Savvy source Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, poses for pictures before an event launching her memoir, I Am Malala, at the Southbank Centre in London, October 20, 2013. (Olivia Harris via Corbis Images)
In 2009, The New York Times posted a two-part documentary on its website about Pakistan’s battle against Taliban militants. At the center of the documentary was an 11-year-old girl from the Swat region in northern Pakistan named Malala Yousafzai, and her father, Ziauddin. The story begins in early January of that year, when the Taliban and the Pakistani military fought for control of the Swat Valley. Malala’s home was Mingora, the largest city in the valley and a focal point of the conflict.
Today, of course, the world knows Malala as the courageous girl who became an international cause célèbre after the Taliban shot her in 2012. Last year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and published a memoir, I Am Malala. But in 2009, to the world beyond Pakistan at least, she was just another girl trying to better herself in a troubled land. The narrative arc of the film follows the family into exile during the fighting, and also the personal and political evolution of Malala and her father, a community organizer and the founder of the girls’ school where Malala studied.
When we first meet Malala at the outset of the film, she is sitting next to Ziauddin. “I want to get my education,” she says, “and I want to become a doctor.” She then begins to weep. Over the six months, as captured in the two parts of the documentary, we see Malala shift from being just one of many students in her school to someone determined to make a difference. “I have a new dream,” she says as she prepares to return home toward the end of the film. “I must be a politician to save this country.” In the end, we see her, her father, and a few others meet with the late Richard Holbrooke, who at the time was President Obama’s top official in the region, to discuss the situation in Swat.
In her autobiography, Malala writes that her “father was in a bad mood” the day the Times cameras first came into their home. One of Ziauddin’s friends had persuaded him to participate in the project, she explains, but her uncle said “over and over again that it was too risky to have cameras in the house.”
As for Malala, “I had done a lot of television interviews,” she writes, “but I had never done anything like this.” The camera followed her “even as I said my prayers and brushed my teeth.” But the family had decided to cooperate. “My father knew this could be our megaphone to the outside world.”
Malala and her father had already been interviewed dozens of times on TV, radio, and in print in Pakistan, often as a father-daughter team. The activist-father and his eloquent, telegenic daughter were leading a charge against the Taliban administration in Swat at a time when many in their community were afraid to speak up. When it came to the Taliban’s campaign to close girls’ schools in the valley, the Yousafzai family was threatened ideologically but also financially—education was, after all, the family business.
Interactions with the media have shaped much of Malala’s young life, but her relationship with the media has too often been discussed in simplistic terms. Her detractors portray her as a media pawn, manipulated by a bevy of governments, militaries, and ideologically motivated news outlets to further their various agendas. Supporters, meanwhile, have cast her as Pakistan’s Mother Teresa, a saintly figure who speaks and acts only from a place of purity.
The truth of Malala’s relationship with the press is much more complex, and the Times documentary is representative of the delicate dance that the father-daughter team has participated in for years with the national and international media. They have let the media in, sometimes against their better judgment, and always with an eye to what the spotlight might do for them and their ambitions. At different times Malala has been an anonymous source, a named source, a character, and an expert in media stories. In each of these roles, she and her father found a platform for their admirable mission of educating girls. But in doing so they also became players in a multifaceted struggle between militant organizations, the Pakistani state, and the US government and military, in which information and news have been a most-potent weapon.