From the Feb. 2013 edition of The Progressive.
By Mudassar Shah
It was a cold winter evening in December 2009 when I reached Ziauddin, the father of Malala Yousafzai. I called him because I was doing a story about internally displaced children of Swat, a region of Pakistan that had recently witnessed intense fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistani army. He was running a private school, and he agreed to an interview.
A soft-spoken man warmly greeted me. He had a lot of information about what was going on. He paused often while he talked, since he had a problem with his tongue. Soon after the interview finished, he called his daughter. A young, cute girl came inside the room and was introduced as Malala Yousafzai.
I started to interview her in Pashto, but she insisted upon speaking English. I did not expect her to be so fluent and defiant. She spoke about the closure of her school and the other indignities she had to suffer.
I had interviewed many people before Malala, but very few impressed me as much as she did. Here was a spontaneous, bold, and confident girl who was very much against the Taliban.
She said that there was a group of Taliban that arranged marriages. I asked her if she wanted to marry a Talib.
"No, because I hate them," she said. "They cut the heads off the people and hang them upside down in the squares. They are very cruel people. They are doing very bad things. They are stopping us from going to school, and they stop people from getting polio vaccinations."
Ziauddin told me that Malala "is made for skies and not for caves," and I agreed with him.
She started writing a diary for the BBC, under the name of Gul Makai. As I read the first installment, I sent a text message to Ziauddin, asking if it was Malala. I was sure that only Malala could have written this kind of powerful stuff.
I interviewed Malala for a second time after she had become popular and started winning awards. She had not changed at all. The only difference I noticed in her was that the first time I talked with her, she wanted to be a doctor to help the poor. This time, she said that she wanted to be a politician to cure the evils of Pakistani society.
I again went back to the Swat valley after Malala was shot in the head and neck in October. Almost no one would talk about her. I asked dozens of teachers for their reactions, but they were silent and fearful.
I found a fifth-grade student named Muzafera and one of Malala's teachers, Muzaffar Khan, who were ready to talk, but on the condition that I would not publish their interviews in Pakistan. But I did get to talk to sixteen-year-old Kainat Riaz, who was sitting next to Malala when the militants opened fire.
"Our school day had finished and we were coming home on the school bus and discussing our homework when suddenly our bus was stopped and a young man climbed in," she told me. "I thought it was a rehearsal for a drama. I was shocked and started crying. I saw a gun for the first time in my life. He asked, 'Which one is Malala?' And then he started firing at her. I saw Malala bleeding and then I realized that I had also been shot in the hand. She was bleeding so much I fainted."
While Malala was taken to the United Kingdom for treatment, Kainat and the other three girls who were injured were treated at home. Kainat wanted to go straight back to school when she recovered because education is the only way women can change their lives.
She did return to school, even though her bus driver refused to take her since he feared for his life. He might have gotten some threats from the militants.
The very next day, there was a bomb blast near Kainat's house. Her neighbors asked Kainat's father to leave the area, since all their neighbors can't move away. Kaynat's father has applied for asylum in the United States due to the constant threats against his family.
I myself had to keep a low profile when the militants announced that they would target any media person who writes about Malala. The militants have not directly threatened me, and I don't know if any militant knows me or not, but I was scared nonetheless.
Malala knew that she was a direct target, and yet she raised her voice. That is the difference between Malala and other people, including me.
Mudassar Shah is a freelance journalist working in radio, TV, and print for the last twelve years. He covers issues related to women's rights, health, HIV, music, education, militancy, extremism, tribal areas, and Afghanistan. Shah has worked with drone victims, especially schoolchildren, in Waziristan and elsewhere in Pakistan.