Malala Yousafzai
© Brigitte Lacombe

When I called at the appointed hour, Malala Yousafzai couldn’t immediately come to the phone. She was eating an egg. Her father, Ziauddin, briefly appeared on the line to ask me protectively, “Who will interview my Malala?” Having satisfied himself of my credentials and general good intent, he thanked me, then apologised for the delay in an arrestingly formal English. “Sorry for taking some time. There was an MP, and afterwards Malala had to take breakfast. She’s eating just an egg but it takes time to eat one egg.”

These days, Malala must contend with more than the mere visit of a local MP and a truncated breakfast. A few days before I phoned her at her Birmingham home, she had earned a standing ovation at the European parliament in Strasbourg for a speech in which she accepted the Sakharov human rights prize. A diminutive figure, standing before an audience that included 20 former laureates, she had told them simply, “Many children have no food to eat, no water to drink and children are starving for education. It is alarming that 57 million children are deprived of education . . . this must shake our conscience.” Christina Lamb, who spent a year with Malala helping to write her autobiography, I Am Malala, had told me that sometimes the young campaigner would return home from such engagements at 1am, only to get up early for school the following morning. I’ve been asked to interview her on a Saturday, so as not to distract her from homework.

The calls on her time have been many. There was her visit to the White House for a meeting with Barack Obama and to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen. There was her speech at the United Nations, delivered on her 16th birthday, in which, index finger pointed defiantly skywards, she exhorted the world’s children to “pick up our books and our pens . . . the most powerful weapons”. Then there were her interviews with a clearly besotted Christiane Amanpour and Jon Stewart – the latter asked jokingly if he could adopt her – and her encounters with the likes of Bono and Angelina Jolie. So famous has she become that a letter marked simply “The Girl Shot in the Head, Birmingham” safely reached the hospital bed where she was recovering after being attacked last October in Pakistan’s Swat (pronounced Su-wat) valley. Please, I mumble to her father, let her take as long as she likes with her egg.

A few moments later, Malala is on the line. I make a few opening remarks intended to put her at ease and then ask how she is adjusting to life at a private girls’ school in Birmingham. I’d heard that the girls in her class had, not surprisingly, struggled to see her as simply a new classmate but had kept her at a distance appropriate to an international celebrity. Neither had Malala, extremely competitive in school, taken kindly to being relegated two years, a move considered necessary by her teachers to give her time to prepare adequately for the GCSE exams that British children normally take at 16. Vastly more experienced and accomplished than most children of her age, she thus finds herself in the company of 14-year-olds who must wonder what planet she hails from.

“I could feel the girls looked at me as the girl who was shot by the Taliban or the girl who struggles as a women’s rights activist,” she concedes, her voice ringing over the long-distance line with a bell-like clarity. “They could not see the ‘Malala’ inside me.” Her consonants in words like “could” and “kind”, a favourite, have the satisfying hardness of the subcontinent. There is too, surprisingly for one who has experienced so much trauma, a constant undercurrent of amusement in her voice, as if she is on the verge of giggling. She felt, she says, “a bit like I am not that old Malala, just having fun and having a chat with my friends. But now it’s getting better.” Oh good, I say lamely, and am rewarded, for the first of many times during our conversation, with a laugh as pretty as wind chimes

Pakistani army doctors treating Malala the day after she was shot in the head by the Taliban on October 9 2012
Pakistani army doctors treating Malala the day after she was shot in the head by the Taliban on October 9 2012 © Barcroft Media

“Now I have a lot of friends,” she continues, adding that, of course, none can replace Moniba, her closest companion from the Swat valley. It was Moniba with whom she confided, competed and quarrelled and with whom, as a 10-year-old, she read the Twilight books and shared a longing to become vampires. “I can never forget her. I have never found anyone like her,” she says, sounding out “an-y-one” as though it were three separate words. “The school is very good, especially the teachers. They are very kind to me. And now I am also working hard to get high marks and on the spelling mistakes I always do, and to improve my English as well as maths.” By now she is chuckling at the long list of her supposed educational shortcomings. “So there are many, many things to do.”

