“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” George Orwell wrote, of Gandhi. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize, became a secular saint because she was judged guilty. In 2012, Yousafzai, who was fifteen, the daughter of an education activist, and an increasingly outspoken advocate for girls’ education, was shot in the head, by the Taliban, on a school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. By the time she recovered from her injuries, she had become a global icon of the human toll of Islamist extremism, meeting with Prime Ministers and Presidents. Now that blatant misogyny is part of the ruling ideology far beyond Pakistan and heads of state openly disregard the concept of human rights, Yousafzai’s pristine image and astonishing fortitude seem like a throwback to an earlier age.
After the shooting, Yousafzai’s family moved to the United Kingdom. Now she is twenty, and a student at Oxford. And last year she returned, for the first time, to Pakistan, accompanied by heavy security and with visible emotion. She referred to her arrival in Islamabad as “the happiest day of my life.” Her trip, however, was a short one. Although there’s less violence in Pakistan than there was earlier in the decade—the army, which maintains de-facto control of the country, decided to launch a semi-serious crackdown on the militant groups that it has long nurtured—Yousafzai remains a controversial figure in the land of her birth. There are wild conspiracy theories about her being a plant by foreign intelligence. There’s also a sense, imbued with misogyny, that if she had been less vocal, perhaps she wouldn’t have been shot—an event that soiled the global image of Pakistan.
Yousafzai was recently in New York, promoting a new book, “We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World.” We met on the rooftop of a Manhattan hotel, where she was accompanied by a representative of her nonprofit, the Malala Fund. In person, Yousafzai is reserved and polite; she began by speaking so softly that I was certain my audio recorder would not pick up what she was saying. And her answers tended to return to the issue of educating young women, regardless of the question. I’ve never met someone who is as disciplined in staying on-message and, simultaneously and paradoxically, so clearly genuine. This dissonance could serve as a political asset, but Yousafzai made clear that, though she once spoke with excitement about entering politics, her feelings have changed. An edited and condensed version of the conversation is below.
What is your average day like now?
I am a student now at Oxford University. I am in my second year, and I study P.P.E., which is philosophy, politics, and economics. When I’m in college, I’m focussed on my studies, go to lectures, do my essays, and spend time with friends. Also, when I get time, then I do campaigning. I go to different countries, from Brazil to Iraq, and meet the girls who are fighting for their right to an education.
To what degree have you been able to have a normal college experience? Is that something that you’ve struggled with, or that you find frustrating?
In the beginning, I was quite nervous about how I would adjust to this new environment, but now everybody has welcomed me as a student, and I’ve made amazing, good friends. When I go to university, I feel just like a student. I think it just reminds you that you are still twenty, twenty-one, and you are still a student. It’s a good time.
Do you feel that people treat you as a normal person?
I think that now I have become their friend. So I do feel that, yeah. But, oftentimes, if you are at the airport or somewhere in the market, then people will sometimes stop you and ask for a photo or ask you to sign something.
Do you ever engage with negative commentary, on Twitter or elsewhere?
No, I do not look at the comments. I know, nowadays, the way that social media works is that whoever you are, you will get one or two negative comments. I think you just have to be mentally prepared for that but also know that there are so many positive things that you get to hear and so many people out there who are supporting you. Focus on the positive things.
How do you understand the level of negativity, though?
I think it’s hard to understand. I think that it’s sometimes misunderstanding. It is sometimes lack of integration among different communities and different ethnic groups. Oftentimes, if you are Muslim or you belong to an ethnic minority, people will have stereotypes. People will follow fake news. I think it’s time that people update themselves, educate themselves, and inform themselves.
I also think that, when somebody has not seen a Muslim person in their whole life, or somebody has not talked to a black guy and is just limited in their experience, it’s easy for them to follow what they see on social media or on television. I think, when you live with people, when you are actually integrated with them and actually talk to them, you realize they’re humans, just like you. They also have a family. They also have jobs. I think that allows you to learn from the personal experience that you have and allows you to build up that understanding.
Have any of your experiences travelling around the world made you more cynical, rather than less? Or made you think that things are maybe harder than you thought? Looking around the world now, at who is being elected, and at what is happening, it is hard not to feel cynical about a lot of things.
