Keep on Fighting: An Interview With Malala Yousafzai

“We have to be brave, we have to be strong, and we have to believe in ourselves.”

 You already know Malala Yousafzai’s story, but here’s a reminder: When she was 11, she started writing “The Diary of a Pakistani School Girl,” an anonymous blog for the BBC. Her handwritten entries, passed to a reporter who would then scan and email them to be published, chronicled her life in Pakistan’s Swat Valley region. In the two months that she wrote her blog, the Taliban issued an edict banning girls from attending school, and blew up over 100 girls’ schools. The student count at Yousafzai’s school dramatically declined. By bravely covering these events firsthand and being the authority of her own experience, Yousafzai captured the world’s attention. As her blog rose to prominence, she and her father were featured in a New York Times documentary, and she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.

In 2012, Yousafzai was publicly targeted by the Taliban for retaliation and was shot while on a school bus. After recovering from the attack, she wrote an autobiography, I Am Malala, which quickly became a New York Times bestseller. In 2014, she became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner at the age of 17. The following year, a documentary chronicling her life after the attack, He Named Me Malala, was released. On her 18th birthday, she opened the Malala Yousafzai All-Girls School for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, sponsored by her non-profit, the Malala Fund. In her final year of secondary school, Yousafzai also began her #YesAllGirls campaign to support refugee girls’ education.

In April of this year, Yousafzai was named as the youngest UN Messenger of Peace. Since this spring, she has traveled throughout North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America for her six-month long Girl Power Trip—a project to learn more about girls around the world and the challenges they face, and to advocate for their right to attend school. Yousafzai’s latest book, Malala’s Magic Pencil, comes out on October 17. In the meantime, she’s getting ready to begin her studies at the University of Oxford.

I recently had the incredible opportunity to speak with Yousafzai and ask her what she’s learned from girls all over the world, what inspires her, and her answers to the excellent questions sent in by Rookie readers.

TAVI GEVINSON: I wanted to start with the Girl Power Trip. What did you learn from the girls you visited and spoke to?

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: The goal of my trip was to meet young girls and hear their stories so that I can take their voice[s] and highlight them on a global platform like the UN. And I met amazing girls. I met one girl in Iraq called Najlaa, and she was forced to get married when she was only 14 years old. On her wedding day, in her wedding dress, she took off her high heels and she ran away, and then later on, ISIS and the extremists came to her village and she had to flee again. While she was shot in her arm, she did not stop, and she’s still now living in this shelter where there’s no electricity, no facilities, and she has to walk two miles a day to go to her school. But she is not stopping and she’s getting her education. I am providing them platforms where they can speak out to our leaders, so I brought Najlaa to the UN and she spoke out to these influential people about her story. To tell them that this is a story of a Yazidi IDP girl who has gone through such a hard and difficult time in her life, facing early child marriage, facing displacement from her village, and now living in a shelter where she has to work really hard for her school and to get her education.

What would people be surprised to know that you learned on that trip or that someone said?

I think people need to know more about the stories of these young girls and people in those countries we talk about. I talk about Nigeria, I have met the girl who escaped from the Boko Haram kidnapping, and some were released recently so I met those girls as well, and I saw the girls—now called the Chibok girls—and I could see smiles on their faces. Now they have come back, they are going to live their normal lives, and it just reminds us women how important it is for us to have safety, to have protection, to have education. These girls have gone through so many difficulties. They value education. They know that this is the way you go forward. So seeing their commitment, seeing their interest in education, really inspires me. I go with the ambition that I can inspire them, but in return, they inspire me. Their stories are so powerful and moving. So, I would really tell people to try and hear these girls’ stories and maybe meet them and know more about them. We just hear about refugees in terms of numbers but we never hear their stories and what their lives are like. We never see it in reality, so I try to see it in reality.

What was it like to open your all-girls school?

Going and visiting the school and opening it was a really beautiful moment for me. To see all the young girls there and think that now, these girls are going to be going to school. They were living in these tents with no electricity—it was really hard there—and no clean water, but now they are going to have school and they are going to have teachers; they are going to be empowered. Also, we are opening a girls’ school in my home village in Shangla, and it is going to be an amazing opportunity for girls in that village—where they don’t have any higher secondary education facilities—to complete their education and to follow their dreams. It is going to bring great change in that whole village.

Who are your favorite or most personally influential authors?

