Before she became a world-renowned advocate for girls’ education, before she became a victim of the Taliban’s brutality, before she was nominated for international accolades, Malala Yousafzai was this: a scared little girl. The title of Malala’s first entry in a diary she kept for the BBC in 2009 was ‘I am afraid’. Over the course of ten weeks, the 11-year-old offered a glimpse into her life in Taliban-occupied Swat. Her accounts provide a picture of the very real threats she and her schoolmates faced for pursuing their studies, but do so with childlike simplicity. She describes, for instance, the day her teacher told the class not to wear uniforms to school for fear of being targeted by the Taliban. Malala came to class in her favourite pink dress. “Other girls in school were also wearing colourful dresses and the school presented a homely look,” Malala wrote.
In order to protect herself from reprisals, she wrote under the pseudonym Gul Makai, a heroine of Pashtu folklore. Malala liked this fictitious byline because it allowed her to escape the ominous meaning of her own name: ‘grief stricken’. Her pseudonym was given to her by Abdul Hai Kakar, a former BBC Urdu Service reporter. “I wanted to give an indigenous, symbolic attachment to Swat, so that the people could own [Malala’s diary] journalistically,” he explained. Kakar had first conceived the idea of a diary as a way to give “a humanitarian face to the tragedy” of Taliban occupation.
It’s likely that Malala herself did not leap at the chance to be that humanitarian face. It was her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an activist and educator, who volunteered her name when Kakar approached to ask if he knew any girls who would be willing to write. “He said nobody was ready to talk because everyone was afraid of the Taliban,” Kakar recounted in a recent interview. “But he hesitantly told [me] that if I agreed, then his daughter could work with me.”
Ziauddin Yousafzai must have known that there were serious risks involved in letting his daughter document her educational pursuits in the Taliban-dominated region, but in this, an opportunity as well. One in which a young girl’s life-threatening quest to obtain the basic right of education would reveal just how oppressive the Taliban in Swat had become. Through her diary entries, Malala described the very real threats the regime’s extremism posed to her everyday life – and by doing so, she grew into a symbol of resistance. It didn’t take long for the young girl to transform into an activist and someone whom Taliban recognised.
While the BBC attempted to maintain Malala’s anonymity, her father approved the submission of Malala’s true name for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Malala began to make frequent appearances on local as well as national media. It was this exposure that initially assuaged New York Times videographer Adam Ellick’s concerns when he first approached the Yousufzais about filming a documentary about Malala. Still, he remained apprehensive about putting the father and daughter into harm’s way. “For the first time in my career,” Ellick recalled, “I was in the awkward position of trying to convince a source, Ziauddin, that the story was not worth the risk.”
Instead, it was the Yousafzais who eventually convinced him to go through with the project, Ellick told the WGBH program Beat the Press. “Ziauddin was really nervous at the beginning, but then he became gung-ho. I think he saw this as a platform for him. He basically relieved my fears entirely … He said, ‘The Taliban already knows me. They know where I live; they know my school. If they want to get me, they see me on TV every night.’”
Ziauddin Yousafzai does indeed appear ‘gung-ho’ in Ellick’s documentary, Class Dismissed. It’s Malala who comes across as ill-at-ease in the role in which her father seems to have cast her. “I want to become a doctor, it’s my own dream,” she says at one point. “My father told me that you have to become a politician. But I don’t like politics.” “But I see a great potential in my daughter,” Ziauddin then says, “That she can do more than a doctor. She can create a society where a medical student would be easily able to get her doctoral degree.”
Malala did set out to create a better world for the girls of her country. In addition to her media appearances, the young activist met with US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, to request that he assist in promoting educational opportunities for girls in Pakistan. Though barely a teenager, she also set up her own charitable organisation, the Malala Education Foundation, to provide poor girls in Swat with the funds needed to attend school.
With the Taliban’s hold on the region all but diminished, Malala must have felt somewhat safer pursuing her own education. But then, on her way home from school one afternoon in October 2012, the 9th-grader came under attack. She was riding in a van, chatting with her schoolmates as they travelled through the mountainous paths of the Swat Valley. Suddenly the van stopped; a group of Taliban gunmen along the road had told the driver to halt the vehicle. One of the gunman demanded, “Which one of you is Malala?” Malala’s schoolmates unwittingly turned towards her, and the gunman fired a shot into her head. Two other girls in the van were shot before the gunmen fled the scene.
In a lengthy statement describing their rationale for taking a gun the head of an unarmed 15-year-old girl, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan wrote, “If anyone thinks that Malala was targeted because of education, that is absolutely wrong, and [the] propaganda of media.” Instead, Ehsan claims, “Malala was targeted because of her pioneer role in preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation. And whomsoever will commit so in [the] future too will be targeted again by TTP.” The statement goes on to say that Malala was an American spy who “created propaganda”. It calls her diary for the BBC “an embodiment of anti-Taliban views”.
