Malala Yousafzai switches effortlessly between striding the world stage and studying. Source: Getty Images
MALALA Yousafzai was in a chemistry lesson when she heard last Friday morning that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. She studies hard despite her fame. “It wouldn’t look very good if the girl shot for wanting to go to school failed her GCSEs,” she joked with me recently.
In fact, of the 10 high school exams she will take next summer she claims the only subject she is good at is religious studies because “for that you need opinions, and I have lots of those!”.
As you watch her switch with astonishing ease between striding the world stage and neatly penning homework at the desk in her red and yellow bedroom in Birmingham, it is easy to forget that exactly two years ago she was fighting for her life in a hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, after being shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she travelled home on the school bus.
The bullet was removed along with part of her skull, and she was in a coma with her lungs and kidneys failing.
Her mother often cries as she watches her, for since then her daughter has had a miraculous recovery. The white teddy bear Malala was convinced was green when she came round because her vision was so blurred sits on the windowsill as a reminder. It is named Junaid, after the Pakistani military surgeon who removed the bullet.
Journalists are often considered hard-bitten, but if anyone could melt my heart it’s Malala. I’ve been privileged to get to know her and her family while helping with her memoir of standing up to the Taliban who had taken over the beautiful valley of Swat, once a holiday destination known for its tranquillity.
Sometimes I think back to their simple house in northern Pakistan, shelves cluttered with plastic trophies for coming top of the class, as well as the Twilight books, Anna Karenina and a set of Ugly Betty DVDs. In the outside bathroom was the mirror in which, she told me, she always looked and yearned to be taller.
So I laughed on Friday as she went to the microphone to make her statement and tweaked it down, saying, “Wherever I go, the podium is usually taller than me.”
Who cares how tall she is now? At just 17, she has become the youngest Nobel laureate yet. She described the award, which she shares with Indian child-labour campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, as “a beginning — an encouragement to believe in myself”.
Yet this year alone she has met the Queen (twice), Bill and Hillary Clinton, Queen Rania of Jordan and David Beckham. She has received advice on politics directly from Barack Obama at the White House (“Don’t rush into it”), takes tea with Angelina Jolie and Skypes with Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General.
So how did a girl who doesn’t like getting up in the morning — and who comes from a remote conservative culture in which women are usually hidden away — become a global figure?
Much of the credit must go to her remarkable father, whom she thanked, after the announcement of the Nobel, for “not clipping my wings”.
Ziauddin Yousafzai is from a village so poor that he had his school lessons under a tree. Yet he became determined that one day he would open his own school.
It seemed an impossible dream but he managed it, opening a humble establishment in Mingora, the largest city in Swat. When Malala was born, he was determined she would be treated the same as a boy, even though in their Pashto culture the birth of a boy is to be celebrated with rifle fire and gifts, while girls are hidden away.
Malala grew up in his first school, living above the classrooms and toddling into lessons, where she stared at the teachers. The school eventually expanded, becoming a boys and girls school of almost 1000 pupils who were encouraged to speak out rather than endure the rote learning common in Pakistani education. I visited it last year, seeing the classroom where they still keep an empty chair for Malala. Several of the girls said to me: “We could have all been Malalas, but our parents wouldn’t have let us stand up in public.”
Like her father, Malala became passionate about education. When she saw children salvaging rubbish on a tip along her street for money, she begged him to give them places at his school.
She was 10 when the Taliban took over part of Swat, under the leadership of a man called Mullah Fazlullah, known as Radio Mullah because of his FM broadcasts. First they banned women from going to the bazaar and forced men to grow beards; then they started to put dancing girls to death and to bomb schools.
When they announced that all girls must stop going to school, Malala refused to be silenced. She began to write an anonymous blog for the BBC Urdu service about life under the Taliban, and later went public, despite endless threats.
In 2009 the Pakistani army moved in. I went there to report, which was when I met Ziauddin, who was campaigning for peace. I didn’t know then about Malala.
The schools reopened, but the Taliban never went away. Malala still received threats yet continued to speak out. It is chilling to hear her describe the feeling of going to school constantly fearing someone with a gun.
She was shot on October 9, 2012. The last thing she recalls is getting on the school bus after her Pakistan studies exam, happy she had done well and singing songs with her friends. Two other girls were also wounded.
Malala woke up a week later thousands of kilometres away in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, with no idea what had happened and her parents nowhere to be seen.
I MET her shortly after she came out of hospital in January last year. On a bitter, snowy day Ziauddin welcomed me into the rented high-rise flat in Birmingham where the family were staying.
We chatted for a while, then the door opened and a diminutive figure shuffled in, dressed in a red flowery shalwar kameez and carrying a tray of tea.
“I am Malala,” she said simply. A smile lit up her face like a lamp. It was lopsided, almost as if she had suffered a stroke — a facial nerve had been damaged in the shooting. “Is it winter here all the time?” she asked, laughing as the windows rattled in the blizzard.
I was instantly smitten: she is passionate and eloquent. She gestured to me to sit on the sofa to her right, as her left eardrum had been shattered in the blast. Later she would have a cochlear implant.
