When the year 2009 began, Swat conjured up the faceless image of a tourist destination with refreshingly clean waters and rugged natural beauty, fallen into the wrong hands. Everyone who had been to Swat, or had heard stories of its alluring charm, prayed for it but secretly thought it would never recover its lost glory. The oppressive blows that the Taliban dealt the valley seemed irreparable.
One such blow came on January 15, 2009, when the Taliban in Swat declared that all girls’ schools in the valley would close down. The whole world was appalled. Some two months later, a video captured on a mobile phone showed a 17-year-old girl being publicly flogged in the valley. The world was horrified.
But then, on February 1 the same year, a schoolgirl from Swat started blogging for BBC Urdu. She wrote about her typical days, after her school had been shut down. The details of entries in her blogs were ordinary for those living in the same area as she did and passing through the same circumstances as she was passing through but these were far from trivial. Her diaries became immensely popular. The unnamed schoolgirl beckoned the outside world to come to the support of all those girls who couldn’t go to a school in Swat. Exactly 11 months after her first blog appeared, the girl revealed her identity through her father. She was Malalai, now Malala Yousafzai.
Some would argue as to why she did not make her identity public while she was writing her blog. There is also debate about whether things would have unfolded differently had she disclosed her identity while writing her blogs. These arguments and debates, however, seem off the mark given the fact that she single-handedly gave Swat what it lacked: a public face that people around the world could recognise and identify with. With the growing reputation of her blog, every girls’ school in the valley began to form an identity.
Malala has never looked back since then or maybe she did not want to. Not surprisingly, there were quite a few things not worth looking back at. One of the world's most famous 16-year-olds, she has no memory of how someone all but took her life. However, she clearly remembers what prompted her on the path of challenging her tormentors – the wanton destruction of schools across her valley.
While doctors managed to save her life and retrieved her ability to see, hear, speak and write, hundreds of destroyed schools still remain a rubble, not just in Swat but in many other militant-ravaged areas. She has risen back to life to defend education as the most persuasive mechanism to fight the Taliban with. She serves as a source of inspiration for the state and the society, and hundreds of thousands of other girls like her to stand for the reconstruction and reopening of their schools.
The Taliban would have loved to see her disappear into death, as they would have liked that no school that they closed down or destroyed was reopened and reconstructed. But today, both Malala and the demolished, shut-down schools are slowly getting back into their stride.
The kind of reception that Malala is receiving in the West in general, and the Western media in particular has turned away some of her supporters in Pakistan. Some of them now accuse her of being a sellout to the West. Such detractors, however, seem to be wasting their time and energy over something that hardly matters, considering the fact that Malala today has become the international face for the cause of educating girls everywhere in the world. From being a local hero in 2009, she has transformed herself into a global icon in 2013.
Malala did not win the Nobel Peace Prize, and it instead went to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for destroying Syria’s arsenal.
But it still is a great day for Malala who was not only nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but also won the Sakharov Award, Europe’s top human rights honour. It is also a memorable occasion for celebrating all those other lives, of schoolchildren and their teachers, that were lost while they were trying to keep the torch of education alight in the face of a dark doctrine. All of Malala’s fallen comrades have returned from the dead to haunt their tormentors.
And she has learned to rise above the personal in order to stand up for the universal. Instead of seeking revenge and spreading hatred against the Taliban, who tried their best but could not take her life, she wants to talk to them to end the conflict and violence that they perpetrate.
She still remains the schoolgirl she was in 2009, championing the same cause that she championed then – education for girls. The only difference is that today she is no longer anonymous.
“I was talking to Malala’s father the other day and he said Malala was weeping and saying, ‘When will I study? I am going to America, to Austria, to Spain and for so many days I have not even had one class of geography,” a family friend of Malala says.
A year ago, Malala Yousafzai was a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Swat, thinking about calculus and chemistry, music and movies. Today, she’s the world-famous survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt, an activist for girls’ education and a contender to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s easy to forget she is still a teenager, and now a long way from home. So much has passed since that October 9, 2012, afternoon that Malala’s message and pleas seem to be getting buried deeper and deeper into the glory of awards, the statements of world leaders and militants, and the suspicions of some of her countrymen. Malala, who is now residing in the UK, hopes of one day returning to Pakistan despite the risks. She says: "To be torn from the country that you love is not something to wish on anyone."
Listen to Malala’s reaction on receiving criticism from Pakistanis and her desire to come back home:
Malala’s life story is much like the tale of her home region of Swat, a remote, mountainous region near the Afghan border. She says it is “the most beautiful place in the world,” but it’s also a crossroads traversed for millennia by armies and invaders, from Alexander the Great to Winston Churchill. Into this valley, in the years after 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, came the fundamentalist Taliban. When they first came they were not viewed upon as a threat by the locals but gradually the Taliban started imposing strict laws, preaching against girls’ education, shutting down DVD sellers and barber shops and displaying the bodies of people they’d executed. They blew up the region’s ancient Buddha statues, and then they began blowing up schools.
