Malala Yousafzai is unfazed by her critics. She has been accused of everything from being a 'western pawn' to her father's puppet, entirely undeserving of her international recognition. Yet, when she walks into the Oxford Union, she is met with an adoration usually reserved for a pop sensation, not a political activist. No one would guess that this 16-year-old phenomenon has been the victim of ruthless condemnation in the country she is proud to call her home.
Having previously opted to remain silent, this is the time for Malala to finally address her critics. Onstage before the Union, she quotes a Pashtun saying that translates to 'the toughest of all battles is the battle at home', and shows she is fully aware that her harshest opponents are waiting for her back in Pakistan. Less than a few sentences into our interview she asserts 'although I live in the west, I will always be proud to be a Muslim, a Pakistani, and a Pashtun. Wherever I am, I am still the same Malala'.
Malala speaks with sorrow about how much she misses her country, its smells, sights, and most of all, its sense of community. Despite arriving in the UK in a coma, her survival chances from a brutal assassination attempt unclear, Malala has stayed true to her upbringing. She dresses in traditional Pakistani attire, behaves modestly, has poise beyond her years, and pays respect to the values she was brought up with. 'My grandfather was a religious scholar' she says, 'and he taught me the importance of equality, family values, and the sanctity of human life'.
After being uprooted from the Swat Valley where her ancestors had lived for centuries, she describes her greatest fear as 'not being able to go back home'. However, although she may have become the darling face of the US fight against the Taliban's oppression of women, Malala also believes the American use of drones is counterproductive and cruel. 'For every terrorist killed in a drone attack, five others are born' she says. 'Instead of dropping bombs, they should be dropping books and pens'.
In fact, this should have been done 25 years ago when, following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the west left the region engulfed in a devastating civil war that gave rise to the Taliban. 'It is never too late to do the right thing' Malala says. To her, investment in education, rather than drones, will be the key to safeguarding her return back home.
Where does she get her resilience from? Malala tells us that 'women are stronger than men because, when God had to choose who to grant the power of giving birth to, he chose women'. Indeed, whilst Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is often described as her source of guidance, Malala in fact attributes her strength to her mother. 'My father always encouraged me to question him, but without my mother's support it would not have been possible for our family to continue fighting for what we believe in. She is my anchor'.
Sitting beneath the portrait of Benazir Bhutto, the first-ever female Prime Minister of a Muslim country and the first Asian woman to head the Oxford Union, Malala notes that 'in the future women, rather than men, will be the ones to change the world'. Whilst lamenting that she is growing old (despite being the youngest person in the room) she confirms that she wants 'to be a politician, a leader of the people'.
She says that it was Bhutto's example that first showed her that women could be a force for good in politics. There simply aren't enough female leaders, she continues, explaining that without the example of Bhutto she wouldn't have known that in a patriarchal and conservative society such as Pakistan, a woman can actually lead a country.
For someone who advocates the importance of education, one can't help but notice that Malala's busy schedule this term has meant spending less time at school than she should. She agrees. 'I want to focus on my schoolwork and make sure my studies aren't compromised. I know this will mean probably missing some TV programmes'. There is still so much more to do and Malala hopes that the Malala Fund will be the first of many steps forward.
As Malala left Oxford, a student ran up to her and breathlessly announced that although Malala is half her age, she is her idol and deserved to win the Nobel Peace Price. Malala instantly replied 'I didn't deserve it. The only prize I want is to see a world where every child goes to school'.
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