Malala Yousafzai became the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize early Friday morning when the 17-year-old won the award, along with India’s Kailash Satyarthi, a longtime children’s rights activist, ‘for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.’
Malala’s story is well-known, largely due to the speculation that she would win the Nobel Prize last year, when the Nobel Committee instead awarded it to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its work in eliminating chemical weapons from war-torn Syria.
A prolific writer as a teenager about life in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, she was on her way to school in Swat when a Taliban fundamentalist shot her in the head. She recovered, however, with ample treatment in both Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Following her recovery, as her story became widely known, she used her global platform to advocate for global education for all children, including women.
But beneath the headline, Yousafzai’s story intersects in odd and sometimes very complex ways with the currents of South Asian and Pakistani politics, including widespread anti-American sentiment, tumultuous disputes among Pakistan’s government, opposition and military, and a culture that still undermines women’s rights.
Here are just three instances that show how fraught the intersection of the global fight for women’s rights and access to education, Pakistan’s volatile political scene, and US security interests.
1. Malala has taken a highly critical position against US drone strikes on Pakistan.
In a meeting with US president Barack Obama last October, Yousafzai didn’t hold back about her belief that the US drone campaign in Pakistan was actually fueling more anti-American radicalism and terrorism by incidentally killing innocent victims:
“It is true that when there’s a drone attack the terrorists are killed, it’s true,” she said. “But 500 and 5,000 more people rise against it and more terrorism occurs, and more — more bomb blasts occurs. … I think the best way to fight against terrorism is to do it through [a] peaceful way, not through war. Because I believe that a war can never be ended by a war.”
“And you said that to President Obama?” O’Donnell asked, in an impressed tone.
“Yes, of course,” Malala replied.
2. The liberal party of Pakistan’s chief opposition leader, Imran Khan, has controlled the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province since last summer.
You might think from recent headlines out of Pakistan that Imran Khan, the opposition leader who’s been headlining belated protests against last May’s national elections and prime minister Nawaz Sharif, that he has no power in opposition.
But that’s not true. For the first time since Khan, the former cricket star, formed his liberal, anti-corruption Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, پاکستان تحريک انصاف, translated as the Pakistan Movement for Justice) in 1996, they control the provincial assembly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after winning the most votes in the region ,thanks to Khan’s outspoken criticism of US drone strikes.
Pervez Khattak, a PTI stalwart, currently serves as the province’s chief minister. For all of Khan’s grandstanding at the national level, Khattak’s government has emphasized health care, education and social welfare in its budgets since coming to power, quietly emphasizing exactly the kind of things for which Yousafzai is fighting.
3. Malala is relatively unpopular back home.
In today’s edition of Dawn, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, it’s clear that many Pakistanis won’t be cheering the Nobel Committee’s decision today, labeling Yousafzai as an ‘outcast’ at home:
But in Pakistan, many view her with suspicion as an outcast or even as a Western creation aimed at damaging the country’s image abroad….
In her native Swat valley, however, many people view Malala — backed by a supportive family and a doting father who inspired her to keep up with her campaign — with a mixture of suspicion, fear and jealousy. At the time of her Nobel nomination last year, social media sites were brimming with insulting messages. “We hate Malala Yousafzai, a CIA agent,” said one Facebook page.
Yousafzai has expressed her hopes that one day she’ll not only be able to return to Pakistan, but to lead it as a future prime minister.