Despite all that occurred, I’d always lugged around with me a sliver of optimism. They referred to me as Pakistan’s ‘only’ Nobel laureate; I insisted on being called the “first”.
I was born in a small town called Santokh Das; arguably not as beautiful as your Swat valley, but it did have much to offer. I grew up in Jhang, a city now tainted by its name’s association with dangerous groups.
My father was an education officer working for the Punjab government. I have a feeling your father would’ve liked him.
Like you, I took a keen interest in my studies. I enjoyed English and Urdu literature, but excelled at mathematics. At a very young age, I scored the highest marks ever recorded then, in my matriculation exam.
My education, however, was never as politically challenging as yours.
I did not have to contend with the Taliban destroying my school, or forbidding boys from receiving education. But whatever barriers they constructed in your way, you bravely broke through them.
In fact, you continue to defy them with every breath you take.
Winning the Nobel prize has enraged your attackers, as it has annoyed many of your countrymen.
It takes courage to walk through it all, and knowing you, courage is not in short supply.
Not a lot has changed in this country. You were mocked and alienated by your countrymen, when you did nothing wrong. I know something of that.
As a nation, we do not want to be celebrated.
What we wish for, is to be pitied.
They were pleased with you as long as you were another local victim. But then, you cast off your victimhood and emerged as a hero, a beacon of hope for young girls around the world. That’s where you lost them.
We don’t like heroes, Malala.
We like battered souls that we can showcase to the world. We want to humiliate the ‘colonialists’ and the ‘imperialists’ for their crimes, real or imagined, against the Muslims of the subcontinent.
We want them to acknowledge the Iqbalian paradise we lost to the plots and schemes of the ‘outsiders’. Any mention of the incalculable harm caused by perpetrators within us, does not assist that narrative.
We do not want to acknowledge the bigotry within, of which I know something too.
This is not something I had fully realised the day I received my Nobel prize. Standing in ceremonial Punjabi garb among a group of men in tuxedos, I was proud to represent my country, though my country was far less thrilled being represented by me.
I was demonized and successfully disenfranchised for my religious beliefs; I was not allowed to offer lectures in certain universities due to threats of violence; my work was belittled by my own people.
I decided that working abroad was better than being treated as foreigner in my own homeland. That only gave further wind to the hurtful theories about me being a ‘traitor’ to my country.
Now, the mantle passes to you, dearest child.
And with it, I regret to pass onto you the heart-wrenching burden it brings.
You are the new ‘traitor’.
You are presented with the dire challenge of bringing peace and pride to a country, that doesn’t want your gift.
Like a mother of a particularly rebellious child, you must find a way to love them nonetheless. Eventually, I pray, they will understand.
I had the privilege of being the first to offer this country a Nobel Prize. But now there are two of us.
And, I’m still counting.