ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Malala Yousafzai, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, returned to Pakistan on Thursday for the first time since Taliban militants shot her in the head more than five years ago for fighting for the right of girls to go to school.
Yousafzai was flown to Britain in 2012 for medical care and then impressed the world with her eloquent defense of the rights of girls and women. She went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, along with Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, before being accepted to Oxford University.
While she has been hailed by supporters as a champion against extremism, some Islamist hard-liners in Pakistan and elsewhere have criticized Yousafzai, calling her a mouthpiece for Western cultural views.
In a sign of the attention she still draws in Pakistan, security for Yousafzai’s visit was extremely tight.
“I have been dreaming of returning to Pakistan for the last five years, and today I am very happy, but I can still not believe that this is actually happening,” she said tearfully at a reception hosted by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
“Today, after 5½ years, I have set foot on my soil. Whenever I would travel, in a plane or in a car, I would imagine that it’s Pakistan and I am driving in Islamabad. I would imagine this is Karachi, and it was never true, but now that I see it, I am very happy,” she added.
The reception included senior government functionaries, leading social activists, lawmakers and guests from her home region of Swat who came to welcome the young woman they dubbed “daughter of Pakistan.”
“The entire world gave you honor and respect, and Pakistan will also give you honor,” the prime minister said at the meeting. “It is your home. . . . You are not an ordinary citizen; your security is our responsibility.”
He also referred to the militants who wounded Yousafzai and the battle Pakistan is still fighting.
“We are fighting a war against terror,” he said. “No matter what the world says about us, Pakistan is fighting the largest war against terror, and our more than 200,000 soldiers are fighting this war.”
Video showed the Nobel laureate clad in a traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez and her head covered in a multicolored scarf as she sat next to the prime minister alongside her parents. She also met with female ministers.
Yousafzai, 20, arrived early Thursday amid tight security at Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Pakistani news channels aired footage of her leaving the airport along with her parents in a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles, many carrying police and security personnel.
It is not yet clear whether she will visit her home village in the Swat Valley. Her four-day itinerary has her staying mostly in Islamabad and meeting Pakistani officials, media representatives and social activists, as well as relatives.
“It’s the happiest day of my life that I am back to my country and meeting my people. All my countrymen sitting here, I want to welcome you,” she said in Pashto, the native language of her region. “I continued my education in the U.K., but I always wanted to move freely in Pakistan. I want to invest in the education of children. Pakistani women should be empowered.”
Even in her early teens, Yousafzai was known as a champion of girls’ education, something that cannot be taken for granted in parts of Pakistan and elsewhere in the region.
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, she refused to remain silent. Taliban militants boarded her school bus one day, asked for “Malala” and then shot her.
They also blew up many girls’ schools and imposed their strict version of Islamist law until they were eventually driven out.
Even after her recovery, Yousafzai continued to agitate for girls’ education, setting up the Malala Fund aimed at supporting education advocacy groups in countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya.
This month, she used her Nobel Prize money to build a new school in Shangla, close to her home district.
“I am 20 years old but have seen many things in life, from growing up in Swat Valley — it was such a lovely place — and seeing extremism and terrorism there from 2007 to 2009, seeing how many difficulties our women and girls faced against those challenges,” she said, fighting back tears. “If it was up to me, I would never have left my country. But for treatment, I had to go out and continue my education there.”
Ahmad Shah, a close family friend of Yousafzai and an education activist, was ecstatic about her return.
“All well-wishers and friends from Swat are happy. She is our pride. She is a source of inspiration for girls in Swat,” he said, noting the new school in Shangla. “One positive aspect of Malala’s image is that now mostly people are welcoming her. Very few, almost none, are writing and speaking against her.”
Some in Pakistan, especially religious conservatives, have been critical, calling her a polarizing figure who portrays her country in a negative way to seek fame abroad.
However, she was greeted warmly on Twitter and other social media platforms by many of her countrymen, including actress Mahira Khan, who tweeted, “Welcome home baby girl.”
Former TV anchor and social activist Reham Khan said, “Lots of love and prayers to dearest Malala on her return to Pakistan.”