Community & Current Events

Meeting Malala: What it's like to meet the girl who survived the Taliban

Photo courtesy of Ctruongngoc/Wikimedia Commons Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photo courtesy of Ctruongngoc/Wikimedia Commons

Community & Current Events

Meeting Malala: What it's like to meet the girl who survived the Taliban

Taking Malala to see Hamlet on her first theatre outing might not have been the wisest of choices. At more than three hours, Shakespeare's longest and most violent play would be a challenge for anyone. For a 15-year-old girl who'd been shot in the head just six months earlier, it was enough to lull her to sleep. Afterward, Malala giggled as she admitted to snoozing through some of it, though she woke for the dramatic sword fight at the end. "It shows us that vengeance gets us nowhere," she said. "I don't seek revenge against those who tried to kill me. I just wish I could have talked to them."

That combination of humour, wisdom beyond her years and astonishing lack of bitterness was what captivated me when we first met on a snowy day in Birmingham, England, to talk about me helping write her memoir. I was welcomed into her highrise apartment by her father, Ziauddin, a remarkable man in his own right, who founded a school despite coming from a village so poor that classes were given on muddy ground under a tree.

Then the door opened and a diminutive figure shuffled in with a tray of tea and a smile that lit up her face like a lamp. "I am Malala," she said. She gestured for me to sit on the sofa to her right, her left eardrum having been shattered in the shooting. She would later have a cochlear implant to restore hearing. "Is it winter here all the time?" she asked laughingly as the windows rattled in the blizzard.

I was instantly smitten with her incredible passion and eloquence. I was privileged to spend the next six months with her and her family, hearing her astonishing tale of standing up to the Taliban, which had taken over their beautiful mountain valley of Swat, once a favourite holiday destination known for its peace.

Malala's activism started early. She was nine when she saw children salvaging rubbish along her street and begged her father to enrol them at his school. When the Taliban started bombing schools and threatening to stop all girls from attending, she refused to be silenced.

It was chilling listening to her describe the feeling of going to class, constantly fearing someone would jump out with a gun. One day, after an exam, she left school on the bus and woke up several days later, thousands of miles away in a Birmingham hospital.

Her courage inspired the world. I didn't realize quite how much until she came to London with her doctor for a day and we took her out. Everyone knew who she was and wanted to take her picture.

Now she lives with her two younger brothers and her parents near Birmingham, in a big house that's cluttered with awards. She has also captured the hearts of many celebrities, like Bono, Beyoncé and Angelina Jolie, who have reached out with gifts and greetings. Yet she has stayed astonishingly down-to-earth. A lot of that is because of  her family. Her brother Atal often asks, "But what have you actually done, Malala?" while she and her brother Khushal squabble all the time.

I've seen first-hand how hard it is juggling public life and school. One day I was at her house when she got home from an event in Ireland at 1 a.m., yet she was up at 7 a.m. for school. She always makes sure she does her homework before working on speeches campaigning for the 57 million primary school–aged children deprived of educations.

Back in Swat, she was almost always top of her class. She misses her friends there. Though she loves her new school, she says the girls treat her as Malala, "the girl who was shot by the Taliban" or "the girls' rights activist," and complains, "They can't see the inner Malala." So she saves her jokes for skyping with old friends, but is making new friends. One recently took her bowling—more fun than Hamlet, I suspect.

Recently, she called to tell me she received an honorary degree at the University of Edinburgh. "So now I have a degree. I don't need to do all these school exams," she joked.

To learn more about International Women's Day, check out our State of the Sisterhood project
                                               
This story was originally titled "Meeting Malala" in the March 2014 issue.
           
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Meeting Malala: What it's like to meet the girl who survived the Taliban

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