They destroyed everything old and brought nothing new.
Listen to Malala talk about terrorism in Swat:
Malala's popularity grew soon after she started writing her blog. But she was reassured by the thought that: “the Taliban don’t kill children.”
A little apprehensive, she continued.
"At night I would wait until everyone was asleep. Then I’d check every single door and window. I don’t know why, but hearing I was being targeted did not worry me. It seemed to me that everyone knows they will die one day. So I should do whatever I want to do."
When the army launched an offensive to oust the Taliban, Malala fled Swat with her family led by her father Ziauddin, a school principal and himself a seasoned campaigner for education.
After this difficult period she resumed her work promoting education, received the first national peace award from the Pakistani government and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
But October 9, 2012 changed everything. It seemed like any other day, “The air smelt of diesel, bread and kebab mixed with the stink from the stream where people still dumped their rubbish.” The school bus was heading home when a man got on board and inquired, “Who is Malala?”
Hand shaking, he pointed a gun at the girl.
“My friends say he fired three shots, one after another. By the time we got to the hospital my long hair and (schoolmate) Moniba’s lap were full of blood.”
The shooting is described briefly but vividly in her memoir, “I Am Malala” written with the British journalist Christina Lamb, a brisk account but full of arresting detail.
Listen to Malala relive the day she was shot:
She underwent intense pain and multiple surgeries after being shot in the head, first in Pakistan and then in Britain.
While her first surgery was successful, Dr. Fiona Reynolds, who has been critical to Malala’s miraculous survival, doubted that the intensive care facilities available in Pakistan would be sufficient for the teenager’s complete recovery.
“I was able to tell them (Pakistani officials) that everything I thought she would need was available in Birmingham,” Dr. Reynolds told Sky News.
Until recently, Dr. Reynolds involvement with Malala was kept a secret.
She asked everyone to be named in her book, and I didn’t want to be named, but Malala said the book had to be the truth. She wants her real story to be out there.
Malala’s first thought when she regained consciousness in a British hospital, where she had been flown for specialist treatment, was: “Thank God, I’m not dead.”
She gradually regained her sight and her voice and was reunited with her parents in her new home, Birmingham, but it was a completely different world when he was finally discharged from the hospital.
Listen to Malala adjusting to her new life in the Britain:
Malala goes on to describe her family’s homesickness and her views on life in England, including her amazement at seeing men and women socialising openly in coffee shops in the book “I Am Malala.” She has struggled to make friends at her English school, she reveals, and still spends hours talking to her friends in Swat using Skype.
Listen to Malala talk about her book:
Her old school closed Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of her shooting and the reaction in her hometown has been far from what the Taliban intended.
“When I was shot they thought the people would be silenced, they thought that no one would talk,” she told the BBC in a recent interview. "I think they might be repenting why they shot Malala."
The many awards that have since been bestowed on Malala are also probably not what the Taliban had hoped the shooting would achieve. The teenage activist nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, won the EU’s prestigious Sakharov human rights prize on Thursday, drawing a fresh threat of murder by the Taliban.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) immediately vowed a fresh attempt on her life “even in America or the UK.”
Feted by world leaders and celebrities for her courage, Malala has addressed the UN and could become the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate on Friday.
Listen to Malala to talk about her Nobel Peace Prize nomination:
Alister Doyle and Balazs Koranyi of Reuters say: "Alongside the glory, the Nobel Peace Prize has a darker side likely to make the awards committee think hard before honouring the Pakistani teenager. The prize has changed the lives of presidents, freedom fighters or humble human rights workers but some winners say it is hard to be put on a lifelong pedestal where actions, flaws and foibles can get judged against a yardstick of sainthood.”
Kristian Harpviken, head of the independent Peace Research Institute Oslo, said Malala was his top pick for this year’s $1.25 million prize but is concerned of what the award may bring for the little girl.
The other aspect is of course to burden somebody, who is still basically a child, with having to carry the weight of a Nobel Prize for the rest of her lifetime, and that, admittedly, is tough call.
Listen to Malala talk about her achievements and the personality changes that have come with it:
It is this side, the little girl that is Malala, that the book “I Am Malala” sheds light on. It reveals a girl who likes “Ugly Betty” and the cooking show “Masterchef,” Justin Bieber songs and “Twilight” movies, worries about her clothes and her hair, but also has an iron determination that comes from experience beyond her 16 years.
Listen to Malala talk about “Twilight”, Justin Beiber and Pashtu music:
Listen to Malala talk about her daily life and relationship with her brothers:
That grit and determination has been passed on by her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who founded the school that his daughter attended and kept it open to girls in the face of all pressure and threats. He passed on to his daughter a hunger for knowledge and a questioning spirit. Her mother, who has largely remained out of the spotlight, also played a vital role in Malala being the courageous girl that she is.
Listen to Malala talk about the influence of her mother on her life:
The young activist remains determined to return to Pakistan one day and enter politics.