When I was eleven years old, my schools were banned. In our one small valley, we were not allowed to go to school. And, for me, that was my world. Now I can meet girls around the world, from Brazil to Iraq to Nigeria. I have this opportunity to talk to all these girls—some of them are in refugee camps; some of them are in informal settlements or in communities where they do not have good opportunities—and it has allowed me to see the challenges, globally, that women and girls are facing. Especially when I came to know about refugee issues. I got internally displaced, in Swat, for three months, but I did not know that displacement is such a global issue. The number has been the highest since the Second World War. Right now, it’s 68.5 million people who are displaced. Most of them are internally displaced. Around twenty million are refugees, so they have moved from one country to another.
The people who suffer the most in such crises are women and girls. That was rather shocking to me. You go to all these refugee camps, and you see how vulnerable women and girls are. They become victims of sexual violence and child marriages. For instance, in Lebanon, more than forty-one per cent of the refugee girls get married before the age of eighteen. These are the big challenges that refugee women and girls are facing. The most important thing is their education. I’ve seen that these girls, they prioritize education. They’re fighting for it. They know that it is important for them. They try all their best to study and to learn.
The people I’ve heard you mention as your heroes are Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Benazir Bhutto. Am I leaving anyone out?
We have a Pashtun Gandhi as well. His name is Bacha Khan. He was also part of the independence fight for India at that time. I think, for me, I learn from everyone. I learn from every person I have met at the refugee camp, in school.
You went through what no one should have to go through. Now you get to meet Presidents and Prime Ministers. You hang out with Tim Cook and Bill Gates. When you’ve reached this level of global fame and also are able to interact with people who are in power, how does that affect being an activist? Do you think that getting too close to power is something that activists should be concerned about?
I’m grateful for the opportunities that I have. I never want to meet a Prime Minister of a country or a global figure because I just want to hang out with them or have a selfie. My condition for meeting always is that I am going to be talking about how they are treating people in their country or how they are not investing in girls’ education or how they’re treating refugees. When I was meeting the Prime Minister and the President in Nigeria, or meeting the Prime Ministers and Presidents in the European countries, or anywhere else, my goal is always to speak the truth. I always think about representing the girls who do not have the voice, who do not have the opportunity to go to the stage and speak up for themselves.
When I was in Nigeria, I spoke of the girls who were abducted by Boko Haram and said it very openly that they should do something about it. The President promised he would meet the parents of the girls who were abducted. I think all I care about is telling the truth and taking advantage of this opportunity. I’m just grateful that the people we are working with are investing more into girls’ education and supporting our projects. I think it’s a great thing, and I want more and more people to engage in this and start supporting and investing in girls’ education.
Has any meeting with any world leader surprised you?
I think it depends on what you mean, and what sense.
I think, oftentimes, when you are little, when you are only eleven, you think that the Prime Minister and Presidents can just change everything in a day. You realize how difficult it is. When I go in countries, I try to convince them and push them to invest more in education because there’s a huge, huge gap. It’s about 1.8 trillion dollars that needs to be funded toward education to fill the gap. When it comes to the countries who are hosting refugees or the developing countries where the number of girls out of school is the highest, it is just pushing them to focus more on education. Some economies and some countries are just too focussed on investing on other sectors.
Gandhi had very complicated feelings about getting involved in politics and what that would mean. I know you’ve talked about being involved in politics. Now that you’re in your twenties, how do you think about it?
I wanted to become a Prime Minister because I thought, If I become a Prime Minister, I’ll fix everything in a day, and everything will be fine. But it is difficult. For me, I think the best way to bring change is to work with local leaders, local educators, and local activists. That’s the mission that I have right now. Through the Malala Fund, we are supporting activists in more than six countries and are expanding our work to support these local leaders who are actually bringing change in their community. For me, right now, I think this is the best thing that we can do to bring the change that we want to see.
You have chosen an issue where everyone at least pretends that they care. They say, “Oh, I care about education. We should think about education.” But if you become a politician you have to weigh in on Brexit, or abortion, or issues that are more controversial. You have to do that if you’re a politician. You have to say which party you’re going to join in Pakistan.
I know. Right now I’m just not focussed on politics. I’m focussed on my study and the work that I’m doing. I have a bit of time to think about politics.