This elaborate explanation implies a deeper mission than that of merely silencing Malala. Ehsan frames the Taliban’s issues with Malala in terms of her ideology and image rather than her actions or impact. Clearly, the Taliban are not just fighting for land in Malala’s Swat Valley, but for national and international hearts and minds as well. Their battle is waged, at least in part, in the landscape of the media – on TV screens and across newspapers.
As news of the attack on Malala made headlines around the world, protests of the Taliban’s attack did too. The Pakistani government announced a ‘Day of Prayer’ for the young girl, and schoolchildren joined hands during their morning assemblies to pray for Malala’s speedy recovery. Pakistan’s Interior Minister visited her as she lay in a hospital in Peshawar and the country’s president later met with the girl after she was flown to the UK for surgery. The phrase ‘I am Malala’ appeared on t-shirts and placards all over the world. Former British Prime Minister and current UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown launched a petition in her honour, drawing attention to the plight of the world’s 61 million out-of-school children. Tens of thousands signed a petition to call for Malala’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala quickly earned a reputation for her bravery in a part of the world that is often seen as hostile to strong-willed women. She became an icon for her defiance of the Taliban’s prohibition of girls’ education, in a region where the group had destroyed hundreds of girls’ schools and left the limbs of women strewn in alleyways for defying the strict edicts passed by Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the TTP. As President Zardari said at a ‘Stand Up For Malala’ event held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris while the girl lay in a hospital bed, “We are facing two forces in the country. Malala represents the forces of peace and we are fighting with the forces of darkness, hatred and violence.”
And yet – perhaps as a result of the accolades she began to receive on the global stage – in Pakistan, it took but a few hours for collective prayers for Malala to recede into a buzz of conspiracy theories. As she clung to life in those first few days after the attack, widely-circulated text messages suggested that had Malala been killed in the conflict raging through the volatile city of Karachi, she would never have been called the ‘daughter of a nation’. Many began to suggest that the Taliban-led assassination attempt was in fact a carefully-plotted scheme meant to justify a renewed excursion by the Pakstani army into the country’s northwest frontier. But by far the most common theory revolved around drone strikes.
“Malala’s hype is for justifying drones”, read one image shared on Twitter and Facebook. A post on the blog Muslim Matters similarly argued that Malala’s story provides a premise for both past and future war efforts. “Malala’s case [is] being used to highlight the problems with the Taliban’s regime,” the author writes, before going onto suggest that her celebrity will help justify the ongoing War on Terror.
The young girl who had curried compassion suddenly came to be seen as an agent of Western designs in Pakistan. Malala was seen after the attack as nothing but a victim who suffered at the hands of one side or the other. As she continued to struggle in the hospital, her life’s work took on a fictitious hue. Those who had watched her transform from anonymous diarist to courageous activist hardly saw her as human, much less as what she really was and still is: a child.
Even as her health improved, the tug-of-war over Malala’s living legacy did not abate. The attention she received in the United States only exacerbated the rumors about Malala. When Madonna performed a striptease to reveal the young activist’s name scrawled on the skin between her bra line and thong, claims that Malala represented a sort of godless secularism gained legitimacy for some. This was in spite of the fact that Malala herself was always pictured draped in a shawl, even in photos taken in her hospital room.
Other seemingly well-intentioned efforts also backfired. The decision to rename Malala’s school after her sparked protests among remaining students who feared that doing so would invite further attacks. Of course, attending school during the Taliban occupation of Swat has been an act of defiance for them as well. Shazia Rehman, 13, and Kainat Riaz, 16 – two girls also shot during the Taliban attack on Malala have since returned to school. “For a long time it seemed fear was in my heart. I couldn’t stop it,” said Rehman, who was shot in the hand. “But now I am not afraid.” Malala may have come to represent resistance to the Taliban’s brutish extremism, but she was by no means their only victim. Nor was she the only scared little girl who turned valiant.
Currently Malala is recuperating ahead of surgery that will reconstruct part of her skull. Still, she remains steadfast in her mission. In a message read by TV reporter Anderson Cooper at a recent CNN Heroes ceremony, she offered her gratitude for “the outpouring of love and support” she received. “People have actually supported a cause, not an individual,” Malala said. “Let’s work together to educate girls around the world.”
The road to recovery will be a long one, but Malala’s father, who was recently named as a special advisor to the United Nations on global education, has vowed that his daughter will return to Pakistan and continue her studies. “She will stand again and she can stand now. But when she fell, Pakistan stood,” Ziauddin said. “She will rise again.”
~ Beenish Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. This article was written with support from a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant.