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The girl who defied the taliban
Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai came to international attention in 2012 when she was shot by Taliban gunmen because she spoke up for the right of girls to be educated. Her story inspired the world and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.
Malala will visit T&T under the auspices of the UTT and will make appearances across the country on July 30 and 31. Guardian Media Ltd is the official partner for her visit.
In October last year, she spoke with the BBC’s Mishal Hussain about her journey and her continuing mission to see that girls have equal access to education. Here is Part one of that interview.
One year ago schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen—her “crime,” to have spoken up for the right of girls to be educated. The world reacted in horror, but after weeks in intensive care Malala survived. Her full story can now be told.
She is the teenager who marked her 16th birthday with a live address from UN headquarters, is known around the world by her first name alone, and has been lauded by a former British prime minister as “an icon of courage and hope.”
She is also a Birmingham schoolgirl trying to settle into a new class, worrying about homework and reading lists, missing friends from her old school, and squabbling with her two younger brothers.
She is Malala Yousafzai, whose life was forever changed at age 15 by a Taliban bullet on October 9, 2012.
I have travelled to her home town in Pakistan, seen the school that moulded her, met the doctors who treated her and spent time with her and her family, for one reason—to answer the same question barked by the gunman who flagged down her school bus last October: “Who is Malala?”
The Swat Valley once took pride in being called “the Switzerland of Pakistan.” It’s a mountainous place, cool in summer and snowy in winter, within easy reach of the capital, Islamabad. And when Malala was born in 1997 it was still peaceful.
Just a few hours’ driving from Islamabad brings you to the foot of the Malakand pass, the gateway to the valley. The winding road up to the pass leaves the plains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, far below.
Although the Pakistan army retook control of Swat from the Taliban in 2009 and it is arguably now safer for foreigners than some other areas, the military clearly didn’t want to take any chances.
Historically, the north-west has been one of Pakistan’s least developed regions. But Swat, interestingly, has long been a bright spot in terms of education.
Until 1969, it was a semi-autonomous principality—its ruler known as the Wali. The first of these was Miangul Gulshahzada Sir Abdul Wadud, appointed by a local council in 1915 and known to Swatis as “Badshah Sahib”—the King. Although himself uneducated, he laid the foundation for a network of schools in the valley—the first boys’ primary school came in 1922, followed within a few years by the first girls’ school.
The trend was continued by his son, Wali Miangul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb, who came to power in 1949. Within a few months, he had presented the schoolgirls of Swat to the visiting prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, and his wife Raana. As his grandson Miangul Adnan Aurangzeb says: “It would have been unusual anywhere else in the (North-West) Frontier at that time, but in Swat girls were going to school.”
The new Wali’s focus soon turned to high schools and colleges, including Jahanzeb College, founded in 1952, where Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, would study many years later. Soon, Swat became known across Pakistan for the number of professionals it was producing—especially doctors and teachers. As Adnan Aurangzeb says: “Swat was proud of its record on education…one way to identify a Swati outside of Swat was that he always had a pen in his chest pocket, and that meant he was literate.”
Against this backdrop, the fate that befell the schools of Swat in the first years of the 21st century is particularly tragic.
By the time Malala was born, her father had realised his dream of founding his own school, which began with just a few pupils and mushroomed into an establishment educating more than 1,000 girls and boys.
It is clear that her absence is keenly felt. Outside the door of her old classroom is a framed newspaper cutting about her. Inside, her best friend Moniba has written the name “Malala” on a chair placed in the front row.
This was Malala’s world—not one of wealth or privilege but an atmosphere dominated by learning. And she flourished. “She was precocious, confident, assertive,” says Adnan Aurangzeb. “A young person with the drive to achieve something in life.”
In that, she wasn’t alone. “Malala’s whole class is special,” headmistress Mariam Khalique tells me.
And from the moment I walk in, I understand what she means. Their focus and attention is absolute, their aspirations sky-high. The lesson under way is biology, and as it ends I have a few moments to ask the girls about their future plans—many want to be doctors. One girl’s answer stops me in my tracks: “I’d like to be Pakistan’s army chief one day.”
