Malala Yousufzai and the league of extraordinary Pakistani women

Published: July 13, 2013

Malala Yousafzai makes an address at the UN headquarters in New York. PHOTO: REUTERS

There was the face of one woman in that room that could quash all the misgivings that one has about Malala Yousufzai’s “backstory”. No, it wasn’t 16-year-old Malala’s herself, it was her mother’s.

Minutes after Malala began her magnificent speech at the United Nations General Assembly this Friday, the camera cut to the face of her proud parents. Her father smiled like a man who had won a battle he had fought his entire life. Her mother, in her plain white dupatta and light green shalwar Kameez, sat next to him wiping a tear that fell out of her right eye.

Since October 9, 2012, one of the many dark days in Pakistani history, we have heard as many views on Malala as we have avenues of information – newspapers, television shows, social media etc. The dominant view seems to be

“She’s too confident to be doing this on her own, somebody must be supporting her.”

I tried hard to understand that viewpoint, even though what matters most to me is not the agenda of those supposedly “propping” her up but the fact that that agenda is the right one.

On July 13, 2013, when a young Pakistani woman wowed the entire world by her simple yet powerful views,  I let go of trying to look logically at the other view – I saw that tear that fell out of Malala’s mother’s eye and I felt what had caused it, and everything fell into place. Malala’s mother, purported to be a CIA agent, was crying because the little girl who she had carried in her womb for 9 months and nurtured for 15 years was finally able to speak with her characteristic vigour after surviving a bullet to her head.

Ask a mother what that must feel like; ask her if she would still care for a damned foreign agency when her own flesh and blood is battling with life.

Why is it so difficult for us to believe that one of our own, somebody from a small town in Swat, can be so eloquent and incredibly intelligent? Why can’t a 16-year-old, whose father trained her her entire life to be a fighter for education, be that fantastic a speaker? Why can’t a little girl who has spent her entire life under the shadow of crushing militancy have the undeterred spirit that Malala has? Why is that so impossible for us to fathom?

My question to all those conspiracy theorists is this: if not her, then who? If not the girl who was named after Malalai of Maiwand, then who? If not the little child who was deprived of an education she so dearly loved, then who?

It wouldn’t be so hard for us to believe in Malala’s magnificence if we were a nation of people who stood up when it felt the pain of being snatched of something it holds in high esteem. A nation that read national poet Iqbal’s verse beyond those that exalt Islam: “Zara namm ho yeh mitti, bari zarkhez hai saaqi”. A nation that isn’t so suspicious of its female population that it cannot process the idea of a strong woman without an “evil, western” agenda.

There is a lot to be taken away from Malala’s story – from the day she spoke out, to the day she was shot until the day she told the UNGA what a simple Pakistani woman can achieve given some confidence by her near and dear ones. Yes, a key takeaway is that Malala and her family has been maligned because she was attacked by the militants we so love to please. But here is another deeper problem that it points to: the bias against women so strongly ingrained in our heads that our nation can hardly believe in a confident woman who actually wants the best for this country.

In Pakistan, you cannot be a well-wishing female citizen until you’re acquiescent and respectful of “social norms” no matter how much they pull you down.

This is the same attitude that a whole line of amazing Pakistani women have had to battle, from Benazir Bhutto to Asma Jahangir to Sherry Rehman to Mukhtaran Mai to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy to name a few. Each one of these educated, empowered and accomplished women have at one point or the other been named an agent for a random but ill-meaning cause, agents who are out to destabilise Pakistan for money. In actuality, all they were/are out to do is to destabilise the ridiculously skewed representation for men compared to women in Pakistan. They are such evil “ladies” because they refuse to silently obey and follow the patriarchy that continues to grip our society.

Dear Pakistanis, for a change, believe in one of your own. Accept her as the extraordinary Pakistani that she is. Love her and respect her. Don’t let her gender get in the way of that. Don’t translate her message of peace as “western”, it is universal.

You can hear her brilliant speech, which she has written herself (no surprise there!), here:

This post originally appeared here.

Read more by Zainab here or follow her on twitter @zainabimam 


Zainab Imam

A journalist, on a hiatus to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at The University of Chicago. Gender parity advocate, urban policy enthusiast. She tweets @zainabimam ( and blogs at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://na deep

    I completely agree with you – these women should be celebrated – envied a little maybe – because they are so gutsy and because they have the right people supporting them.

    But admired unabashedly.

