Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai made her first visit to Pakistan on March 29th, 2018, since she was shot by Taliban militants in 2012 near her home in the northern Swat Valley. The 20-year-old became the first teenager to win the Nobel Peace Prize four years ago and is currently studying at the University of Oxford.
Soon after her arrival in her native country, Yousafzai met with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in the capital Islamabad. Local television showed the education activist leaving Islamabad airport in the early hours of the morning amid heavy security for what is expected to be a four-day visit.
Yousafzai gave an emotional, heartfelt speech on her return to her country of birth, where she is still under threat of violence. “I’m not very old but I’ve seen a lot,” she said following a meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. “I couldn’t control what happened, if it was my choice I wouldn’t have left my country at all. I had no choice, I had to leave for my life.”
In a speech in which she often had to pause for tears, the activist hailed the fact “more than 6 million dollars” has been invested on education in Pakistan in recent years, adding she hoped “we all join hands for the betterment of Pakistan for our future, to empower our women so they can earn and stand on their own two feet.”
Abbasi said he was “so happy that our child who has earned so much fame internationally has come home. You represent us in the world and especially of the youth and girls and the work you’ve done for education of girls,” he said. “It is our dream and prayers that you are successful, our prayers with you. Welcome home Malala!”
“I have always dreamed of coming back to Pakistan — we need to empower women,” Yousafzai said in a speech in Islamabad with tears in her eyes. “If I wanted I would have never left my country, for further treatment I had to go out.”
At just 11, Malala began writing an anonymous diary for BBC Urdu about her life under Taliban rule. She later became a vocal advocate of female education amid militant suppression in Pakistan. While traveling to school by bus in October 2012, she was shot in the head in retaliation for her campaign for girls to be given equal education rights in the conservative country, defying threats from militants in her hometown of Mingora.
The bullet struck just above her left eye, grazing her brain, and Yousafzai was flown to the U.K. for emergency treatment. Malala’s shooting caused international outrage and came amid a bloody struggle between the Pakistani state and Islamist militants. The Pakistani Taliban said at the time that they shot her because she was “pro-West” and “promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas”.
Lauded internationally, Yousafzai gained global recognition after pledging to continue her struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism. However, her return has received a mixed reaction in her home country. Many in the South Asian nation see her as part of a Western conspiracy against Pakistan.
Her return brings home the change that has occurred in Pakistan. The military in Pakistan has neutered some insurgent groups who target the country domestically and tourists are now returning to areas including picturesque Swat, which is known locally as the Switzerland of Pakistan.
Security in the country has greatly improved in recent years, with the number of attacks carried out by militants drastically reduced. Nevertheless it’s unclear if she will visit her home region in the Swat Valley, where her foundation recently opened a school for girls.
News of her arrival has been received enthusiastically here. But some Pakistanis have long been critics of Malala, favoring conspiracy theories claiming she is “a Western agent” or was actually shot by the CIA. For many others Pakistanis, though, Malala is a source of great pride, and now she’s finally come home.
Malala’s visit “gives the message that extremism can be challenged and defeated if one stands up against it,” said Farzana Bari, a human rights activist and former head of the Gender Studies department at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. “This will help promote peace and girls’ education in Pakistan as we still have large areas where girls and women are discriminated against,” she said.