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Bringing home the Nobel

There is an image of her where she sits in an auditorium. A lone figure with a notebook and a pen, she sits surrounded by rows of empty seats covered in shiny black leather. The picture tells much about Malala and her struggle: a vulnerable girl out on her own, holding on to her books like a talisman, drawing strength from her belief in the power of education.

The empty seats suggest that the teenage female education activist is in a class of her own. But for a country that has the third-largest number of out-of-school female students in the world, they also suggest that Malala has a long struggle ahead of her to bring the missing girls to schools.

Those expectations are going to multiply now that she has won the Nobel Peace Prize. But equally importantly it is the symbolism of the peace prize she shares with India’s Kailash Satyarthi for their work promoting children’s rights that shouldn’t be lost on Pakistan and India, say observers.

“The Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when both Pakistan and India are engaged in border skirmishes,” says Abdur Raheem Roghani, a Swat-based Pashto writer and poet who used to receive Malala and her father at his home in Mingora. “Education cannot happen without peace. The prestigious prize would be of little consequence if its significance is lost on Pakistan and India.”

For someone who has sharply divided the opinion on her relevance to Pakistani society, Malala has been lionized for her struggle for education in the face of murderous obscurantism and disparaged for “being co-opted by the West in its agenda to malign Pakistan.” As expected, the reaction to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday was just as discordant and polarized.
Malala Yousafzai holds flowers after speaking during a media conference at the Library of Birmingham, after she was named a cowinner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in Birmingham, England, Friday. (AP-Yonhap)
Malala Yousafzai holds flowers after speaking during a media conference at the Library of Birmingham, after she was named a cowinner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in Birmingham, England, Friday. (AP-Yonhap)

“Reading negative comments about #Malala Yousafzai today, I realize she is like the Dark Knight, not the hero we deserve but the hero we need,” said a tweet on Friday, as the hashtag Malala Yousafzai trended on Twitter.

“You are no nobler in Pakistan for winning Nobel Prize,” said another, pointing to the nation’s disavowal of Dr. Abdus Salam, the physicist who won the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. As many furiously debated whether Malala wining the Nobel was an exercise in public relations for the west or truly a concern for peace in the region, an analyst known for his right-wing views tweeted: Girls shot at head will receive #nobelprizeaward? Yes, if shot by Muslim militant. No, if shot by western crusaders!”

For many in her hometown of Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the significance of a Pashtun girl wining the Nobel is clear. To them it is a historic event from which Malala Yousafzai has emerged, perhaps somewhat incongruously, as mythical a figure as Malalai of Maiwand, the Pashtun folk hero who rallied Pashtun fighters against the British troops during the second Anglo-Afghan War.

“It is a matter of pride for the Pashtuns, the region and Pakistan,” says Khadim Hussain, a socio-political analyst. “It is a historic moment because it puts right the manipulated narrative of history. Malala stands for education, she stands for human rights. The world thought the people here were not capable of something good or great. She has proved them wrong, proved that the people of the region can work towards the dream of a better future.”

Khadim Hussain, who spoke to Dawn from Mingora on Friday, said the youth in Swat were quite excited over the news of Malala wining the Nobel Prize. “They say she has given a new face to Swat, that she has washed away the taint left by militancy in the valley. They are thrilled and overjoyed. There is talk of celebration tomorrow.”

For her cousins and uncles living in Swat, who did not consider the Nobel for Malala a possibility because of the age factor, the news came as a surprise. “Whatever happened is beyond our imagination,” said her cousin Fakhar-ul-Hassan. “The Oct. 9 attack, the media coverage, the reaction all over the world, it all took us by surprise.”

Fakhar, who also taught at the Khushal School where Malala studied, said there was something special about her class.

“The whole class was very active and creative. It was extraordinary,” he said. “Malala topped the class but she motivated the girls with her speeches and debates. They would get inspired because her father, who managed the school, would always push her to do better.”

When the Nobel Prize for Peace was announced on Friday, Malala got the news at her school in Birmingham. She was in the chemistry class, a subject she loved, according to Fakhar.

“She loved physics, chemistry, Islamic studies, but most of all she loved English because her father, who had studied literature, introduced her to it,” he said.

And the subject she couldn’t stand?

“She was a topper in the class but mathematics made her miserable,” said Fakhar. “She just couldn’t get it. I guess it runs in the family. None of us is good at it.”

By Aurangzaib Khan