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Malala: How A Young Girl Became A World Symbol


Today, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai is recognized internationally as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and the namesake of the U.N.'s Malala Day. But it wasn't long ago that she was just a young girl in Pakistan writing a blog about life under Taliban rule. Last year, she was critically wounded by a Taliban assassin who shot her on a school bus. The Pakistani Taliban says it targeted her because she was advocating for girls' rights. There are many players in Malala's rise from rural student to international symbol for girl's education.

In January 2009, video journalist Adam Ellick and his producer, Syed Irfan Ashraf, recorded Malala's last day of school for a New York Times documentary called "Class Dismissed." It follows Malala in the 48-hours before the Taliban closes the school that her father started. Here are Malala and her father, Ziauddin.


MALALA YOUSAFZAI: I want to become a doctor. It's my own dream but my father told me that you have to become a politician. But I don't like politics and...

ZIAUDDIN YOUSAFZAI: But I see a great potential in my daughter that she can do more than a doctor. She can have - she can create a society, while a medical student would be easily able to get a doctorate degree.

HEADLEE: How did a girl from rural Pakistan become a global voice for her people living under Taliban rule? That is a subject of Marie Brenner's piece in this month's issue of Vanity Fair called "Malala Yousafzai: The 15-Year-Old Pakistani Girl who Wanted More from her Country." And she joins us from our home in New York. Marie, welcome to the show.

MARIE BRENNER: Hi, Celeste. Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: So in this, this really great piece that you've written that kind of tells us how this journey was made. Let's kind of go back to the beginning of the moment when she first became more than just a girl in village taking lessons at her dad's school. When was that sort of initial turning point for Malala?

BRENNER: You know, what's extraordinary about the story is the accidental nature of how this extremely intelligent child from the Swat Valley was discovered by the world. And it is just an extraordinary story of circumstance. Imagine, age nine, she was at her classroom when a Pakistani journalist from the Dawn News TV channel - this is year 2007, comes into her class, asked the kids who has opinion about education. This bright child raises her hand. She is on TV in Pakistan for all of about 10 seconds.

And by complete accident, a young - another young journalist was walking by an editing screen and he saw her eyes jumping out from the screen, and this is Irfan Ashraf, and he said she was an ordinary child but on camera, extraordinary. And at that point, he was a war reporter covering all of the explosions that were going on all over the Swat Valley of the frontier of Pakistan. And he just resolved, the next time I'm in this town of Mingora, I'm going to go to this school and try to find this child. And it turned out, of course, that she was the daughter of the school owner, of the local activist, Ziauddin Yousafzai.

HEADLEE: So how did the Taliban presence there in Mingora affect girls like Malala? I mean, something about the combination between the incredible education she received at her father's hands and Taliban rule turned Malala into the activist that she is.

BRENNER: Oh, absolutely. You know, again, this is very much a story of a father and a daughter, but to see this school, which is an oasis of enlightenment in this frontier zone of Pakistan, I mean, this is - this child and her father and all of the girls in this school were living in a war zone, completely unpaid attention to by the establishment in Islamabad, in Karachi. The Taliban is raging in the hills. The Taliban had come back from Afghanistan. You know, so many of them are Pashtuns.

It's a very tribal area, a very - it's a fascinating area. And they are Pashtun warriors who were trained to go into Afghanistan and to Kashmir to destabilize the regions for the Pakistan army. And so they all came back as militants. And so this was an ongoing war that the local people had to fight for their security.

HEADLEE: Let me play you another piece of tape from The New York Times documentary "Class Dismissed." This is Malala talking about life under Taliban rule in Mingora, exactly as you've been speaking off.


YOUSAFZAI: In the world, the girls are going to their school freely, and there is no fear. But to - in Swat, when you go to our school, we are very afraid of Taliban. They will kill us, even throw acid on our face. And he can do anything.

