Malala Yousafzai says she has lost herself.
“In Swat [district], I studied in the same school for 10 years and there I was just considered to be Malala. Here I’m famous, here people think of me as the girl who was shot by the Taliban. The real Malala is gone somewhere, and I can’t find her,” she says.
We are sitting in a boardroom on the seventh floor of the new Birmingham library, in England’s West Midlands, the glass walls allowing us a view of a city draped in mist, a sharp contrast to the “paradise” of Swat, with its tall mountains and clear rivers which Malala recalls wistfully. It should be desperately sad, but the world’s most famous 16-year-old makes it difficult for you to feel sorry for her. In part, it is because she is so poised, in a way that suggests an enviable self-assurance rather than an overconstructed persona. However, more than that, it is to do with how much of her conversation is punctuated by laughter.
The laughter takes many forms: self-deprecating when I ask her why she thinks the Taliban feel threatened by her; delighted when she talks of Skyping her best friend, Muniba, to get the latest gossip from her old school; wry when she recalls a Taliban commander’s advice that she return to Pakistan and enter a madrasha; giggly when she talks about her favorite cricketers (“Shahid Afridi, of course, and I also like Shane Watson.”)
And it’s at its most full-throated when she is teasing her father, who is present for part of our interview. It happens during a conversation about her mother.
“She loves my father,” Malala says.
Then, lowering her voice, she adds: “They had a love marriage.”
Her father, involved in making tea for Malala and me, looks up.
“Hmmm? Are you sure?” he says, mock-stern.
“Learn from your parents,” Malala says to me, and bursts into laughter.
Learning from her parents is something Malala knows a great deal about. Her mother was never formally educated and an awareness of the constraints this placed on her life have made her a great supporter of Malala and her father in their campaign against the Taliban’s attempts to stop female education.
One of the more moving details in I Am Malala, the memoir Malala wrote with the journalist Christina Lamb, is that her mother was due to start learning to read and write on the day Malala was shot — Oct. 9, 2012.
When I suggest that Malala’s campaign for female education may have played a role in encouraging her mother, she says: “That might be.”
She is much happier giving credit to her mother’s determined character, and the example provided by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who long ago set up a school where girls could study as well as boys, in a part of the world where the gender gap in education is vast.
It is hard to refrain from asking Ziauddin the “do you wish you hadn’t?” question about his daughter, whose passion for reform clearly owes a lot to the desire to emulate her education-activist father. It’s a cruel question, and unfair, too, given my own inability to work out what constitutes responsible parenting in a world where girls are told that the safest way to live is to stay away from school, and preferably disappear entirely.
It is perhaps because of criticism leveled at her father that Malala mentions more than once in her book that no one believed the Taliban would target a schoolgirl, even if that schoolgirl had been speaking and writing against the Taliban’s ban on female education since the age of 12. If any member of the family was believed to be in danger, it was Ziauddin, as much a part of the campaign as his daughter. And it was the daughter who urged the father to keep on when he suggested they both “go into hibernation” after receiving particularly worrisome threats.