That was when the school bombings began and Maulana Fazlullah, a young extremist who had once operated the pulleys at a river crossing, became known as the Radio Mullah, a direct arm of the Taliban, installing a systematic rule of terror over the Swat Valley. Fazlullah announced the closing of girls’ schools; he lauded the killing of a female dancer; his goons killed a teacher for refusing to pull his trousers above the ankle the way the Taliban members wore theirs. “Nowhere in Islam is this required,” the teacher had cried out in his defense.
“They hanged him,” Malala relates dryly, “and then they shot his father.”
But for all the terror around them, Malala and her family were hardly cowed into submission. Ziauddin continued to rail at his country’s Talibanization in government offices, to the army, to anyone who would listen, gaining a name throughout Swat for his rectitude and courage. And although Malala learned to go to school with her books hidden under her shawl, she continued to study and excel, eventually giving public speeches on behalf of education that her father would help write. By 12, even as she pored over
“Anna Karenina” and the novels of Jane Austen, she was writing a BBC blog about her experiences under the pen name Gul Makai.
When, in 2009, the family was forced to abandon the increasingly violent border area in “the biggest exodus in Pashtun history,” the Yousafzais made their way to Peshawar, where Malala did radio interviews, met Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, turned 13 and continued to speak out for girls’ education. Passing through Abbottabad as they made their escape, the family could not have imagined that Osama bin Laden himself had found refuge there. Finally winding their way home, they discovered that their beloved school — in a metaphor for their own defiance — had become a holdout against the Taliban for the Pakistani army.
We know how this story ends, with a 15-year-old child taking a bullet for a whole generation. It is difficult to imagine a chronicle of a war more moving, apart from perhaps the diary of Anne Frank. With the essential difference that we lost that girl, and by some miracle, we still have this one. Disfigured beyond recognition by her assailant’s gun, Malala was rushed to Peshawar, then Rawalpindi and finally to Birmingham, England, where doctors reconstructed her damaged skull and knit back the shattered face. But her smile would never be quite the same.
Resolute, Malala has never hidden that face — not when the Taliban insisted on it, and not when she emerged from her battle for survival to stand before the members of the United Nations in July and deliver her message yet again, a little louder.
“There is good news coming from the U.K.,” the head of military operations in Swat had told Malala’s desperate parents as they awaited word of their child’s condition. “We are very happy our daughter has survived.”
“Our,” Malala points out, because she had become the daughter of a nation.
But she is ours, too, because she stands for the universal possibility of a little girl.
Marie Arana is the author of the memoir “American Chica” and the biography “Bolivar: American Liberator.” She was also a scriptwriter for the recently released film about education in the Third World, “Girl Rising.”