HEADLEE: How aware, Marie, was Malala and her father of her own personal danger while going to school and (unintelligible)...

BRENNER: Oh, very aware. They were threatened constantly. Her father was such an activist. And you have to admire Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala's father, because he was - he's very much an intellectual and a fierce - a man of fierce independence who believes very much in feminist daughters. I mean, his Malala was named after a great heroine of Pashtun warriors, Malalai of Afghanistan. And he would take her. The Taliban was, you know, they had beheaded dancers.

They were throwing bodies in the street right near where Malala's school was. Her own - the children were not - the women were not allowed to go out freely after about 2010, '11. And she suddenly saw her teachers putting on burqas. All of their activities were curtailed. But because she was a child, she could travel with her father, and he was very - he wanted her to understand everything that was going on. From the time she was just a small young child, she was exposed to classrooms, and she always had a spark.

HEADLEE: But why - I mean the Taliban took immediate responsibility for the attempt on Malala's life. Why would this young girl be a threat to them?

BRENNER: Oh, because she spoke out so much. That's a very good question. I mean, the fact is it's more - I think it's a little bit more complicated than just saying the Taliban because what's not really so well understood in America and in the West is that the Taliban and the Pakistan army are really, in many cases, two sides of the same coin. You have the army who has trained many of these Taliban jihadists and need them for their activities in Afghanistan and in Kashmir.

And you have a failure of security in the area so that although the army will say, we are cleaning this up and we're going to stop all this, the fact is, to Pakistanis, as the former Ambassador Husain Haqqani said, it's a national lie. And, you know, the lie they live is that the army had cleaned up the Taliban and that this was a safe area.

HEADLEE: Then what kind of effect did it have? Obviously, an attempt on her life, one would assume, was meant to deter anyone else from speaking out about education or for...

BRENNER: Well, it's had - I think it's had an extraordinary international effect. You know, always - and I think in Pakistan, you're always playing kind of a double and triple reality. In the town, it's galvanized the country for sure because young - you have a...

HEADLEE: The country of Pakistan?

BRENNER: That you have a young girl who becomes the symbol of the chaos of Pakistan is an astonishing symbol for the world. In the town of Mingora in the Swat Valley, I think people are frightened because the explosions are going on frequently, and these schools that have been named after Malala had been attacked. So it's - I think it's an extraordinarily complex situation.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Marie Brenner, who is the author of five books, writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, and her profile of Malala is called "The Target." It's in this month's Vanity Fair. In your research, as you were preparing for this piece, Marie, what did you hear or see that surprised you?

BRENNER: That surprised me. Oh, well, so much. Well, the - for me, the great surprise was learning about Mingora in the Swat Valley. And the town of Mingora where Malala is from was a kind of a - for years, it was run as a British principality. It's called the Switzerland of Pakistan. And it was run under almost - it was run by a British princely ruler, princely ruler called the Wali of Swat. And he believes in incredible education that was free for everyone who lived in Mingora in the Swat Valley.

So Malala's father had the benefit of all of this. They used to test the road cars of Pakistan on the roads because they were so smooth. So the idea that Malala grew up in this kind of Brigadoon atmosphere or in what had been a Brigadoon and then the Taliban, of course, ruined it, fascinated me.

HEADLEE: And what is the effect now in the Swat Valley to this sort of defiled paradise and this terribly violent act that occurred there, among others that have occurred there? So what it is like now? Has it improved?

BRENNER: They say that it's, at the moment, peaceful. But, of course, explosions can go off any moment. There have yet to be arrests that have stuck in Malala's case. And so many other people have been targeted. It isn't just Malala. She's not the only one. The hotel owner was killed. The head of the hotel association was brutally attacked.

These are all people who are progressives, who have spoken out against the hyper-nationalist forces in the army and in the - Pakistan's intelligence service, what they call the ISI, the intelligence services agency. I mean, Pakistan has gotten to a situation of - unfortunately where many believe the military are completely running things. Ninety journalists had been killed in Pakistan in the last 10 years. It's an extraordinarily dangerous place.

