There is a story to Malala Yousafzai’s improbable transformation from a quiet, deferential 11-year-old living near Pakistan’s tribal areas to a teenage spokeswoman for girls’ education. Malala, shot in the head by the Taliban last year, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced on Friday.
It begins with her determined father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, but gets pushed forward by intense news media coverage of her daring campaign. I met Malala in 2009, when she was determined to defy the odds and become a doctor. I spent six months making two documentaries about her life that helped bring her brave campaign to the world, transforming her into a public figure. After the Taliban tried to silence her, The New York Times wove the footage together into a single, 32-minute documentary.
Since the attack last October, I have at times struggled with a question journalists often confront: By giving her a platform, did I inadvertently play a role in her shooting? I wanted to understand how this all unfolded so I began combing through nearly 20 hours of unseen footage of the family long before they were coached by publicists, and before they had signed multimillion-dollar book and movie deals.
While my original documentary tells the story of Malala’s struggle for education in the face of the Taliban, this back story also raises
some sobering and difficult questions. Malala was a brave young girl, advocating for a better future for all girls in her country, but was it fair for her to fight so publicly in such a dangerous environment? Or was she thrust into the limelight by adults captivated by the power of a child staring down the Taliban?
Given Malala’s re-emergence on the world stage — healing from her wounds and nominated for the Nobel — I thought it was a good time to answer the five questions people often ask me about how I came to know this resilient young woman.
How did you find Malala?
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In December 2009, while working as a reporter in The Times’s bureau in Afghanistan, I read a small news article in the Pakistani press about how the Taliban in the Swat Valley planned to ban girls’ education in January 2010. The ban would affect 50,000 schoolgirls, and I was astonished that the story was not being more aggressively reported in the media.
When I went to Pakistan to report, a courageous Pakistani journalist who had reported in Swat, Irfan Ashraf, introduced me to a private school owner, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who was campaigning to save his business. He showed up with his 11-year-old daughter, Malala.
After a lengthy interview with Zia, I asked him if I could ask Malala a few questions. She began answering in Pashtu, and Irfan translated. After about 10 minutes, I realized from Malala’s facial expressions that she understood my questions. I interrupted to ask if she spoke English, and she said, “Yes, I was just saying there is a fear in my heart.” I turned to Zia and Irfan and said: “What’s wrong with you people? She speaks better English then the rest of you and you are translating for her!” We all laughed.
When I sat across Malala on the floor that day, it certainly never occurred to me that this shy girl would become so prominent.
Why would her father participate in such a documentary, knowing the dangers?
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