    In my view, Mukhataran Mai should get your highest civilian award for bravery. Recommend

  • Muhammad Basil

    That someone even has to write this articleRecommend

  • Shoaib Khan

    Malala made us proud yesterday. Dont know whats up with the haters, she is a 16 years old child for Gods sake who survived an attack by the Taliban (Yes it was the Taliban and yes Taliban do exist). Raising voice for education of women in such circumstances is really an achievement which we must be proud of, rather than calling her and hers family CIA agents and topi drama etc. We are such a thankless nation.Recommend

  • Rameez

    Enjoying life in U.K while delivering speeches about Pakistan.What sort of messed up patriotism is that.

    I must applaud the western governments though.Using a 16 year old for political propaganda and to justify an illegal war.BrilliantRecommend

  • Parvez

    God works in mysterous ways, for the coward criminal Talib who shot Malala had no idea as to what his action would lead to.
    All of Malala’s speach was very powerful but what I liked most was that this 16 year old pointed out that whatever needs to be done for women must be done by women themselves. She does not ask men to step aside but calls on women to lead.

  • Mujahid Torwali

    @Shoib Khan you know the best and the same i love and support Malala for all the times…Recommend

  • Pakistani

    Since you don’t know, she was attacked by taliban in swat for raising her voice for education and equality for women. She survived even though she was shot in the head by one of the talib. stop being so hateful and start appreciating and support your own. Not everything is a conspiracy and if she is talking about education for all so what is the harm in it?Recommend

  • Safwan

    Benazir Bhutto, extraordinary woman? Extraordinary just like the scale of sheer corruption and economic mismanagement of her two governments.Recommend

  • anwar khan kharoti

    yesterday was the day (12/07/2013) when all the world focus on malala means the whole pakistan. lets put our hands togather to save our pakistan and condemn those who propagate our Malala.

  • Amber Darr


  • Asma R.

    Nothing wrong with Malala, we all are very proud of her. However it is the double-double standard of the West that leads one NOT to believe that they hold any love for our Malala whilst carrying out their atrocities on Muslim lands, be it Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria….. As they shower weapons of mass destruction on Muslim men, women and children it is worth contemplating as to why they are promoting one innocent Muslim girl, and that also a Pakistani! Lucky for us though that Pakistan gets a softer image but the stark truth is otherwise, sadly. By writing this, my aim is rather to protect Malala when the real truth dawns on her and confuses her.Recommend

  • Nasir Malik

    Give me a good Mother and I will give you a good Nation. And thats’ what we lacking in contemporary Pakistan due to lack of education of mothers. @deep: Recommend

  • Nadeem

    She is an ultra extraordinary girl only if the incident is legitimate.I have serious doubts about the occurance of that particular attack on her. How can one manage to survive at first place or remain spot less after being shot in head?? Recommend

  • ayesha shafiq

    I believe that we should have to focus more educational schools around swat and other areas where illiterate people are around. Recommend

  • Nasir Malik

    The legacy of Benazir Bhutto followed by her husband Asif Zardari (corruption corruption more and more corruption)n is not to be forgotten but there was one noticeable change in the governance of an Islamic country; that is she was a first woman prime minister that the electorate misjudged her against her elite education at the Oxford University. Education of the masses talked about Malala is different from the elite style education financed by a corrupt money which we are witnessing in Pakistan even today.

    @Safwan: Recommend

  • d

    “She’s too confident to be doing this on her own, somebody must be supporting her.”

    Justin Beiber can make $$$millions and become a global star at 16 then why can’t a 16 yr old girl can give a good speech on a global stage? ‪#‎InferiorityComplex‬Recommend

  • Karim Qasim

    go to oxford debating hall and find out who benazir was.. read her books to know how courageously she fought pakistan’s and islam’s case in the world.. don’t get boggled into what she took from you.. be positive and appreciate what she contributed to our nation! Recommend

  • Unkown

    Is she wearing a wig? Where the scar of surgery goes? Does the surgery was carried out without cutting hairs?Recommend

  • Shoaib Khan

    @Asma R.:
    You are spot on! Recommend

  • Safwan

    @Karim Dear Karim, first of all don’t read books written by herself about herself, as you can imagine there can be a conflict of interest. Facts are facts, they cannot be denied. She has been responsible for extrajudicial killing, corruption and economic mismanagement during her PM terms. No doubt about that. Just watch what Kamran Khan says about her and everything will be clear (PS When her first government was dismissed, Time magazine wrote an article titled ‘The women who ruled like a witch’). Recommend

  • http://Lahore Reza

    All those who doubt jst take a field trip to fata nd play music nd thy will find out soon. Nd all those wanna bee kids learn how to speak meaningfull nd with some intlect take a lead frm u already know who….lolRecommend

  • MMB

    can some one just tell me how come she got access to internet and wrote diaries for BBC ?

