By: Ayesha Mir
Last month, while I was visiting the United Kingdom with my father to consult some specialists about his injuries, he received a phone call and very cheerfully informed me that we were going to visit Malala Yousafzai right away!
At first I experienced a sudden rush of excitement, but then I gradually began to grow anxious: was I really about to meet the star of Swat who had taken three bullets in the name of education, who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and who had very confidently managed to address the world’s most important officials at the UN Headquarters? Where would I even begin my conversation with her? Perhaps, I could let my father overshadow my shyness, because I was obviously no match for her level of maturity and intelligence.
We finally reached their home in Birmingham and received a very warm welcome at the doorstep: there was a unique kind of humbleness in her father’s cheerfulness and her mother’s innocent smile that immediately put me at comfort. The sophistication in their manners and body language was symbolic of the fact that they had not abandoned their Pashtun traditions and remain true to their Swati lifestyle even in Birmingham – one would have failed to spot even the slightest amount of vanity or luxury in their household. As we all took a seat in their small and cozy drawing room, I started finding ease in the fact that we all conversed in togetherness, without the formality of forming a partition between men and women as I usually encounter at many social gatherings in Pakistan.
For this, I admired Uncle Zia-ud-Din Yousafzai, Malala’s father, who made sure to not only pause for his daughter to voice her opinion on any topic of discussion, but also proved to be a patient translator for his wife’s beautiful Pashto, while at the same time giving her due credit for bringing up a strong and willful daughter. Malala came to sit beside me, with the urge to get to know me better. As she began asking questions, I stuttered a bit, but then slowly emerged out of my small-person complex as she praised my hard work at school and the courage with which I dealt the April 19 attack on my father in Karachi. At the back of my mind I still knew that her accomplishments were far greater than mine could ever be, but not even once did she show the slightest bit of pride in her attitude.
We went on to have a perfectly friendly conversation during which she also expressed her worry over finding a balance between her social activism and her studies. Malala claimed that it was absolutely necessary for her to do well on her exams, not just for her own peace of mind, but also to prove to the world that education will always remain her top priority.
As we proceeded towards the dinner table to break our fasts at dawn, we were surprised by the variety of delicious dishes, which Malala’s mother had prepared with her own hands. She didn’t speak a lot as she had not yet become fluent in English or Urdu, but the glow in her eyes and her beautiful smile were more than enough to signify her hospitable nature. With the help of translation, she explained to us that the transition from Mingora to Birmingham seemed hard to bear at first, but she was astonished upon finding out that a lot of Pakistani food products were even available in the UK!
Eating rice with hands is an important aspect of our culture, and while I unconsciously resorted to my fork and spoon, Malala and her family relived their homely routine by enjoying the meal with their hands.
In the meanwhile, Malala Yousafzai continued to inquire more about me, and then came the big question: ‘What do you want to do after finishing your degree?’ I grew silent for a few seconds, as most college students would have, but I wanted to have a better, more prudent answer for this young girl who seemed to know exactly what she was doing. So I told her I wanted to write, but was afraid of the harsh obstacles that most free-minded writers like my father have to face.
As we grew deeper into the discussion, I confessed to her how the reckless accusations hurled at my father even after the deadly attack on him had left a deep wound in my heart, washing it clean of all my ambitions, and putting me on the verge of losing faith in humanity. I couldn’t help but out rightly expressed my admiration for how strongly she deals with the day to day criticisms, for how she keeps her calm through it all and never thinks of revenge. Malala’s reply was quite simple: “Yes, people always find a way to spread negativity, but I try to focus more on the amount of people who have supported my efforts constantly. I am sure they outnumber my enemies.”
With those words of wisdom, Malala effectively managed to ignite a spark of hope and optimism within me. If she had the courage to fearlessly face the ruthless Taliban, then all I needed was to have a little faith in myself, and that honestly did not feel like the hardest thing to do while sitting in front of a girl who was smiling bravely even after being shot.
She gifted me her book while writing a note in it to remind me how I needed to always keep my parents close to my heart. As the first edition of the book had evoked criticism on certain issues, Malala has carried out necessary corrections in the second edition while taking into account the objections raised by the critics.
The rest of the evening was spent in lightheartedness, a few laughs here and there about how someone had gone as far as accusing her of having pre-recorded her address to the UN, but that was about it…no gloomy remarks, just prayers for all the critics to stumble upon some positivity for once. As we bid farewell to them, Malala’s mother gifted two very beautiful, hand-woven Swati shawls to me and my mother, depicting the Pashtun culture. We left their home with fulfilled hearts and an abiding respect for their sincere hospitality.
Over the years, I have come across many people who pick on Malala for gaining an undue amount of fame, or much rather assume the existence of a conspiracy theory behind the fact that she’s the only one who gets more attention than thousands of other girls who are oppressed and have been denied of their right to education. Many a times people have even injected my mind with the idea that maybe this girl just got lucky, but having the pleasure to meet her in person, I have come to the conclusion that Malala’s journey from being a 12-year-old blogger to one of the most prominent social activists for girls’ education is not an ordinary one. It takes strength like hers to keep struggling against the enemy after they blatantly tried to kill her, to fight not only for herself, but for millions of other girls who don’t have a strong enough background to step out of their homes.
There are hardly a few people in the world who, even after being shot brutally, retain the endurance to put others before them, and that is what Malala has done by staying true to her mission. Her message is simple: education is empowerment. Malala dreams of serving her motherland by blessing more subjugated girls with access to education. She merely recognizes herself as an ordinary Pakistani girl who believes that every child on the face of this earth deserves education, proving herself as one of the few Pakistanis who garner sympathy and respect rather hatred for us on international level.
Malala Yousafzai reminds us that leadership is all about your conviction and the sacrifices you make to uphold your case. She continuously expresses her deep desire to return to Pakistan after completing her studies to help girls go to school. And today, I write this is in the hope of persuading more of my fellow Pakistanis to put their cynicism aside and encourage people like Malala to keep her mission thriving when she returns home so that she can lead young girls of a segregate Pakistan towards a better and equitable future.