I was spared for a reason - to use my life for helping people.
Listen to Malala talk about being inspired by Benazir Bhutto and her ambition of becoming a politician and working for Pakistan:
-Contributions by Dawn Magazine Editor Zarrar Khuhro, Radio FM 89, AP, AFP and Reuters.
A prominent British contemporary-portrait artist, Jonathan Yeo, suggested the British National Portrait Gallery to commission him the portrait of Malala. Qurratulain Zaman finds out what inspired Yeo to take on the project.
Jonathan Yeo’s one-meter long portrait of Malala was revealed on 11th September in the National Portrait Gallery. In the gallery are images of well known figures, such as Kevin Spacey, Damien Hirst, Grayson Perry and Helena Carter, and now Malala’s portrait is added to the list. She is portrayed as doing her home work.
The gallery keeps the portraits of historically important, culturally significant and famous British people; now Malala too, stands tall among world leaders.
Jonathan has always wanted to paint people who interest him.
Malala is someone, who is important to us because she is living in our country. But she came here out of necessity. She regards herself as a Pakistani, where she comes from, not someone who has become British.
Jonathan feels that teenage years are difficult for everyone but looking at the circumstances Malala has to face, and how she is coping with them, makes her an extraordinary subject to him.
“It must be very strange to her. She had to deal with very dramatic injuries and she is still recovering from them. There are physical changes, cultural changes and above all, there is the pressure of being a focal point, with an overwhelming quantity of attention.
“I think, that is a huge amount to deal with for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old. But I have been reassured after meeting her, about how normal, genuine and unaffected she is by all that. And a lot of the credit for that goes to her family – who are also all very intelligent and down to earth people.”
Jonathan is inspired by Picasso, he didn’t go to an art school and didn’t learn painting conventionally. He picked it up solely through studying the work of various artists, by going to the Tate gallery – he was living next to.
Jonathan doesn’t have a consistent rule on how much time he spends with his subjects while painting them. He spent two days with Malala and her family to know his subject well.
“It was quickly apparent to me; she was pretending to be what she was not. Young people are mostly like that. But I must say, she is very direct and very honest and her response is all very changing. She is the most fascinating person to be.”
There is a pattern to being rich and famous in the world. Public figures and famous people make a conscious decision in their life to be known and strive for it. It takes decades to be in a leading position.
However, Malala is lucky to have instantly, albeit tragically, found center stage. She is incredibly well-known and influential. Jonathan and many others in the west believe.
It increases the good will towards her and potentially the effectiveness of what she is trying to do because she didn’t plan to be where she is today.
What makes her iconic in the West and in the world is the sense that she is someone who has beliefs against oppression and threat. She stood up against the right to education for girls. “We admire someone, who stands for her beliefs. Don’t we?” says Jonathan.
Malala is somehow misunderstood in her own homeland Pakistan, where common citizens to decision makers look at her with suspicion. Many point fingers at her for being a western agent.
“I can’t be an expert on the local politics in Pakistan but a lot of it has to do with the foreign policy of the west in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We see mixed feelings here in Britain too in similar way. A lot of people in Britain are embarrassed by the politics of the Tony Blair government. And that is the reason, people are reluctant to accept things the way they are. People have become more suspicious of western governments and their agendas. I can understand the consciousness at their end, as well as at our end.”
Jonathan says that the world should be proud of Malala. “I am pretty encouraged so far with the decisions Malala and the people around her are making. We should be proud of her as she has got a voice and a platform that few world leaders could achieve.
Before meeting with Malala, Jonathan had a different idea about her. He wanted to paint her differently.
"I wanted to make an iconic religious woman. Lots of people are projecting their own ideas on her. But after meeting with her, I was struck with dichotomy. She is calm, serene and there is wisdom all over her, which is powerful and magical."
This week, an award-winning Pakistani-Canadian journalist, Mohsin Abbas will release his documentary film he made about the remarkable courage of Malala.
“Malala: A Girl from Paradise” tells the life story of Malala. Abbas, along with a four-member film crew recently spent nine months in Pakistan, UK and Czech Republic, where they interviewed friends, teachers and many others for the documentary.
He says insurgency in the volatile tribal regions make it one of the most dangerous areas in South Asia for working journalists.
"I am glad that this film is officially selected in various film festivals in Europe, Asia, Canada and USA, " added Abbas.
The documentary explores how the failure to silence Malala has inspired men, women, and children, not only in Swat Valley but also beyond the borders of Pakistan.
The film narrates how a young girl from a remote village stood up against "stone age ideologues who wanted to take a nation of 200 million back in time."
The documentary opens with a focus on Malala and her friends Kainat and Shazia.
Shazia and Kainat were also injured and survived but live in Pakistan under constant police protection. Their struggle to receive an education is a symbol for the fight for education across Pakistan.
Girls make up the majority of the world’s 61 million out-of-school children. They are less likely than boys to enter primary school.