Malala Yousafzai leaving the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, after undergoing surgery to repair her skull, January 4 2013
Leaving the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, after undergoing surgery to repair her skull, January 4 2013 © Camera Press

My pact with her father had been to concentrate on the future and not dredge up too much of her past encounters with terrorism and bullets in her native Pakistan. I was happy to oblige since that story – of her bravery in speaking out for girls’ education even as the Taliban, with their medieval beliefs, descended on the Swat valley – has been endlessly recounted since her shooting. Here it is briefly again. Malala was born into a Pashtun family in the beautiful Swat valley, a famous tourist attraction until the Taliban tightened its grip on the region, eventually imposing sharia law in 2009. She began speaking out for the right of girls to go to school when she was 10. As militants blew up schools and intimidated teachers, she started an anonymous blog for the BBC recounting life under Taliban rule. She gave interviews and speeches defending girls’ education and won nationwide recognition as a defiant campaigner. Her religion, she said unflinchingly, had been perverted by those who “think Islam means women sitting at home in purdah or wearing burqas while men do jihad”. At the worst kind of madrassas – religious schools – she said, boys memorised the Koran by rocking back and forth as they recited. “They learn that there is no such thing as science or literature, that dinosaurs never existed and that man never went to the moon.”

Her father, who as a teenager had once toyed with jihad himself, had become a passionate educator and an outspoken liberal. He ran several schools, including the one at which Malala was taught. While other girls celebrated weddings and holidays by using henna to draw pictures of flowers and butterflies on their hands, she and her friends drew calculus and chemical formulae. “We liked to be known as the clever girls,” she writes in her autobiography. Her defiance was all the more remarkable given her Pashtun upbringing. Her mother is traditional and conservative. “She does like purdah because she is very near to Islam,” Malala explains to me. When Lamb visited the village from which Malala’s parents came, she found herself kept in isolation with the female relatives, fed the leftovers only when the men had eaten their fill.

I want, if I can, to discover something about “the ‘Malala’ inside me”, the person behind the defiant campaigner. What, for instance, I begin tentatively, does she like and not like about England? “The thing that is better in Pakistan is the weather,” she responds without hesitation. She has lived a year in the UK and is yet to see what she would call a summer. “In Pakistan we have four seasons,” she says, as though the concept must be novel amid the concrete of Birmingham. “We have winter, we have summer, we have spring and we have autumn. Each is four months” – she backs up, correcting her maths with a giggle – “yeah sorry, three months, so it’s very interesting when you see every part of the beauty, everything in different seasons. So in spring, you can see flowers and greenery and then in autumn you can see another beauty when the leaves fall. That’s another special kind of beauty. But here in the UK” – and here she pauses with a comic’s timing, drawing out the sad and gloomy words with a heavy sigh – “it’s al-ways win-ter.”

She responds equally emphatically to my question about what she appreciates. “I like the traffic rules because in Pakistan when the traffic gets jammed on the roads, you can only hear horns. Here, everyone is obeying the rules. They are very kind to each other and they wait for each other,” she continues, clearly having not yet been filled in on the concept of road rage. “I love the traffic rules here – and that everyone is following those rules.”

Malala addresses the United Nations Youth Assembly on July 12 2013. The UN declared July 12 to be 'Malala Day'
Malala addresses the United Nations Youth Assembly on July 12 2013. The UN declared July 12 to be 'Malala Day' © Getty Images

When she first awoke in a Birmingham hospital bed, thousands of miles from home and with no memory of how she got there, her first inclination had been to return to Pakistan. Some 10 days after she regained consciousness, she got the hospital to call her father – who had not initially accompanied her to England – to make sure that he brought her physics and other textbooks to Birmingham. She knew she had a physics exam in March back in Swat and was desperate to prepare for it. It was only later on that she realised, with growing sadness, that she wouldn’t be going back to Pakistan just yet.