Part of the reason for this drive to succeed is that only white-collar, professional jobs will allow these girls a life outside their homes. While poorly educated boys can hope to find low-skilled work, their female counterparts will find their earning power restricted to what they can do within the four walls of their home—sewing perhaps.
“For my brothers it was easy to think about the future,” Malala tells me when we meet in Birmingham. “They can be anything they want. But for me it was hard and for that reason I wanted to become educated and empower myself with knowledge.”
It was this future that was threatened when the first signs of Taliban influence emerged, borne on a tide of anti-Western sentiment that swept across Pakistan in the years after 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Like other parts of north-west Pakistan, Swat had always been a devout and conservative region, but what was happening by 2007 was very different—radio broadcasts threatening Sharia-style punishments for those who departed from local Muslim traditions, and most ominously, edicts against education.
The worst period came at the end of 2008, when the local Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, issued a dire warning—all female education had to cease within a month, or schools would suffer consequences. Malala remembers the moment well: “‘How can they stop us going to school?’ I was thinking. ‘It’s impossible, how can they do it?’”
But Ziauddin Yousafzai and his friend Ahmad Shah, who ran another school nearby, had to recognise it as a real possibility. The Taliban had always followed through on their threats. The two men discussed the situation with local army commanders. “I asked them how much security would be provided to us,” Shah recalls. “They said: ‘We will provide security, don’t close your schools.’”
It was easier said than done.
By this time, Malala was still only 11, but well aware of how things were changing.
“People don’t need to be aware of these things at the age of nine or 10 or 11 but we were seeing terrorism and extremism, so I had to be aware,” she says.
She knew that her way of life was under threat. When a journalist from BBC Urdu asked her father about young people who might be willing to give their perspective on life under the Taliban, he suggested Malala.
The result was the Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl, a blog for BBC Urdu, in which Malala chronicled her hope to keep going to school and her fears for the future of Swat. She saw it as an opportunity.
“I wanted to speak up for my rights,” she says. “And also I didn’t want my future to be just sitting in a room and be imprisoned in my four walls and just cooking and giving birth to children. I didn’t want to see my life in that way.”
The blog was anonymous, but Malala was also unafraid to speak out in public about the right to education, as she did in February 2009 to the Pakistani television presenter Hamid Mir, who brought his show to Swat.
“I was surprised that there is a little girl in Swat who can speak with a lot of confidence, who’s very brave, who’s very articulate,” Mir says. “But at the same time I was a bit concerned about her security, about the security of her family.”
At that time it was Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, who was perceived to be at the greatest risk. Already known as a social and educational activist, he had sensed that the Taliban would move from the tribal areas of Pakistan into Swat.
Malala herself was concerned for him. “I was worried about my father,” she says. “I used to think, ‘What will I do if a Talib comes to the house? We’ll hide my father in a cupboard and call the police.’”
No one thought the Taliban would target a child. There were however notorious incidents where they had chosen to make an example of women. In early 2009, a dancer was accused of immorality and executed, her body put on public display in the centre of Mingora. Soon afterwards, there was outrage across Pakistan after a video emerged from Swat showing the Taliban flogging a 17-year-old girl for alleged “illicit relations” with a man.
Ziauddin Yousafzai must have known that Malala’s high profile in the valley put her at some risk, even though he could not have foreseen the outcome.
“Malala’s voice was the most powerful voice in Swat because the biggest victim of the Taliban was girls’ schools and girls’ education and few people talked about it,” he says. “When she used to speak about education, everybody gave it importance.”
By the time Malala was shot in 2012, the worst days of Taliban power in Swat had receded. A high-profile military operation had cleared out most militants but others had stayed behind, keeping a low profile.
“Life was normal for normal people, but for those people who had raised their voice, it was now a risky time,” says Malala.
Tomorrow: Malala’s tragic bus ride
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