At 18 years of age, Malala Yousafzai has probably gone through a lot more than most of us would’ve gone through in a lifetime. When she was just 15, she became a target for the Taliban, who attempted to assassinate her in her hometown of Swat Valley, Pakistan. All she had done was to try to fight for the rights for girls to have education.
Malala survived the gunshots, although she was severely wounded. After her recovery in the UK, she came out stronger than ever, working her way to lead a campaign for girls’ education around the globe as the co-founder of the Malala Fund. At 17 years of age, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014.
In conjunction with International Women’s Day this March, National Geographic Channel will bring Malala’s story to life, by presenting a feature documentary on her life, titled He Named Me Malala. Directed by the Academy Award-winning Davis Guggenheim, the documentary examines how Malala, her father Ziauddin, and her family became committed to advocating for girls’ rights to education worldwide.
In this interview by National Geographic Channel, Malala opens up about life after winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
What did you think of the film?
When I saw it I felt very happy that Davis has told our story very powerfully. And I was also very pleased at how art and a story can come together and make the story more beautiful and more powerful and this is what Davis has done – his art, his skills, combine with the story of our family.
Is it hard to watch yourself on film?
I can’t watch my interviews, it’s extremely hard for me. Seriously, if someone is playing a video in which I’m talking I can’t even hear my voice.
You’ve spoken at the UN; you’ve been on TV shows all over the world. Do you get nervous?
I take it seriously and I feel like, ‘this is the time you are speaking to the world…’ And at the UN, I felt that I wasn’t just speaking to the 400 or 500 people sitting in front of me but I was speaking to those children who are deprived of education, I was speaking to all parents, to all teachers, everyone, all leaders, and this is what gives me more confidence. And also, I just speak. I just say what is in my heart. If my diction isn’t correct, fine, if I’m not speaking in a very typical political way, I don’t really mind, I just say what is in my heart.
Where are you with your own education now?
In the next two years I’ll be doing my A levels and then I want to go to university. I want to study PPE. I’m hoping that I can study that at Oxford and for that I’m working hard and trying to get good grades and do some work experience. I’ve done two weeks work experience recently. One week was at Mosaic, which is the organisation created by The Prince of Wales, which helps marginalised children in the UK through mentoring, and one was with a group that helps young people, where young people with new ideas can come and do what they want and help in the community. I did the work experiences with my friend and it involved creating a campaign and making coffee – that was the first time I learnt how to make coffee – doing workshops, helping the people who were arranging the workshops, lots of things. I really enjoyed it. And I want to have good things on my CV to help my admission to university.
You have a busy life, you have your organisation, and your schoolwork, and in the film you said that sometimes your school works suffers because you are so busy. How is that going now?
It’s going well. In the beginning there was so much work and I missed my school and because of that I was a bit behind and I had to revise many topics. During my spare time I realised that there were so many topics that I hadn’t covered because I was absent and I had to give those topics more time and revise them. It was hard during exam time so this year I have decided no work at all during term time, no other activities, just school work, because education is important for everyone, including me.
The attack on you could have marked the end of your campaign for education for girls and yet it, in many ways, it was the beginning of a new chapter for you. Was that a conscious decision, that you wouldn’t let it define you as a victim?
That incident in my life, in a way, changed me and changed my whole story and before the attack I used to get a little bit scared about what would happen if someone came and took me, if the Taliban came to stop me. I used to think about that but after the incident I realised that I’m surviving and I’m alive and there is some reason for it. A bullet going near to your brain, into a place where you can’t even imagine that you could survive. But I am still surviving and I’m in very good health; I can talk, I can walk, I can live like a normal person. And so there is some reason that I’m surviving and I think that reason is to help people and to continue this fight for education and now education has become part of my life – working for it, fighting for it, this is my life now.
Are you optimistic about the future in terms of education for girls?
I am very optimistic but in terms of taking decisions and what should be done next, I am careful. I do think about both sides of an argument. But I am optimistic and I am hopeful that there will be change but it’s when will that change come? When will it be sorted out? When will things be better? Is that in 100 years? 50 years? 30 years? How much time will pass? And when will the world leaders give time to it? That’s why we say that we need to speak for education right now because if we remain silent then world leaders, whose children are in very good schools and very good universities, wouldn’t give time to the education of other children. So it’s important that we highlight the issues right now. We need to continue to keep it in the spotlight.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like lots of things. I have no limits for doing things. I love to be with my friends, playing games, fighting with my brothers [laughs]. That’s really good fun. Especially when you are fighting against your brothers. If you are fighting against them, that’s more enjoyable. They argue a lot, especially, the little one and it’s extremely hard to argue with him – he has an answer for everything. And the older one you can defeat him with two or three words. He’s fine but the little one is very small, even though he is 11 he is still very small but he is very clever and he argues a lot.
