15 things you didn't know about Malala Yousafzai

"My world has changed but I have not," says the rumored front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize

By Hamna Zubair

Published October 10, 2013 7:23PM (EDT)

In her new book “I am Malala,” Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai tells the story of her family’s fight to support girls' education in her birthplace, Swat, and the trauma she suffered at the hands of the Taliban. She also offers up surprising bits of information about her life in Pakistan, her recovery and her adolescence – including a liking for both Jane Austen and Stephenie Meyer.

When Malala became a teenager, people asked her father why she wasn’t following Pashtun customs and covering her face in the presence of men. She says: “One of my male cousins was angry and he asked my father, 'Why isn’t she covered?' He replied, 'She’s my daughter. Look after your own affairs.' But some of the family thought people would gossip about us and say we were not properly following the Pashtunwali.”

At 7 years old Malala got her first lesson in justice – only, she was the one in the wrong. She had started stealing earrings, necklaces and other trinkets from a classmate, and carried on until her stash was discovered: “I would pocket her things, mostly toy jewelry like earrings and necklaces. It was easy. At first stealing gave me a thrill, but that did not last long. Soon it became a compulsion. I did not know how to stop.”

When the Taliban came to Swat Valley 10-year-old Malala was more concerned with popular fiction than activism, and her book of choice was “Twilight”: “I was ten when the Taliban came to our valley. Moniba and I had been reading the Twilight books and longed to be vampires. It seemed to us that the Taliban arrived in the night just like vampires.”

One of Malala's earliest opponents was a man called "Radio Mullah": Soon after the Taliban came to Swat Mullah Fazlullah took to the local radio station and began broadcasting messages about how to live a more Islamic life. One of his biggest contentions was television, which he decreed was sinful. Malala and her brothers loved television, so they hid it in a cupboard and watched it with the volume turned low. Mullah Fazlullah’s other target was girls’ education, which affected Malala more directly: “Radio Mullah turned his attention to schools. He began speaking against school administrators and congratulating girls by name who left school. “Miss So-and-so has stopped going to school and will go to heaven,” he’d say, or, “Miss X of Y village has stopped education at Class 5. I congratulate her.” Girls like me who still went to school he called buffaloes and sheep.”

When Malala did well at school people said it was because her father, Ziauddin, owned the place. She once had to take an exam three times to prove that she could do it on her own: “Some parents complained that I was being favored because my father owned the school, but people were always surprised that despite our rivalry we were all good friends and not jealous of each other … We also competed in what we call board exams. These would select the best students from private schools in the district, and one year Malka-e-Noor and I got exactly the same marks. We did another paper at school to see who would get the prize and again we got equal marks. So people wouldn’t think I was getting special treatment, my father arranged for us to do papers at another school, that of his friend Ahmad Shah. Again we got the same, so we both got the prize.”

Sometimes Malala would let her imagination run wild: “All the other girls in my class wanted to be doctors, but I decided I wanted to be an inventor and make an anti-Taliban machine which would sniff them out and destroy their guns.”

Despite having to live with the Taliban blowing up schools in quick succession in Swat, Malala still had little vanities that needed attending to: “I liked doing my hair in different styles and would spend ages in the bathroom in front of the mirror trying out looks I had seen in movies. Until I was eight or nine my mother used to cut my hair short like my brothers’ because of lice and also to make it easier to wash and brush, as it would get messed up under my shawl. But finally I had persuaded her to let me grow it to my shoulders. Unlike Moniba’s which is straight, my hair is wavy, and I liked to twist it into curls or tie it into plaits. 'What are you doing in there pisho?' my mother would shout. 'Our guests need the bathroom and everyone is having to wait for you.'"

After the New York Times documentary on girls' education in Swat, “Class Dismissed in Swat Valley, began getting attention Malala realized a funny truth about parents: “My father was almost bursting with pride at how I came across on the documentary. 'Look at her,' he told Adam Ellick. 'Don’t you think she is meant for the skies?' Fathers can be very embarrassing.”

Malala got her first taste of New York City from “Ugly Betty”: “[In Islamabad] we went to shops where I bought school books and DVDs of American TV programs like Ugly Betty, which was about a girl with big braces and a big heart. I loved it and dreamed of one day going to New York and working on a magazine like her.”

When she was 13 Malala’s deepest desire was to grow another inch: “When I was thirteen I stopped growing. I had always looked older than I was, but suddenly all my friends were taller than me. I was one of the three shortest girls in my class of thirty. I felt embarrassed when I was with my friends. Every night I prayed to Allah to be taller. I measured myself on my bedroom wall with a ruler and a pencil. Every morning I would stand against it to check if I had grown. But the pencil mark stayed stubbornly at five feet. I even promised Allah that if I could grow just a tiny bit taller I would offer a hundred raakat nafl, extra voluntary prayers on top of the five daily ones. I was speaking at a lot of events, but because I was so short it wasn’t easy to be authoritative. Sometimes I could hardly see over the lectern. I did not like high-heeled shoes, but I started to wear them.”

When Malala began getting awards for speaking out about the state of girls’ education in Swat her mother wasn’t pleased: “I know my mother didn’t like the awards I was getting because she feared I would become a target. She never said she regretted the work my father and I had undertaken, but when I won prizes, she said, 'I don’t want awards, I want my daughter. I wouldn’t exchange a single eyelash of my daughter for the whole world.'”

When threats against her life started becoming more frequent, Malala inwardly succumbed to fear: “Unlike my father, I took precautions. At night I would wait until everyone was asleep – my mother, my father, my brothers, the other family in our house and any guests we had from our village – then I’d check every single door and window. I’d go outside and make sure the front gate was locked. Then I would check the rooms, one by one.”

In the absence of any other help, Malala’s friends acted as first responders after she was shot: “I was lying on Moniba’s lap, bleeding from my head and left ear. We had only gone a short way when a policeman stopped the van and started asking questions, wasting precious time. One girl felt my neck for a pulse. “She’s alive,” she shouted. “We must get her to hospital. Leave us alone and catch the man who did this.”

When Malala got a pen and paper after she came to in a hospital in Birmingham, she immediately worried about money. She wrote: “My father has no money. Who will pay for all this?” Later, issues of payment would continue to plague her: “The money from the awards had almost all gone on the school and buying a plot of land in our village in Shangla. Whenever I saw the doctors talking to one another I thought they were saying, 'Malala doesn’t have any money. Malala can’t pay for her treatment.'"

One of Malala’s biggest obstacles in her new life now is something other than the Taliban: “Like my mother I am lonely. It takes time to make good friends like I had at home, and the girls at school here treat me differently. People say, 'Oh that’s Malala' – they see me as 'Malala, girls’ rights activist.' Back in the Khushal School I was just Malala, the same double-jointed girl they had always known, who loved to tell jokes and drew pictures to explain things."

Hamna Zubair

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

I Am Malala Malala Malala Yousafzai Nobel Peace Prize Pakistan Pashtun Taliban Terrorism Violence