    Pretty obvious its a sham ! anyways all of it is well directed. Her father got more than he bargained for

    Who gave her Benazir’s shawl? some one must have have :)

    What are the chances of trained hit men hitting a missing some one from so close? just a thought Recommend

  • http://[email protected] zakir hussain

    malala prove that pakistani love with education.excellentRecommend

  • Hope

    If only Pakistan and Afghanistan had been ran by their women, these countries could have been much better than they are worse now . Both Countries are home to some of the bravest and resilient women but sadly they have been forced to live out of their countries. Come on people of Pakistan and Afghanistan bring them home as they are faces of bravery, courage and hope. Defeat the forces of fanaticism and terror . Recommend

  • SB

    The luckiest girl in the WORLD!!
    that’s all I have to say about that…Recommend

  • Scar

    Four months older than me and I’m gonna start my college.Recommend

  • Insaan

    @Karim Qasim: her books to know how courageously she fought pakistan’s and islam’s case in the world..

    It is because of people like her, Pakistan is one of the most violent nation on this earth. Muslims kill each other in the name of Islam in countries like Pakistan every day. Repeating the mantra “Islam is a religion of peace” is not going to do anything. Muslims have to prove this by living peacefully.Recommend


    A lot of people are fighting for education, a lot of people are being attacked by the Taliban and the drones. But who cares? They’re not “Malalas.” Nobody transported their children to Britain (or even to a Pakistani hospital) when they were shot. Nobody provided them with the education and treatment given to Malala. The burgers and the able can sit back and praise Malala and listen to her speech, but the common man has much to do.Recommend

  • Mehdi


    Well said, we muslim need to prove our self peaceful just quoting wont change our situation.Recommend

  • asma r

    my doctor cousin in the army confirmed that that is the truth. malala was shot on the temple and the bullet travelled on to her scapula.Recommend

  • Nataliya

    How beautifully you put this into words. Thank you so much for writing this. It is so sad the kind of hatred she is getting from her own people when the world recognizes her courage. I am glad that there there are voices like yours to give us hope. Much love and prayers. Recommend

  • Rubina

    This is an emotional piece, the kind of response whoever attacked Malala wished you to have. Kudos to you for being utterly obtuse. Very surface level analysis. Recommend

  • Scream

    Dear Author, You are in love with Malala and wish everybody else does the same! Let me tell you I found her an average kid.. A lot of women in Pakistan have raisee voice for equalitu and hundreds were shot! She raised a voice for girls in Swat! I appreciate! A lot of people are doing this for Pakistan since many years..Why pretend Malala is the first one? its like a crowd in Pakistan is working for the good and die for are highlightinng one usual person out of them! We have kids who have more courage more capability and more talent than Malala! So for me what she has done deserves a one time clap and move on to the next zillions in the way!Recommend

  • Scream

    Also for UN and international community its a big deal to get a shot in the head for education but for Pakistan where every women’s thirst for education is pretty much of a cover story and where a day cant go without 10 -15 shot dead..its impossible for us to sing Malala Malala all the time..Those who dont have a tree love it for years..those who have a forest cant stick to a tree when the ones of same kind and better are so much more in number!Recommend

  • Raj

    I completely agree with #Scream. There are alot of women in Pakistan who has done much more than what Malala has done. Its just that the international media got involved and the issue became over-hyped. I am not saying by any means that Malala is fake or any thing negative on what she has suffered in Pakistan but that does not mean that we forget thousands of women in Pakistan who are suffering even worst of fates just because they don’t have western forces behind them. I am not sure why people think we are proud that she is a pakistani. the point here to mention is: Haven’t anyone thought that Malala is in UK now and this gives a message to the whole world that see Pakistan was unable to save her and she is taking asylum in UK. Even though she is right in taking asylum in UK, but why people of pakistan are getting proud. It is a huge shame that Pak is not a livable place for youth to thrive on the abilities. Unless, pakistani people and govt doesn’t do anything to save their people themselves, these kinds of events will bring shame to the country every now and then, being it Malala, Mukhtaran Mai or Benazir Bhutto. Instead of being proud of what an individual has achieved, please look into a more broader side of the story Recommend

  • Insane

    I don’t know why people in Pakistan just think in one direction and not the other, and this writer too. What Malala has suffered was condemned by everyone but can’t you see how west is using this girl. At least her father should use his brain but why would he since he got job in UK. The image west has portrayed using this girl is as if no girl can study in Pakistan. In fact, it should be mentioned that in part of Pakistan which is occupied by militants there it is hard to study. When it comes to Malala if she is extraordinary Pakistani then she should have think a little bit and must have raised the point in speech to make it clear that it is not like girls can’t study in whole Pakistan rather just part of it. Recommend

  • Nasir

    Malala is the first to initiate such action, let there be many more but for heaven sake not shot in the head.Recommend