“I didn’t know that I had no bone in the left side of my head or that the bone was being kept in my tummy,” she says of the life-saving operation in which a part of her skull was removed to relieve pressure from her brain. The fragment of skull was kept in her stomach though it was later judged too risky to put it back in her head, and a moulded titanium plate was fitted instead. Not only did her physical condition rule out a swift return. So too did the political atmosphere. The Taliban had admitted to trying to kill her – inconvenient for those who claimed she had made the whole thing up – and had vowed to finish her off if it got the chance.

Part of Malala’s extraordinary quality results from her inability, either before or after the shooting, to see herself as vulnerable. “I always feel safe. I don’t know why, but I have no fear,” she tells me matter-of-factly as though she is explaining that she is not prone to catching colds. “I am definitely going back to Pakistan, inshallah, as soon as possible.” As soon as possible is likely to mean several years. The family is now committed to staying in the UK at least until Malala has completed her GCSEs and probably her A-levels, which will take a further two years. Then there’s university. Until then, Malala’s intention is to cut back somewhat on the public appearances and to concentrate on her studies.

Malala and her father, Ziauddin, at a Buckingham Palace reception with the Queen on October 18 2013
Malala and her father, Ziauddin, at a Buckingham Palace reception with the Queen on October 18 2013 © Getty Images

If part of Malala wants to be treated like a child, another part is impatient to grow up as quickly as possible so she can get on with her life. Her ambition to be a doctor has now given way to a yearning for a life in politics. “Whenever I saw something like poor children on the roadside or children sitting in the dirty streets in Karachi or Lahore, I would wish I could just grow up right now and be 35 or 45 and go to the parliament and become prime minister and just help these children.” The string of “ands” attests to the fact that, in her mind, one thing already leads naturally to another, culminating in her becoming Pakistan’s second female leader after Benazir Bhutto. “I want to bring change to my whole country. On the spot, I could only help one or two children, but if I want to help the whole country then I need to be a politician.”

I wonder if she has given thought to the military’s dominant position in Pakistan, which renders civilian leaders less than powerful, even when they are permitted to be in office at all. Of course she has. Pakistan has been a military dictatorship for half its history, she explains. “I am definitely going to work for education but we also need to tell the army that your job is to protect the country, to protect its borders. You should be limited in your job. As a politician, I am going to change that rule,” she concludes decisively of her ambition to confine the army to barracks. “Good luck with that,” I say with sledgehammer irony and am disarmed by the giggled reply. “Thank you.”

Malala’s celebrity and near-universal acclaim in the west is mirrored by indifference – even hostility – back in Pakistan. After her shooting, rumours swirled that she was a CIA spy and that the shooting had been faked. “It’s incredibly sad,” says Lamb, who thinks Malala could have been a wonderful advertisement for both Pakistan and a tolerant Islam. “Within an hour, there were all these people saying she wasn’t really shot, it’s a stunt, she’s a prostitute.” Many Pakistanis asked why this girl should be singled out for sympathy when so many had suffered, including at the hands of American drones. Wasn’t she besmirching Pakistan’s image in the world? Why should getting shot before being whisked off to a life of fame and luxury in the west earn her such acclaim? Some simply thought that anyone so feted in the west must, by definition, be an enemy of Pakistan. Malala’s autobiography has been banned by many private schools back home. “Through this book she became a tool in the hands of western powers,” lamented Kashif Mirza, chairman of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation.

Malala is serene in the face of such bitterness. “The people who are a little bit against me,” she says with commendable understatement, “are a very small group but they are very active and very vocal. It seems like they are the whole country, but it’s not true. The people who support me are in the millions.” She seeks to understand those who have criticised her, saying they have been duped so many times by dishonest politicians that their trust is shattered. “I do not want support for myself, I do not want support for only Malala. If you don’t support me – even if you hate me – that’s fine. Just only support my cause, which is education. And I will feel as if you are supporting me.”

