In many ways, Malala Yousafzai is just like any other teenager. She loves to spend time with her family and friends, argues, playfully, with her brothers, likes playing games and dreams of going to university to study.
And in so many other ways, she is quite remarkable – courageous, fiercely bright, articulate, passionate, compassionate, wise and the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Prize. And, perhaps most remarkable of all, she has refused to let a horrific attempt on her life silence her.
He Named Me Malala is an intimate portrait of this extraordinary young woman who, at 15, was targeted by the Taliban in her native Swat Valley, Pakistan and severely wounded by gunshot as she returned home on a school bus.
The terrorists had singled her out for advocating the rights for girls to have education – ‘defying’ a Taliban order. Her life hung in the balance and only the skills of medical teams in Pakistan and Britain saved her.
After her recovery, Malala refused to give up and is now a leading campaigner for girls’ education globally as co-founder of the Malala Fund. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in October 2014 when still only 17, making her the youngest ever laureate.
Her memoir, I Am Malala: The Story Of The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, was published in 2013 and Malala and her family were approached by several filmmakers who wanted to tell her story on the big screen.
Her father, Ziauddin, a teacher who opened several schools in the Swat Valley, is himself a committed campaigner for the rights for girls’ education. Malala and Ziauddin chose producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald who, in turn, brought director Davis Guggen-heim on board.
What did you think of the film?
Malala: 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.
When your book came out I’m sure you had approaches from a lot of filmmakers who wanted to tell your story, because it is an incredible story. Why did you feel that Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes [producers] and Davis were the right ones to do it?
Well, we had no idea how film would be able to deliver our story and we were a bit worried; if they were going to choose some actors or maybe ask us to act in it. It was a bit weird to think of it. But then Walter and Laurie both had such passion for education and they really wanted people to get inspired and to learn from it and also they thought that this was important.
Because for some people it’s just a story of a girl being shot for standing up for education, and that’s very nice, but they felt that this message about education should spread. And what we always say is that this story is not the story of one family but this is the story of millions of children, millions of families.
So Walter, Davis and Laurie have all shown that this is the story of one family but also millions of people are suffering through the same situation, which this family has suffered.
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.
In the film we see your family trying to settle into a new country, Britain, so how is life for you and your family now?
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 [laughs]. 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.
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 (Philosophy, Politics and Economy). 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 Britain 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.
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.
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.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
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. – National Geographic
*‘Brummie’ is a native of Birmingham, England.
■ In conjunction with the premiere of He Named Me Malala, National Geographic Channel and 21st Century Fox have also launched a global donation campaign that will donate US$1 for every tweet using the hashtag #WithMalala or when participants change their profile picture to a custom video using supportmalala.com.
The donations, amounting up to US$50,000, will go to the Malala Fund in support of girls’ education.
He Named Me Malala will be aired on National Geographic Channel (Astro Ch 553/HD 573) at 9pm on International Women’s Day, March 8.