The Blog

Malala: A Singularly Impressive Teenager

Malala hasn't once spoken of the horror of being shot in the head, of the neural damage to her left arm which has hung limp during her talk and which is incongruent to the irrepressible energy that she is. And yet somehow with her unwavering focus on education...

Yesterday, as we made our way into the foyer of the Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall, we noticed a straggly queue of sorts waiting in front of the cloakroom. I wondered why everyone was being so polite. It turns out that it was a mandated security precaution: to refuse admittance of all but the very smallest of bags into the auditorium, in protection of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is the sixteen year old Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban and left to die on a bus last year, as she made her way to school. She had been campaigning for the rights of girls to an education. She survived the attack and now lives here in the UK in Birmingham.

So of course I understood the decision to have us check our bags in, for insisting on this very minor inconvenience. And yet I was irritated. The queue was a mass of slow mobility; the rules inequitably applied. There was the quiet head shaking and whispering tetchiness of a cross, largely middle class audience, unused to having their personal liberties curtailed.

This request also brought here, to us, the reality of the risk Malala lives with. By checking in our bags, we couldn't be mere safe spectators. For an hour and in miniscule, we were to live with the spectre of the Taliban. And I felt pit-tingling fear. We were to be in the company of a young woman who is sought out for voicing her opinions. And some of those who want her, want her dead. Her daily life must be circumscribed by the restrictions that come from having to avoid the real and continuing threat to her life.

I chat with the lady behind me (she is also annoyed that "we weren't informed beforehand about this security issue. Surely they had anticipated this!") and I wonder if perhaps I'm not being irresponsible? You see, I have brought my twelve year old daughter along with me to this talk. The responsibility will be mine, should Malala, and as collateral damage, we, become a target of some kind. I now urgently wish the security measures to be more thorough. I am willing to receive a pat down and walk through a 3D x-ray machine: I want to be safe. I just want to go about my evening and life. That I've only thought of this as entertainment of the educative type embarrasses me because I now feel the unasked for dread that must hang over this young woman and millions more like her who want to be honoured with basic human rights - an education. I begin to understand the quality of my courage. How little of it I have, and in quite an arresting contrast how much this young woman, who is half my age, has. And so I do what I can do. I sit mute, clutching my daughter's hand while my heart pounds irregularly.

By the time the salwar clad teenager walks on the stage I am rigid with emotion. As we clap at her arrival, I start to relax and my eyes brim with hot tears. There is an awe that surrounds people of incredible courage. And there is an intimacy to seeing this young woman, just there, talking about her work of the last six years. The room is hushed to attentive silence. It's hard to remember that we are paying homage to such a young person.

Malala speaks with an exceptional orator's voice. She pauses here, emphatically gesticulates with her right hand there, and seems ever composed. Her repeated message is that girls count. Girls deserve an education. She quotes the Qur'an and Hadith and says that according to Islam, it is not only the right but the duty of everyone, boy and girl to acquire knowledge. She is unfaltering.

Her understanding of geopolitics, the clash between religion and ethnic culture, and the divorce between well-meaning policy and those for whom it is created but who so often find themselves excluded, is acute. And she is still a young woman, complete with big dreams, hopeful - a word she repeats many, many times - beyond what many adults must believe is sensible. She talks like any girl her age. Her mind changes all the time, she's not yet sure where she wants to go to University or what she wants to read, but she's academically competitive and reels off three of the best known universities in the world. I recognise in her this ambitious streak, wanting always to be first, for I have been that girl, and that girl is now my daughter. She's funny in that unselfconscious way teenagers are - talking in superlatives, and passionate, driven, idealistic. She's everything you might forget you can be when you've become a jaded adult. Yet she speaks like an adult with sophisticated ideologies far beyond her years.

I wonder if she resents having this responsibility thrust on her? Does she ever want to play truant or call a sick day? She probably can't, what with the security implications, and even if she could she's probably too responsible to do so. Does she ever want to be less than the incredibly impressive woman she is becoming? Decide she wants a quiet life that doesn't put her in quite so much danger? I worry that she might not be able to change her mind, that this role that has been forced on her and that she has taken on is too much. She's a girl, a young girl, I say to myself again. It's an important cause, this fight for education. I believe in it, and still I ask if in her particular case, it is robbing yet another girl of her childhood? I see her mother and father a row behind me, proud, supportive, and I am reminded not to project my inability, my vulnerabilities on someone who is evidently made of much stronger mettle than I.

Just as I begin to question how much of what she is saying has been prepared beforehand, or how much she is a mouthpiece for her father's activism, I notice that she sits pigeon-toed in that self-conscious way that teenage girls in the spotlight do. I see again that she is a sixteen year old girl. She may be clear about her life's passion, but she must still be working out who she is to become. She is reassuringly, still full of the wonderful contradictions that are the privilege of this age.

There's a strict monitoring of time. Malala needs to get back to Birmingham in time for school the following morning. The audience is allowed four questions; I am too humbled to try to think. I haven't held together very well, I've been weeping openly. The tears fall because I am distraught that it takes a girl so brave, to do what we adults won't. I gasp for air because I'm bewildered that this is the inheritance I am leaving my daughter. I cry because my activism stops at seeing Malala and writing this.

Malala hasn't once spoken of the horror of being shot in the head, of the neural damage to her left arm which has hung limp during her talk and which is incongruent to the irrepressible energy that she is. And yet somehow with her unwavering focus on education, the regular arguments with her brothers that she recounts and whom she thanks for "keeping her a child", the beauty of Swat valley and her homesickness for this paradise, her pride at being Pashtun and her repeated readjustment of her hijab, she has said more than enough.

*Malala's appearance was part of the Southbank's Literature Autumn Season 2013.