Three years ago today, a girl took a bullet in the head on the order of a man from the same tribe as her. Elsewhere, the story goes a little differently. Conspiracy theories about Malala Yousafzai litter the web, some dropped by those who believe them, others by those explaining them.
With her documentary freshly released even in Karachi, Malala is back in the spotlight, trailing stories behind her. On Twitter, some Pakistanis are dredging up an old tale: of a CIA puppet involved in a drama to destabilize Pakistan's tribal northwest.
To understand the theory, it helps to consider how American intervention in Pakistan has changed the fabric of the country. Malala conspiracy theories are traded in urban circles, but they thrive in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the U.S. has dropped hundreds of drones in the last decade. Exact numbers of deaths are hard to come by, as the U.S. government does not release strike information. Most counts number the dead in the thousands. A 2009 report by the Brookings Institute gives the equation that for every militant killed in Pakistan by U.S. drones, 10 or so civilians also died. At that point, six years ago, the report suggests, civilian deaths likely numbered around 600.
This calculus was thrown into stark relief last week when President Obama apologized for the accidental airstrike of a hospital in Afghanistan -- killing 32 people, including three children.
Malala has spoken out against drone strikes, but her privileged status in the West confuses her legitimacy at home. She has called the pen her weapon, and the pen is an instrument that can be guided, as the paranoid will tell you. In a statement released after her shooting, a Taliban spokesman singled out Malala's crime not as the desire for education, but as spreading propaganda. The diary series she reportedly dictated over the phone to a BBC reporter made her famous abroad, and a target at home.
In a country as on edge as Pakistan, any external alliance is problematic. The slain Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, also mythologized globally in her time, inspired suspicions at home as well. And indeed, the two women are conflated. A translation of the Urdu text in the Malala meme above reads: "'Another Benazir' is in the process of being made in West's factory."
Malala's highly processed narrative is becoming a problem even outside of Pakistan. Reviewers of the new documentary, "He Named Me Malala," are qualifying their admiration of the subject with disappointment at the fluffiness of the film itself, which was directed by the American filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. The New York Times faults Davis specifically for ignoring the loss of legitimacy at home that comes with becoming "a Western media darling."
Assessing the movie in The New Republic this week, writer Elaine Teng echoed an uneasiness espoused by many Malala truthers, about the degree to which Malala has been stage managed by her father:
Ziauddin himself claims that he did nothing more than give his daughter freedom, encouraging her to pursue her education. Malala also weighs in on the issue, but the documentary, which heavily features Ziauddin, leaves the question open. Whether it was fate or not, we’re left with a slight distaste for a man who has acted mostly through his daughter.
With the movie catapulting Malala to premieres and into the arms of Bollywood heroes, envy is added to the mix.
There are other reasons to bristle at Malala's perceived fortune. A journalist I know from Kabul wears the heartache of his work as vividly as clothes. During a recent conversation about Malala, he alerted me to all there is to envy of someone who left as she did. After the bullet pierced her, the unconscious 15-year-old was helicoptered to a hospital in the U.K. She remains in England today, unable to go home for fear of death (or love of her visa, according to conspiracists).
Meanwhile, the Swat Valley, emptied of one girl, underwent its next transformation. The pastoral ski destination had already begun to turn unrecognizable around 2007, when the Taliban's leader Fazlullah began broadcasting edicts on the radio to execute those who danced or shaved, and Malala, in turn, started blogging. After Fazlullah ordered her killed five years later, the valley became a site of war. The notoriety of that single gun shot tipped the Pakistan army to invade the valley to rid it of extremists. That process too, claimed the lives not only of Taliban and government militants, but the innocent.
Malala lives on a safe street now and is feted by millions. An extraordinary life can seem unjust, as my friend from Kabul reminded me. "Beautiful little innocent kids get killed every day going to school," he said. "She survived."