I am a big fan of Paulo Coelho and his book The Alchemist, which is one of the first books I read, and it really taught me how to believe in myself, to follow my journey, and [that] there will be things distracting you on your way, but you should stay focused and keep on following your dreams. So that’s what I’m doing. I want to see all 130 million girls in school and there will be difficulties but I will never stop, and that’s what I’m telling all girls to do. Just don’t stop, and keep on fighting. Other than that, I read a biography about Meena, an Afghan hero, so I would recommend that book as well. I read Parvana’s Journey. And recently, nowadays, because I’m going to Oxford, I have a long reading list before going to University, like a pre-reading list, and I’m reading a book called Think, which is about philosophy.

What classes are you most looking forward to?

I’m going to do PPE, which is philosophy, politics, and economics, and it’s a three-year course. I like all three subjects but I am really interested in philosophy, and I want to look back at history and how these influential people thought about the world, about God, about how we should live life, about ethics.

You have a picture book coming out called Malala’s Magic Pencil. What made you want to write it?

So, in this whole time since I have been campaigning, I have met many young children. From six years old—even younger than six—to 10 and older. I already wrote a book, I Am Malala, but I really wanted to tell my story to, like, six-year-olds and four-year-olds who kept on asking me questions like, “Why did the people attack you?” and “Why are you still fighting for education?” and “What happened to you?” I think a picture book was the best way to tell my story to children, and I really enjoyed it. This was the book that I enjoyed the most because I want to look at the artwork that the artists had done, and how they tried to tell my story. I hope that children enjoy it, learn from it, and find their magic.

I have a lot of questions from our readers who were really excited that you’re doing this. Dohyeon from South Korea, age 13, says, “I’m from South Korea, you’re from Pakistan, and many of your fans are from the U.S. and Europe. We all have different lives, especially regarding [the fact] that some of us are already granted with freedom and education. What do you think we girls can do to be connected despite our different cultural backgrounds?”

That is a very good question, and I do see this big gap and this disconnect between the West, or the Global North and the Global South, and I think for that, we have technology, we have platforms out there, so maybe we think about social media. How can we use that to connect to other girls and other young people around the world and hear their stories? I am from Pakistan, and people in America, in the UK, in Europe, in many parts of the world—they heard my story and they connected to it, so I think we should listen to our stories more. I think stories connect you. I go to Nigeria and I hear a girl’s story and I can connect to it. I go to Mexico and I hear a girl’s story and I can connect to it. I go to see the Syrian refugees and I go to a European country and meet a girl there, or go to America and meet a girl there. I think there’s a lot that we share. We go through difficulties, we go through challenges. It might be slightly different because the challenge might be different depending on your country but that phase is the same—we go through the same situation—we are tackling these challenges and we have to be brave, we have to be strong, and we have to believe in ourselves.

Olivia from California, 17, asks, “What was the last book that made you laugh or cry?”

You see, I’m not really interested in reading books about comedy. I would watch comedy shows, I love watching comedy shows. I want to stay happy and laugh all the time so I’ll just go and see films which are funny, and I watch animation films as well. But in terms of books, the books I read are mostly real-life stories, like an autobiography, and then more related to my [school] subjects like philosophy and politics. I was reading this book called A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, and I did reach a point where it just made me cry. I think that’s just such a powerful story. You asked a question first about how girls can connect, and I think: Read stories. Read stories of other young girls, and you can connect, and you will know more about them and what they go through.

Which movies do you go to to laugh?

Animated funny movies. I think it depends on who you watch the movie with, like if I go with my friends. I’m a fan of MinionsMadagascar, and that kind of stuff. [Laughs]

Rania from Jordan, 19, asks, “Is there anything that you actually do feel afraid of speaking out about that people will disagree with or because it will be considered controversial? How do you handle that anxiety, or do you ignore it? You have a wonderful way with words, but do you ever worry that they’ll be taken the wrong way?”

I’ve picked education, and when it comes to education, and when it comes to girls’ empowerment, I do not hesitate to say anything. This was something I believed in and I started speaking out about it when I was in Swat Valley. I was not afraid to speak out about it and the terrorists did not like it, and then they attacked me as well. When I believe in something and I want to speak about it, then I just do not hesitate, and I will speak out about it openly to people, to any world leader, and ask them clearly about their investment in education and how they need to support the future generations and give them quality education. This is something I feel passionate about, so I am focused on that, and in that, I’m very open.

Gemma from New Jersey, 16, asks, “Of all the influential people you have met, who has been one of your favorites?”