HEADLEE: And will it ever be a safe place for Malala?

BRENNER: I don't think in the near future. She is - the Taliban have said that if she returns, that she will be killed immediately as will her father. She stays now in Birmingham but her father can no longer be the activist.

HEADLEE: Birmingham in England?

BRENNER: In England. Her father can no longer speak out as he has frequently against the army and their failure to install any kind of defense for them against the Taliban because he's now working as the - as a member of the Pakistan High Commission in Birmingham. So he needs so much the Pakistan government that he used to criticize to take care of his daughter's medical care.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And since you speak of Malala's medical care, how is she doing physically?

BRENNER: Well, you know, miraculously it's what's so amazing is they tried to silence Malala and her father who spoke out so often in Pakistan since The New York Times podcast, and since her BBC blog as you mentioned, but they weren't successful. So she is miraculously doing fine, people say, that she's working on a book with a ghost writer; it will come out in September. She is sounding pretty vibrant and it's - she is going to perhaps galvanize and change the future for the children of Pakistan.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you about that for the future. Because how does Malala, the sort of extremely young - at this point only 15 years old, saint, icon, symbol - how does she age into a full-grown adult woman? Does she lose some of her power at that point?

BRENNER: It's, you know, it's a very good question again. Again, it's an open question. What so interested me going into the story, Celeste, was the idea of a child who's destiny is taken and put from one set of circumstances as a girl growing up in the town of Mingora with her father, the school owner, into another, in extreme danger and being push almost like she is a member of the French Resistance in World War II into the life of a Joan of Arc.

You know, this is - there's - there are questions about, you know, should Malala as a child should have been put forward to be such a leader, should she have identified herself as the person writing the blog, should that have happened? But, you know, you can't question these things in hindsight.

I mean, I think what's so interesting, within Pakistan when there was a kind of what seemed to be a very concerted effort on the part of many people believe the ISI again to criticize Malala and her father right after the case so they would not look like they couldn't control the security in the country. And it was said that her father exploited her, you know, a lot of things.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth is that when these journalists came in to do the podcast, and particularly Irfan Ashraf, who has had a huge conscience, stricken conscience about his role in it. Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala's father, was apoplectic that they were going to put his daughter in danger, his family in danger. He asked him to leave.

HEADLEE: Right. And they did.

BRENNER: They are close friends, and they had been in this kind of resistance movement together.

HEADLEE: Well, you can read more about this in Marie Brenner's piece. It's called "The Target." It's in this month's Vanity Fair. Marie Brenner joined us via smartphone from her home in New York. Marie, thank you so much.

BRENNER: Thanks for having me.


HEADLEE: For the past 11 1/2 years, Neal Conan has hosted TALK OF THE NATION from this very studio on the third floor here at 625 Massachusetts Ave. All in all, welcoming you into the national conversation over around 4,048 hours of live radio from Studio 3A, plus countless hours of breaking news. Neal is away this week but he called in to say a final goodbye to this building.

NEAL CONAN, BYLINE: Last week, just before I left Washington for a family visit to the West Coast, I walked down the long hallway to Studio 3A one last time. This has been my home for many years, the large generous space with a curiously shaped table that accommodates six microphone positions. Over time the middle one of the far side has been adapted for this program, a cockpit framed by computers, easels to display scripts and a small TV.

After so many years in radio, it's my absolute favorite studio, a warm place that stays serene amid chaos and helps inspire the intimacies that we've shared, set the lights. I've always hated those track lights. On Monday, we'll come to you from brand new Studio 42 in NPR's shiny new building, a mile away. It'll be fine but it'll never be home.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at life in Great Salt Lake. And on Monday, Neal will be back in the host's chair but in Studio 42, not 3A, TALK OF THE NATION's new studio. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.