Malala sets up her autobiography with a prologue that describes her day on October 9, 2012—“the day when everything changed.” She was riding home from school with 20 of her classmates and three teachers. They had just turned a corner off the main road when a young, bearded man in light-colored clothes waved the van down. Another young man, wearing a handkerchief around his face, approached the open rear of the vehicle. It was in the few heartbeats before the man swung onto to the tail of the van that Malala’s best friend said to her: “Look, it’s one of those journalists coming to ask for an interview.”
For an instant, Malala was probably prepared to slip into the “interview,” a discreet social interaction that she had practiced endlessly and at which she excelled. Malala was expecting a microphone to be thrust in her face, and instead saw a black Colt .45.
It was not entirely unwarranted for the 16-year-old girl to mistake her would-be assassin for a journalist. Journalists had hovered around Malala—and she around them—for years. She made her first television appearance at age 11 on a Pashtun-language channel in Pakistan to talk about the Taliban influence in her valley. The BBC later published her blog under a pseudonym and brought her writing to a global audience. She took journalism courses offered by the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Pakistan. She took her first airplane ride, to the megalopolis of Karachi, for a television interview. In her downtime she watched Ugly Betty, the TV show about a girl thrown into the deep end of the New York magazine world, and “dreamed of one day going to New York and working on a magazine like her.” So inundated was her life with the news media that when her friends at school decided to throw her a surprise party after she won the National Peace Award, they went with the most believable cover story: a group of journalists was waiting to interview her at school.
Even the Taliban came into Malala’s life through the radio waves. Fazlullah, a self-styled mullah and the leader of the Taliban in the Swat region, began preaching his message over an FM radio frequency in 2006, when Malala was 9 years old. FM radio was a revolutionary platform introduced, along with private satellite television, by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler at the time.
Radio gave the mullah access to people inside their homes, a highly private space in Pashtun culture. Radio Mullah, as he became known around Swat, even had access to women, who have traditionally been excluded from public discourse. “Women would tell him their dreams and he would pray for them,” Malala writes in her book. Her mother, she says, “enjoyed” his stories.
Fazlullah also used the FM frequencies illegally, filling airtime with Koran recitations and statements attributed to the prophet Muhammad, some of which spoke of the importance of women staying hidden from the public eye. He directed his followers to destroy television sets and DVD players, instruments that he claimed threatened public morality. This was not exactly revolutionary talk in the conservative region of Swat, and the government initially chose to ignore him.
Soon, though, Radio Mullah began inveighing against the state. He railed against the polio-vaccination campaign, which he claimed was a Western plot to render Muslims infertile, and preached against education for girls, which put him squarely at odds with the Yousafzais. In summer 2007, after the military killed hundreds of religious students in a standoff at a mosque in Islamabad, Fazlullah declared war against the Pakistani army. The military sent troops into Swat, but the offensive failed and by 2009 Fazlullah had effectively taken control of the entire Swat Valley.
Before this, Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban had been limited to the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. It had been raging for years, and the media had been severed from the isolated and autonomous region. For the most part, the media covered the intermittent conflict in the tribal areas by wading through reams of conflicting press releases. But when the war with the Taliban entered Swat, the media were faced for the first time with covering an actual war—a bloody war with real events, real sources, and real characters.