I have mostly met politicians, ministers and prime ministers and presidents, and I think it’s hard to call any of them your favorite, you know, like there are lots of problems with that, and they’re not always perfect. They will say one thing right and then they will be doing things wrong, as well. But I would say meeting Angelina Jolie was really inspirational. She was the first famous person I met and she was really humble, down-to-earth, kind. She feels strongly about helping refugee people, and she was focused on helping children. It was my first time seeing a celebrity, and then seeing that she was so nice and humble—that was inspiring.

Daniela from Peru, 17, asks, “What would you say to someone who wants to make a difference in the world but doesn’t know where to start?”

I would say that you’re not the only one who is confused on where to start, and I think [with] every action you take, you just believe in yourself. I was 11 years old when I started writing the blog and speaking out, and I did not know if it would have any impact or not, but I wanted to do my best. I wanted to do something, and whichever platform it was—I wanted to speak out, whether it was a local press conference, a local protest, a local media channel. Any opportunity that I found, I spoke out. So each and every action we take, it does have an impact. You may not notice it initially, but work in any way that you think is good for you and you feel comfortable with—whether it’s blogging, whether it’s aggregating on social media, whether it’s calling a group of friends in your community and raising awareness and fundraising for a cause that you believe in. I think once you start, and once you just keep on going, you will realize that actually, you are bringing change, and that when we all do it together, it changes the whole world.

Nicole from Australia, 18, asks, “How do you exercise empathy and forgiveness in this broken world?”

I think the world is in many ways broken—looking at the negativity, looking at how refugees are looked down upon and [how] they are not welcome; looking at terrorism, extremism. But then we also look at the positive things, that people are also caring about refugees. Because there is work going on. For example, [at] Malala Fund, we are working for girls’ education. There are lots of other organizations that are working for refugees, working for the environment, working for protecting women, so there is work going on. We have to look at the positive side and join that. Because once you join that, you will feel like the negative side is very small. And also, I think we have to bring the values that all humans need back into our lives. From harmony, tolerance, peace, respect, friendship—the words are very simple and we say them quite quickly; often we just forget what they really mean and what they mean in our daily lives. So each and every thing you do, just think about being good, think about being kind, think about being passionate about helping others. In my life, I think it’s just useless—it just makes no sense—to be hating others; to be negative about things. I think if you want to bring change, don’t just give negative comments.

How do you find that harmony in your day-to-day life?

I’m really grateful that I have a really incredible team in Malala Fund working with me and helping me to achieve my dream of ensuring that all children can go to school. I’m also really grateful that I have a wonderful family. My parents stand with me and support me, and I’m just like a normal child to them. And then I have two brothers, who are a bit cheeky as well, and they annoy me, they don’t care about me most of the time, and that’s what normal brothers are, so I’m grateful to have them sometimes. And also, to have just normal friends, and then to receive support from people all over the world—receiving letters and cards from people and [knowing] that they stand with me—that gives me hope. I think that’s something that’s keeping me strong and helps me to move forward.

Ethan from Winnipeg, 17, says, “You inspire plenty of women around the world. Because the issues you address regard young girls, is there a different approach you take in connecting with your male audience in order to be heard?”

I do speak for boys as well. I think it’s important to speak especially to the younger generation of boys, because it may take us quite a long time to change the society, this generation that we have right now, so I think we have to focus on the future generation of boys. I will tell them to stand up for women, stand up for girls, for your sisters, your mothers, and your daughters. Stand up for them and speak for equality and be proud feminists. And through Malala Fund, we spread the message that my father is giving to all young boys and men: that we should believe in our daughters, we should believe in our sisters, and women just don’t need any extra training. You don’t need to give them something extra, you just let them be themselves. He says, “Don’t ask me what I did for my daughter. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.” Men and young boys, do not clip the wings of women. Let them fly and stand with them and support them. I think we have to be united in this.

The last question reads, “I’m Citra from Indonesia, 21 years old. I graduated high school in 2013 and went straight to college in the U.S., but due to funds and scholarship cutbacks, I had to leave college and come back home. I’m an only child and only next generation out of my family. My father and grandfather were diplomats and I was going into diplomacy and international relations. I still can’t come back to college due to funds. I yearn to be in college again. I’ve been going through a great depression up to the point of losing hope in life. My question is: Is there still hope and what can I do? All I want to do is graduate and help people—especially women and children—hopefully make an impact in this world.”

Firstly, I would say that I stand with you and support you. Don’t lose hope, because we don’t want to lose an incredible person like you. Believe in yourself and keep on fighting because often, you don’t know—it’s just that one more trial that you need [to go through] to get an opportunity. Stay positive, and just think—there might be other things and other opportunities that are waiting for you. ♦

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