Tue, Oct 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Remember the young girl behind the public Malala

By Catherine Bennett  /  The Observer

Soon after the attempt to kill her, and long before she addressed the UN on education and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai’s name was being connected with that of Joan of Arc, burned for heresy at the age of 19. Recent appearances, in which Malala has demonstrated undiminished bravery and defiance of the Taliban have made the comparison yet more popular, even in parts of the media that do not normally encourage child warriors.

This is Joan of Arc, at her trial: “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

And this is Malala, at the UN: “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

Although it is intended as the highest compliment to Malala’s character, the awed invocation of a 15th-century martyr is not, you might think, the most propitious of analogies, or not for a brave, precociously wise teenager whose enemies still want to kill her.

As she described to host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart, last week, how she would, effectively, turn the other cheek to an assassin, the Taliban was reiterating its own threat to destroy her, “whenever we have the chance.”

Yousafzai’s new book, I am Malala, written with the journalist Christina Lamb, suggests that willed sacrifice is not something from which she, any more than the Taliban, recoils, having been raised, she explains, under the code of Pashtunwali: “The most important value is nang or honor.” She was, moreover, named after a revered regional martyr, the 19th-century Malalai of Maiwand.

According to Malala, in her moving and illuminating memoir, the early Malalai, the daughter of a shepherd, rallied men fighting the British, with this cry: “Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.”

Malalai died aged 18; the British were routed.

“In Malalai, we Pashtuns have our very own Joan of Arc,” she writes.

Her father used to sing her a song that urges Malalai of Maiwand: “Rise once more to make Pashtuns understand the song of honor.”

There was also room in her life, before the Taliban almost ended it, for cricket, Justin Bieber and the Twilight films.

After journalists recognized her potential, Malala heard about another young martyr. A BBC correspondent, Abdul Hai Kakar, was looking for a schoolgirl to write a blog about life under the Taliban and Malala, then 11 years old, volunteered.

“He told me about Anne Frank, a 13-year-old Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis,” Malala writes. “It was very sad as in the end the family was betrayed.”

Her family did not think she could be a target, as a child. Rather, her father hoped her appearance, at the center of a US television documentary about the Taliban’s closure of girls’ schools would be “our megaphone to the outside world.”

She said she wanted to be a doctor. “My father told me that ‘you have to become a politician.’” As well as dictating a BBC blog, she would make numerous television appearances before her whereabouts were discovered and she was shot on the way home from school.

One of her early patrons, a local journalist, Syed Irfan Ashraf, regretted his part in Malala’s transformation into an international, but still utterly vulnerable figure.

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