ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says she has pined for her home in Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, even as she recalled two years living in fear under the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Visiting her homeland for the first time since a Taliban gunman shot her in the head over her blog advocating girls’ education, 20-year-old Ms Yousafzai also contradicted Pakistani critics who accuse her of promoting an ideology at odds with the country’s Islamic values.
“I am proud of my religion, and I am proud of my country,” she said at her hotel on Friday.
Wearing a rose-printed head scarf and flowing tunic and trousers – one of many outfits family and friends brought her from Pakistan to Britain, where she is studying at Oxford University –Ms Yousafzai said she was elated at being home.
“I had never been so excited for anything. I’ve never been so happy before,” she said.
On Saturday, Ms Yousafzai flew by helicopter to visit her childhood home in Swat Valley amid heavy security.
“I miss everything about Pakistan … right from the rivers, the mountains, to even the dirty streets and the garbage around our house, and my friends and how we used to have gossip and talk about our school life, to how we used to fight with our neighbors.”
She said she has wanted to return before but, aside from security concerns, there was the hectic pace of school and her entry exams to Oxford, where she began studying last year for a degree in politics, philosophy and economics.
Ms Yousafzai’s journey to becoming the youngest ever Nobel winner began with the local branch of the hardline Taliban movement taking over her hometown in Swat, about 250 kilometers from the capital, Islamabad, in 2007, when she was 9 years old.
The Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) banned television, music and girls’ education, and burned about 200 schools, following the example of the 1990s Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan, which forcibly excluded women from nearly every aspect of public life.
“I still remember each and every moment, right from the fear while sleeping at night that you might not be alive the next day,” Ms Yousafzai said.
Her father was a teacher in a school that educated girls and managed to stay open until early 2009.
After the Pakistani army drove out the Taliban in mid-2009 she became a symbol for girls’ education through a blog she wrote for the BBC’s Urdu service, which started while the Taliban were still in power, and a documentary “Class Dismissed”, that profiled her.
It made her a target. In 2012, a masked gunman boarded her school bus, singled her out and shot her. She was flown to Britain for surgery and has remained abroad since, co-writing a best-selling book “I Am Malala” and starting a foundation advocating girls’ education worldwide.
In 2014 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with an Indian activist.