Malala: A Portrait of Courage

Malala Yousafzai is a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head for defying the Taliban and championing the right of girls to go to school. Malala Yousafzai rose to prominence during the recent war in Pakistan’s Swat Valley by writing a blog under a pen name. More from NPR.

I know the brave Malala, the defiant Malala Yousafzai who first stood up to Taliban when they ran rampant in Pakistan’s Swat valley, in spring 2009 when they tried to shut down her father’s school with violence and threats.

I first heard about Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator who operates several schools in Mingora, the New York Times documentary “Class Dismissed in Swat.” In the video, Malala spoke out about the importance of girls’ education and decried the Taliban’s edict to restrict girls’ beyond the fourth grade. Defying the Taliban, her father continued to operate his school and Malala, then 11, continued to go to class.

Moved by the video, I resolved to write about those little girls who longed for an education but couldn’t obtain it. I contacted journalists in Pakistan and found a phone number for Yousafzai. I phoned and spoke to the father and the daughter.

I asked if there was anything I could do to help them. Malala’s response: Tell people about us.

My op-ed was published in our local paper, the Anchorage Daily News in March, 2009.

A few weeks after we spoke, the Pakistani Army launched an offensive against the Taliban and the family was forced to leave Swat for a refugee camp. After the Taliban’s defeat that summer Malala and her father returned and reopened the school. Soon students, including girls, flocked back.

During our conversations in 2009, Yousafzai told me he was glad for my support and invited me to come visit his family in Swat. I finally took up his offer this spring.

From my home in America, where I have lived since leaving my home in Pakistan in 1968, I traveled back to visit Malala in April.

In the intervening years Malala has been recognized internationally as an advocate for peace and girls’ education. In 2011 the Pakistani government honored her with the first-ever National Youth Peace Prize and the Dutch KidsRights Foundation nominated her for its International Children’s Peace Prize.

Our first meeting was in Karachi in March where she was receiving yet another award for her courage in standing up to the Taliban.

Earlier that morning I had learned of an alarming new threat: The extremist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, had placed Malala on a hit list. Malala walked into the room, a slight figure in a pink shalwar-kameez suit, her head covered with the matching duppata (scarf).

We hugged. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was moved by that small girl with the soft voice who stood up for what she believed in and faced untold dangers. I asked Malala about her school, her classes and the award she had received the previous night. She spoke in measured tones and gathered her thoughts carefully. I saw no hint of any hubris. She seemed unaffected by her fame or her awards.

I told the family about the Taliban threat. Her father’s face registered shock, but he recovered; Malala, however, kept her composure. I asked her if she was frightened. Her eyes flashed. “No. I feel no fear because life and death are in Allah’s hand.”

Our meeting was short but soon I’d be on my way to visit them in Swat.

The next month, in April, I draped a chaddar (a large covering) around my head and shoulders and boarded a bus in Rawalpindi for my journey to Swat, a valley in northwestern Pakistan. Malala gave me her room, a combined dining and drawing room while she bunked in another room with her cousins.

Her awards, trophies, and citations from The United Nations and other foundations crowded several shelves.

Books in English and Urdu jostled for space. Everything from the teen series “Twilight,” to “Oliver Twist,” “Anna Karenina,” a translation of Engel’s “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” and a collection of 10 Paul Coelho books.

Malala had read biographies of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the cricketer-turned-politician cricketer Imran Khan, as well as “A Brief History of Time,” by physicist Stephen Hawking. She professed an admiration for the physicist. I wondered if she found “A Brief of Time” difficult. “Yes, and no. My favorite subject is physics and I understood most of the book.”

I saw Malala play around with her younger brother and cousins. I saw her help her mother and speak spiritedly with her father about politics and her desire to stay in school at Mingora instead of going to a boarding school. Faced with continued threats from the Taliban, her father was considering sending her to a boarding school near Islamabad.

She spent time on her new iPad and watched Pakistani soap operas with her friends after school. When I asked her for an iron, she took my clothes and ironed them herself. She was selfless, generous and gentle.

I discovered a young girl, mature beyond her years, carrying a huge burden, aware of her celebrity but not taken with it. Her independent streak shone through. “I want to study and I want to have a career, because I never want to depend on anyone,” she told me.

She wanted to study physics in college and then law because “I need to know about law so I can enter politics and someday become the prime minister of Pakistan.” She exuded absolute confidence in her ability to attain whatever she set sights on, and I had no doubt that she would succeed.

A keen observer of her world, particularly Swat, she openly voiced her criticism. “I want Swat’s civil administration strengthened so we can do things such as build schools and clean up the river here so it won’t be a carrier for all the diseases we have, no one has paid attention to health, education and roads. All they want to do is loot money from the public.”

She wasn’t yet 15 but had blunt words for the army, which retains a strong presence in Swat. “When I’m the prime minister, I’ll reduce the army’s budget, and reduce the shipment of arms into the country. We will not compete in any more arms race.”

Many young people in Pakistan aspire toward a Western education, but not Malala. “I’ll only go abroad when I am finished with my education in Pakistan. I don’t want to be Westernized but I want to learn about the good things in the West.”

On my last day in Swat we spoke about her love of books. In my notebook she wrote an Urdu couplet from a children’s poem by poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal: “The only good people in this world are / those who are ready to be useful to others.”

Soon after she wrote those words in my notebook, Malala grabbed her books and sailed out the front gate. “Malala, cover your mouth,” her father called out to his feisty daughter. “If we don’t cover our faces in Mecca why do we need to cover them here?” she had asked me a day earlier when we spoke about women’s rights and purdah.

I caught a last glimpse of Malala as she adjusted her chaddar and pulled a corner across her face.

“She covers her head but not her mouth,’ said her father. “I always have to remind her that we live in Swat.” The reality of that was made tragic this week.

Shehla Anjum lives and writes in Anchorage, Alaska. She was born in Karachi and visits Pakistan annually.

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