What do you think about the Pashtun movement [a human-rights movement among Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic group]?
I think it is needed. It is crucial. In Pakistan, the Balochistan area and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa especially have suffered from violence for a very long time. There has been the issue of missing people. There has been the issue of killings of local leaders. It’s important that we recognize them as equal citizens of Pakistan. Those people did not even have equal rights with the rest of Pakistanis. It’s important that they’re listened to, that their voices are heard. It’s important for the stability and progress of Pakistan. Celebrating the diversity that we have is crucial, and treating everyone equally is also important.
What do you think Pakistan needs, besides better education for women and girls?
For me, I think education is the key thing. I think our leaders need to invest in education and help the people of the country, especially invest in women and girls. If you keep women and girls behind, the country cannot move forward. They’re half of the population. Also, we need a strong and stable democracy. Without democracy, this country cannot move ahead. I think it cannot stay as it is. It’s important that our politicians promote stronger democracy. It is important that they build up strong institutions that can allow us to have stable democracy. We need a stronger justice system, a stronger parliament as well.
Do you think Pakistan is a democracy right now?
Well, in a symbolic way, yes. [Laughs.] We had elections. We have a new democratic government, and one success is that it has been a democracy now for three consecutive governments. This is one positive thing, because it hasn’t been the case in the past. Also, we haven’t had a single Prime Minister who has completed his or her five years, their whole term. It is a challenge.
In our past, we have seen the struggle between democracy and dictatorship. I think there’s a lot to learn from that. They don’t need more lessons.
Whenever I’m talking to a Pakistani who is less favorable toward you, I hear over and over again that “she gives Pakistan a bad name.” What would you say to that, to people who think that?
I don’t think I give any bad name to Pakistan. I think I am a person who believes in education, who believes in equality, and who believes that this country can move forward. I’m really proud of my country and really proud of my identity as a Pakistani. I think it’s people who just cannot tolerate a woman speaking out, who cannot tolerate this vision of education for all, for girls. I think they’re in a very, very small number, those who say this, but I think we have to highlight what is wrong in the country in order to make the country better. If we keep saying the country is perfect, that’s not going to solve any issue. We have to be open about addressing the things that need to be fixed.
How has your father influenced you about what you want to do in the world?
My father, both my parents, they believe in speaking the truth. They believe in highlighting the issues that people go through. Right now, for me, one issue that needs attention is the refugee issue. Oftentimes, when we hear about refugees and the issue of migration, we just hear numbers and figures. We hear about them, but we never hear from them.
When I went and met girls in the refugee camps in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Jordan, I thought, People need to hear from these girls. People need to hear their stories of bravery and resilience and their courage, how these girls are never giving up. They’re forced to get married. They’re forced to leave their homes. They’re forced to give up on their dreams, but they have the courage to find a better life. They take this huge risk to cross these waters to find a place where they can get an education and learn. They dream of peace. They dream of a better world.
Also, they’re hoping to go back to their worlds, as well and live in peace, just like many of us are living in peace. Oftentimes, you hear about refugees as these people coming over to these countries and taking jobs. We need to remember that, in their home country, they were doctors, they were engineers, they were teachers. I was a student. My dad was a school principal. When you become displaced, you have to leave your home country. This is never your first choice. This becomes your only choice for safety.
How do you understand the fact that the rise of a certain kind of politics, anti-refugee politics, also seems to be so misogynist?
I think, for me, it was a bit shocking to see that still present in the Western democracies, because you assume the developing countries are going through this, and it is still a challenge, and people are hopeful about it. I think one positive thing that I see is that it is changing. There is activism going on. Women are getting involved. Men are also standing up and joining this movement of feminism and equality. I do hope that people educate themselves and realize that when you invest in women, when you give them education and also equal opportunities, that boosts the welfare and the prosperity of the country. You multiply the benefits. I think more awareness and education is needed.
It’s amazing how “feminist” is still a dirty word here and so many places.
I hope it changes.
How old are your siblings?
One is fifteen and one is nineteen. Both are boys. Younger brothers.
How do you guys get along?
Normal siblings. We have quite the fights and arguments every day.
What do you argue about?
Everything. I think the little one, he plays too much on his PlayStation 4 and too much on his computer. I tell him to focus on studies, as an elder sister.