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Shot by Taliban, Pakistani Teen Activist Malala Continues To Be Target of Online Threats and Conspiracy Theories

BY Nighat Dad | Tuesday, October 16 2012

Photo of Malala by the writer.

Malala Yousafzai is a 14 year-old girl from the Swat region of northern Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. Last week a gunman shot her in the head, an act for which the local Taliban has claimed responsibility.

Since then, Malala’s name has become a keyword for a plethora of blogs, newspaper articles, websites and politicians’ statements. It is one of those disappointing human truths that often we need a tragedy to wake us up — even when it was predicted by many. Once again, the victim of a preventable tragedy is being exploited for personal and political benefit.

Malala first claimed international attention in 2009, with the diaries she wrote for the BBC's Urdu service when the Taliban established a stronghold in Swat. Under the Taliban, hundreds of schools for girls were bombed to dust. Then 11 years old, Malala proved to be something of a force of nature. She insisted on continuing to attend school and campaigned amongst girls her age, encouraging them to follow her example and not give up on their educations.

Wider public recognition came in October 2011, when Malala was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu, in recognition of her use of “international media to let the world know girls should have the right to go to school.” Later she was awarded National Peace Prize for Children by Pakistan; the prize has since been named for her.

On October 9 Malala was on her way home from school when she was stopped, identified and shot by Taliban militants. She is still in critical condition; Monday morning she was airlifted to a hospital in the United Kingdom for treatment. A fellow student and a teacher were also injured in the attack.

The Taliban has threatened to attack her again if she survives, for the sin of "speaking against the Taliban” and “promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas.”

I met this inspiring little girl in Peshawar last year, when she participated in Take Back the Tech. She was very mature for her age and eager to learn about digital spaces and security. The Taliban had already targeted her with threats designed to intimidate and several people had created fake profiles of her on social media platforms, depicting her as a U.S. agent and an enemy of Islam. During the TBTT campaign, which focused on violence against women in digital spaces, Malala told me she had deleted her personal profiles out of fear for her security. Despite her concerns, she continued to attend school and to campaign for girls to attend school.

Rare interview footage with Malala.

After she was shot last week, Pakistanis went online to express their shock and their hatred for her attackers. They offered prayers for Malala and criticized the government for its failure to maintain peace and security.

But even as prayer vigils for Malala were held across Pakistan, right-wing Pakistanis — religious and secular — began to publicize a counter-narrative.

Ahmed Quraishi, a right-wing columnist, expressed sympathy for Malala on his Facebook page but then immediately accused the U.S. government, the CIA and the Pakistani military of exploiting the girl's tragedy in order to gain support for the war in Afghanistan. The Lahore Times published an unsigned editorial that accused the CIA of being behind the attack on Malala. Similar accusations are found on a Facebook page called PakNationalists and on the official page of a right-wing political commentator called Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid.

On Sunday Dr. Samia Qazi, leader of the women's branch of the Jamaat el-Islamia (Islamist party), tweeted a photo of Malala sitting with Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Qazi tagged the tweet with the names of several prominent Pakistani journalists.

The meeting with Holbrooke was organized by UNICEF. It was demonstrably not an army/CIA hosted event, as Dr. Qazi claims. But she is not the only one to have tacitly accused Malala of being a U.S. agent. From various Facebook pages to Twitter accounts of political movements and individuals, the conspiracy theories run riot.

Malala was prevented for security reasons from using social media platforms to further her cause of seeing that girls received an education, but the Internet was very much a part of her life in both a negative and a positive sense. On the one hand it provided her with a support system; but on the other hand it was used by her opponents as a means of issuing threats and rallying others to do so as well.

Despite the conspiracy theories and their proponents I, along with millions of Pakistanis and people around the world, are hoping Malala will make a full recovery. I am waiting and hoping she will return and resume fighting for the right of girls to attend school. But will the government be able to provide her with security? Will she have freedom of movement, or will she be forced to live indefinitely behind a barrier of security measures? We will have to wait and see.

Nighat Dad is the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan. She is an accomplished lawyer and a human rights activist that actively campaigns at a national and global policy level on issues focusing on Internet Freedom, Digital Security, anti surveillance practices and Women’s empowerment through ICTs. Follow her work at @NighatDad

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