She showed me that the bullet had gone through the side of her left eye and travelled 45cm down past her jaw, ending up embedded just under her left shoulder. “It could have taken my eye,” she said. “I might have had no eye, no brain. It was a miracle. I feel like I have been given a second life to help people.”
Her courage really has inspired the world. I didn’t realise quite how much until she came to London for a day with her doctor and we took her out. Everyone knew who she was and tried to take her picture.
Today she, her two younger brothers and their parents live in a big house in Birmingham that is cluttered with international awards. Every time I visit, there are huge bouquets, for she has captured the hearts of many celebrities. Her iPod was a present from Bono. The collage on the wall of her study is by Shiloh, the daughter of Jolie and Brad Pitt. Madonna has dedicated a song to her. On her 16th birthday last year her photo was projected on to Brooklyn Bridge, she received several standing ovations at the UN and Beyonce sent her a message via Instagram.
Throughout it all she has stayed amazingly down to earth. A lot of that is due to her family.
Her little brother Atal, known as “the Squirrel” because he is so beady-eyed and full of energy, often asks, “But what have you actually done, Malala?”
She and her 15-year-old brother Khushal squabble all the time. So much so that my son asked me, “How can she win the Nobel Peace Prize? She’s always fighting with Khushal!”
The best thing about working on the book was that my family and Malala’s became friends. She is solicitous to a fault. The first time my husband and son visited her with me, she realised they had never eaten food with their hands before and quickly brought spoons. When we ordered pizzas another day, her mum brought spoons for those too.
She may be the world’s most famous schoolgirl and youngest Nobel winner, but Malala is still a normal teenager. I am sure she won’t mind me saying she is hopeless at getting up in the morning and likes dancing to Justin Bieber, telling jokes and mimicking Mr Bean. She enjoys making people cringe by clicking her legs as she walks.
IT hasn’t been easy for the family to adjust to a new life in Britain’s second city, far from the mountains and streams of their home.
“A year ago I thought we would never settle,” Malala admitted to me recently. “Now Birmingham has started to feel like home. It will never be Swat, which I miss every day, but these days when I go to other places and return to this new house, it feels like home.
“I have even stopped complaining about the rain, though I laugh when my friends at school complain about heat when it’s 20C or 25C — to me that’s like spring.”
She still Skypes her best friend Moniba in Swat — “When she talks about parties, I wish I was back there” — and often talks to Shazia and Kainat, the other girls shot on the bus, now on scholarships at Atlantic College in Wales.
She has made friends in Birmingham, with whom sometimes she goes tenpin bowling or to play badminton.
“We chat in break and lunchtime, though we are interested in different things,” she says.
“They like to talk about boyfriends, while I like reading Time and The Economist.”
While schoolfriends spend holidays on the beach or skiing, she spent hers this year visiting Syrian refugee camps and going to Nigeria to highlight the plight of the abducted schoolgirls missing since April.
With her exams approaching, it is not easy for Malala to juggle school and public life. Everyone wants a piece of her — to speak at their event, pick up an award or send a message to their organisation.
One night I was at her house when she got home from a function in Ireland at 1am and was up at 7am for school. She always makes sure she does her homework before working on speeches campaigning for the 57 million children not at school.
Her favourite subject is physics, though it’s also the one she finds hardest. “Maybe because I come from somewhere chaotic, I like the way everything is governed by laws,” she says.
Last year she received an honorary degree from Edinburgh University. “So now I have a degree, I don’t need to do all these school exams.”
When the exams are over, Malala hopes to go to university to study politics and philosophy. “My dream is to one day become prime minister of Pakistan,” she says.
She still longs to go back to Swat to see “my friends, my teachers, my school and my house again”. But Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban who tried to kill her, is now leader of the whole Pakistan Taliban, making that even more risky.
“Maybe it will take time, but I’m sure it will be possible one day. I really want to work in Pakistan. It’s the country where I was born, and I made so many promises that I will serve this land and help every child in Pakistan to get education.”
You would think a girl campaigning for girls — and boys — to go to school would be uncontroversial. Yet while she was receiving congratulations from all over the world for her Nobel, many in her own country condemned it. On Twitter some Pakistanis started a hashtag #SayNoToMalala and called for her death.
“Malala and her father are tools and puppets of the West,” Tariq Khattak, an editor at the Pakistan Observer, told the BBC. “She is a spy for the Americans.” He insisted she had not really been shot and described her as a “normal useless kind of girl”.
That may sound crazy, but when I was researching Malala’s book in Pakistan, many educated Pakistanis said to me: “Why on earth are you doing this? You know it’s all a fraud.”
For the record, I have met the surgeons who removed the bullet and seen the scars and the stapling on her skull. She underwent more surgery last year to repair her damaged facial nerve. This operation has had remarkable success, restoring almost 96 per cent of movement. But when she speaks, one side of her mouth pulls down and her left eye often closes.
While the murderers of Islamic State spread their evil and claim to speak for Islam, Malala is the real face of moderate Muslims. She is always the first to say she’s not unique, that there are many girls like her. For once I must disagree with her.
THE SUNDAY TIMES
I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, is now available in paperback.