West's agenda, and a drama queen. One example of the way a smear campaign was run against Malala on social media was a viral photo showing her standing next to British author Salman Rushdie. The man standing next to her was actually Martin Schulz, a German politician. One argument I often hear from her critics was that if she was so concerned about Pakistan's image, why she had not returned home after treatment? Other frequently asked questions include: "What has she done for Pakistan? What are her achievements? What was she doing in a meeting with late US special envoy to Af-Pak Richard Olson? Why has she defamed Islam in her book? Why was she awarded the Nobel Peace prize
? Why wasn't Edhi, the late humanitarian, given the prize instead? What about others who were killed in the war against terrorism? But let's think about this for a minute. How many of us would have dared to speak out, let alone write a blog in an area that is effectively still under the control of the Taliban, a ruthless terrorist organization? However, she did. This 14-year-old girl from Swat challenged the Taliban's repression and spoke out in support of girls' education, despite the obvious threats to her life and to those close to her. She eventually paid the price when a Taliban gunman boarded her bus and shot her in the head. It is nothing short of a miracle that she is still alive. But as she grew in global stature, so grew the attacks against her, not only from fanatics but also from the mainstream media. There was no respite for the world's youngest Nobel laureate, even when she returned to Pakistan on March 30 for the first time since her attack in October 2012. In Pakistan, she met Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the army chief and other high-ranking officials, and visited her native Swat valley. "It was my dream to go back to Pakistan, which has now come true. I have waited for this moment for several years, hoping one day to return. I have never been so happy in my life," Malala said as she broke down in tears during a televised speech. "My return to Pakistan is actually a success of Pakistan's war against terrorism," she said, adding that she could tell the whole world with more confidence that there was peace in Pakistan and that her return to the country was proof of that. "It [has always been] my plan to return to Pakistan after completing my education because it is my country and I have equal rights there like any other Pakistani," Malala told Geo TV on the second day of her emotional four-day, whirlwind trip, which ended on April 2. Nonetheless, her promise to return permanently has not been enough to silence the trolls. Ironically, the All Pakistan Private School Association, a body comprising hundreds of schools from across the country, observed: "I am not Malala" day to condemn her homecoming. That same body has also banned Malala's books from their libraries. Half of the criticism from bigots and trolls in Pakistan would already have faded away if Malala were a boy instead of a girl. All the hatred and criticism being generated at her reflects a patriarchal mindset and deep-rooted misogyny. Many in Pakistan are simply jealous of her global fame, something most Pakistani aspire regardless of age. Clearly, the mere idea that Pakistan is being represented by a young girl is enough to unnerve a conservative nation.
Zahid Hussain is a Pakistani journalist covering human rights and issues affecting minorities.