I ask about her attitude to Pashtun culture, which she clearly adores but which she also says “has a lot to answer for”, starting with its celebrations of a boy’s birth but its indifference to the arrival of a girl. “I love my Pashtun culture and traditions,” she says. “In our culture, you love everyone, you love each other, you are very kind to each other. That’s why whenever anyone comes to the house, you sit with him and serve him tea and you tell him to stay for the night. And that’s a very good thing, this hospitality,” she says. “But the things that go against women’s rights I do not agree with.” Can you have one without the other, I ask? Can cultures be changed? “Culture never came from the sky or came out from the earth. Humans created their own culture and that’s why humans have the right to change it. And the culture should be of equality – it should not go against the rights of women, it should not go against the rights of anyone.”

I want to end with Malala’s family with whom she is clearly so close. We start with her two brothers, both younger, Khushal Khan and Atal Khan, with whom, if her memoir is anything to go by, she is always squabbling. Lamb says they are constantly teasing her and have helped keep her feet on the ground. “I have noticed that even my own brother doesn’t like to go to school and he finds an excuse like, ‘I am ill or I have got headache or I am feeling a little bit dizzy,’” she says contemptuously of Khushal when I ask if British children appreciate education. “He feels sick in the morning, but then when school’s finished he feels fine.” By contrast, her British classmates have a “sincerity” towards education. It must be, she concludes, a girl thing.

Malala portrays her mother, Toor Pekai, green-eyed and beautiful according to those who have seen her, as exceedingly strong. She has been described as illiterate, though Malala says she can read Pashto. “She’s also a bit good in Urdu as well,” she says proudly. “She’s now trying to learn English because now English is becoming a kind of universal language and everyone has to learn it. She cannot read what’s written on the boards when she goes to the supermarket, she cannot read what’s on the milk, or biscuits or shampoo, so it’s important for her to learn it. And I am also sitting with her and teaching her the names of colours, parts of body and she’s very good at that. She’s learning it every day.”

What about her mother’s conservative attitudes? “My mother used to get angry with me in Pakistan [for not covering her face] and say, ‘That man is looking at you, and that man is looking at you.’ And I said: ‘That man is looking at me and I am also looking at him,’” she laughs. “So now she’s fine. She just tells me to cover my head, but not my face.”

Still, her mother was alarmed when she arrived in the UK, particularly at what she regarded as the near nudity of the women, despite Birmingham’s freezing temperatures. (Even Malala was shocked when hospital staff gave her a video of Bend It Like Beckham. She turned it off when the female football players stripped down to their bras.) The first flat they lived in after Malala came out of hospital was in a nightclubbing district of the city. “Yes, we were in an apartment on Broad Street and everyone knows what happens on Broad Street,” Malala says, her voice full of innuendo. “I am a little bit broad-minded and I think it’s their culture not to cover their bodies and it’s our culture to cover our bodies. But, for my mother, it was totally strange. ‘If you go against the rules of Islam, you will be sent to hell.’ My mother was really worried about those girls.”

Of her father’s influence, Malala rejects the notion that he has pushed her into politics or that she is his creation, a common criticism from some commentators who have compared him with a pushy tennis father. “From the beginning, my father always supported me, he never pushed me,” she says. When she was asked to do things, like appear on camera, “he would say, ‘Would you like to do this? I support you Malala. Never be afraid of anyone.’” But, she says, it was always her choice. “I learnt from him, the way he was struggling for women’s rights and peace in Swat. He was not afraid of anyone and his life was also at risk and his name was mentioned on the radio by the Taliban.”

From her father, too, she learnt that people can change. “O Allah, please make war between Muslims and infidels so I can die in your service and be a martyr.” These are not the words of the fanatic who shot Malala but of her father when he was Malala’s age, the same man who later inspired her philosophy of tolerance and pacifism. “When you’re growing up and reaching maturity, your mind can be changed by anyone,” she says of her teenage father’s militant views. Then, she says, “he saw the other side of the world when he met some people who were quite liberal and who were talking about peace and equality”. They told him that “life is very precious”. These are clearly words that Malala has taken to heart. “If you die, then you can do nothing in this world, because you are gone,” she says. Then she laughs at the obviousness of it. “So I think if you want to do something, the best thing is do it – and then die.”

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article