Interview with Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Prize winner, women’s education activist and also a fan of the Minions...
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It’s a Wednesday morning and I’m in Covent Garden. As 8.30am hits, a room full of journalists munching on croissants and an assortment of other pastries make their way into a small, private cinema to witness a film which those before them have called “Outstanding” (The Guardian) and “Inspirational” (everyone ever).
It’s the official press screening for the BAFTA nominated Best Documentary, He Named Me Malala - telling the story of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Constructing the sentence “Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize” is a victory in itself for Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai. When we speak to him, he tells us “In the beginning, Malala was known as that girl who was shot by the Talaban. It was really painful for me as a father and for my wife. Whenever she was mentioned her introduction was ‘the girl who was shot’ – but people didn’t know why she was shot. What was the story behind that shooting? This film tells that story. It was not a collective damage that she was shot, she was shot because she was standing for the right for education and she was standing for freedom. We wanted this story to be known to the world and, I always say, this is not the story of just one girl. This is the story of millions of girls who are out of school. And it is the story of millions of refugees as well.”
Zia brings up an important point, and one that is reiterated many times through-out the film. What makes Malala’s story so unique, is that it isn’t unique. And, despite her heroism internationally, Malala is still a normal teenager. When asking her what she likes to do for fun, she replies “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. That’s really good fun! Especially when you are fighting against your brothers. 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”.
Aged 15, Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in October 2012 – her ‘crime’ was to have spoken up for the rights of girls to be educated. This compelling film (directed by Davis Guggenheim) tells the story of Malala’s family and shows how an extraordinarily brave young girl, inspired by her father, refused to be silenced.
Malala: 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 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”.
And Malala’s story is resonating with people around the world.
Zia: We receive cards from all over the world. Every week there is a bunch of assignments done by different schools and teachers send them to us. We try to go through them, but it’s very difficult to read all of them. We respond to some of them. A girl wrote from India and she wrote that she has inspired her a lot. She said that she used to want to be a doctor, but now she wants to become a politician and I hope that one day I’ll be the Prime Minister of India, and you the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and we will make peace! It was so inspiring.
“One person wrote to us from Japan. He enclosed a note of 10,000 yen in the envelope. He wrote that he’s a poet and he’s poor without much money, but he wanted us to accept this money for the Malala Fund and spend it on education. There are many many stories like this”.
Perhaps a more surprising element of He Named Me Malala is the revelation that Malala would like to be able to return to her home in the Swat Valley again – although she knows the danger. “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.”
After Malala was shot, doctors in one of Pakistan’s military hospitals (where she was admitted) suggested that she fly to the UK in an emergency procedure to save her life. She has been here every since, roughly 3 years ago. This is a key feature of the documentary and is well-documented, “In the beginning it was quite hard to settle in this totally different country with a new culture and for me, especially school, was totally different, it was a new way of teaching, a new way of examinations, and a new way of friendships. But with the passage of time it has gotten much better now and we have lots of friends and at my school I have lots of friends and I just feel like I’m a Brummie now. I’m a total Brummie and I do feel like my accent is changing a bit, not in interviews, but at home when I talk it’s totally different.”
By the time I was 17, the most I had ever won was a certificate for “Best Improvement in ICT”, albeit this is a feat that should still be rewarded, it doesn’t quite compare to Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Perhaps one of the strongest moments of the film is when Malala doesn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, and her and her father remind us that it’s not the awards that matter – but the work. In 2014, she was finally awarded the Prize, “When I received it I was not expecting it at all... 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.”
Not just is Malala’s story incredible, but it’s becoming increasingly relatable. Whilst not all 18 year olds have won a Nobel Peace Prize for being a world leader in promoting education – the struggles that Malala faces being a young person, a refugee, moving to the UK is a contentious issue. It’s taken a toll on her education too, “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.”
Whilst the short term future for Malala may hold dreams of completing her A Levels and going on to study PPE at Oxford – the long term is a much bigger picture, and one that sounds extraordinary and unbelievable coming from most people, but seems somewhat more plausible coming from Malala, “I think hopefully I will have finished my school and university education in the coming 10 years and I’m hoping that I will be doing great work in Pakistan, helping children to go to school. I have a strong commitment to my country. I promised to myself that I would help Pakistan become a better country and to help the people of Pakistan receive peace and make sure that they get a quality education and they see development. It’s really sad to know that in this world on one side there is technology and all these new devices on the other side there are children who can’t go to school at all, there are people who don’t have basic facilities. So I am hoping to be able to help my country and whichever way possible, I will do it.”
As the clock hits 10.00am, the documentary is over and most of the small, private cinema is on the verge of tears. He Named Me Malala comes with a sharp underlying message that no matter who you are, or what your circumstances are, you can make a difference. And for Malala, she is optimistic that she is making the right ones for the future of girls’ education.
Malala: “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.”
There are no words to contest with Malala’s sentiment. Whilst jokes about boyfriends and Minions may make her crack up and laugh, there’s nothing that can break the focus of her goal.
He Named Me Malala (about Malala Yousafzai – the youngest Nobel Prize winner, women’s education activist, Minions fan and ‘most inspiring person ever’ award winner for the rest of her life) premiere’s on National Geographic UK on the 1st of March at 9.00pm.