I was talking to your father and he said that even when you were very little, like three years old, you would have long conversations. Can you remember that time?
I remember some of it. I do remember our house that was very close to our school and I remember going to the school when I wasn’t admitted yet. I was about four years old. I always used to cry if I was late for school. And then I would worry about what the teachers would think and if they were going to get angry with me and my father and mother would say ‘you have to go now…’ and then the teachers would say ‘we are not going to shout at you or say anything, just come to school…’ I do remember some things from when I was tiny. I have lived for 18 years – 15 years in Pakistan and almost three years in the UK.
So that love of school and education was there from a very young age. Why did it captivate you in that way?
My father has always been a role model for me, an inspiration for me, and I would love his speeches and love the way that he would talk about women’s rights and education and the change we all wanted to see. And he would talk about the change and he would say ‘we can do it, the change is going to come.’ Also there were some very good speakers in our school, some young girls delivering speeches in the morning assemblies, and I wanted to give speeches like that, I wished to give speeches like my father. Later I realised that I could give a speech, but I’m not like that fiery speaker, like my father, I’m quite quiet. I don’t remember this but my mother and father say that when I was very little I just loved talking to the empty classroom, to the chairs, sort of lecturing. I was being a teacher.
You always seem so fearless and calm, have you always been that way? Were you worried when you were writing your blog? And now, are you afraid sometimes?
I think it’s part of human nature to get scared and there were times when I was scared. I was scared to go to school because I was scared that someone could throw acid on my face or the terrorists could flog me because I was going to school and I was doing something against what they want. So yes, there were times I was scared. But what kept me going on was the courage –the courage that came to me because my father inspired me, the way he spoke out on women’s rights and education, and seeing in my community, in the Swat Valley, that there was no peace. The Taliban are bombing schools and if these things are ever going to change, there is a responsibility to speak out, to do something, and that gave me courage. Right now, I am optimistic. I do care about things, I do ask questions and I do think before making any decisions, but I am optimistic about the future and that things will change.
In the film it’s clear that you have a longing to see the Swat Valley again. Did you envisage a time when you could go back there and live?
I’m hoping that we will be able to go to Pakistan very soon and I am very excited about that. Being away from your own country for three years is very hard. We came to the UK not from our own choice but circumstances. People in the UK have been very welcoming and kind and we are grateful for their love and support, but it’s difficult to live in a situation where it’s not your own choice and we are hoping to be able to go [to Pakistan]. I’m pretty sure that after I finish my studies I will definitely work in Pakistan and that has been my dream for years and years, to help my country. Before we left I saw terrorism, I saw girls being denied the right to education. So the journey started there and I want it to take me back there and I’m hopeful that it will.
Do you ever feel that there is too much attention on you and wish that you could just lead a ‘normal’ life?
Right now it feels like I have two different lives. One is the girl at home fighting with her brothers, living like a normal girl, going to school, doing homework and exams. So one is that girl and then there is another girl who speaks out for education, so it seems like two different lives, but the reality is that it’s one girl doing all those things. I’m trying my best every day to connect the two together and consider it as part of my life because it’s just me. I’m going to school like a normal student and having to prepare for exams and being the girl that speaks out. So both of these are part of my life and both are me.
Can you describe what it was like to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
The Nobel Peace Prize was a special award and when I received it I was not expecting it at all and it was such a surprise to know that you have the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17, when you are still a child. But I was honoured and I received the prize for standing up for children and their education and it gave me strength and more courage to know that it is time that we focus more on the issue of education because many children are deprived of the right to go to school. It’s a very important issue and the Nobel Peace Prize gave me the opportunity to spread the message across the world.
‘He Named Me Malala’ premiers at 9pm, 8 March on National Geographic Channel and National Geographic Channel HD (Astro channels 553 and 573). For more info on Malala’s campaign, head to supportmalala.com.
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