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"When the Talib Said, 'Which One of You is Malala,' I Squeezed My Friend's Hand"

Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for speaking up. Now she's telling her story.

Illustration by Tang Yau Hoong

When I met Malala Yousafzai last month in London, almost a year after the Taliban tried to kill her, she was sitting in a chair with her hands folded peacefully in her lap, like a person of influence accustomed to breathless inquiries. A red woolen shawl rested over the swoop of her thick black hair. When she smiled, it was hard to tell that her left jaw had been reconstructed. I had never met a 16-year-old so assured.

Of course, when she was on the Pakistani talk show “A Morning with Farah” in 2011, I had never seen a 14-year-old so assured. Back then, she had already been a celebrity for a couple of years, having gained notoriety as a blogger for the BBC who wrote about life under the Taliban: not wearing her uniform to school after officials warned it might attract extremist attention, overhearing someone walking behind her saying, “I will kill you”—until she looked back and saw the man was talking not to her, but on his phone. On the program, in a moment that has taken on a kind of mythic gleam, she said to her host: “I think often of a confrontation with the Taliban. There is something about me that I myself can acknowledge: I am prepared for any and every situation. If X happens, I will do Y. If Y happens, I will do Z. I imagine the scene clearly. If a Talib is coming, I will take off my shoe and slap him on his face.”

She continued: “I will tell the Taliban that what they are doing is wrong, that education is our basic right. Even if, God forbid, they kill me, I must first say this to them.”

The statements captured a mixture of the visceral and the considered. Wanting to slap the Talib with her shoe is notable for its primal, almost humorous, instinctiveness. When all else fails, Pakistani elders, across classes, will threaten their progeny, sometimes in jest, sometimes seriously, with a shoe-slap. The second statement—about the need for education—was the anguished longing of a teenager. It is as if she felt that, by employing the most rational language possible, the terrorist might just be convinced to change his position.

Rationality didn’t prevail, however. Last October, Malala and her friends were riding home from school. It was a good day: They had just finished an exam in Pakistan studies, and while they were waiting to pick up another classmate, the bus driver was joking around with everyone, playing Guess Which Fist the Penny Is In. That’s when a Talib stepped aboard the Suzuki van and asked for Malala by name. She tried ducking; a single bullet managed to go through her head and neck and ended in her shoulder. Two of her best friends, Shazia and Kainat, were also hurt in the gunfire.

“I don’t remember anything from the moment he shot at me to the moment I woke up in the Birmingham [England] hospital,” she told me. “I went in and out of heavy dreams. But I do remember one thing. When the Talib said, ‘Which one of you is Malala?’ I squeezed my friend’s hand very tightly.”

When Malala was telling the story, I noticed that her mother’s eyes had welled up. She reached inside her handbag and took out a small gilded Koran—the size of her palm—opened it, and began running her fingers over the script. I thought to myself, how many times must Malala have spoken about “that day”? And yet her mother still cries.

After months of reconstructive surgery in Birmingham, Malala became a heroine the world over, except in Pakistan, where a mixed response greeted news of the attack: genuine outrage from some and conspiracy-mongering from others. There was a sense that she had become a “darling” of the West, that she had sold out. Some said she had orchestrated the attempt on her life to become rich and famous. In a 20-minute-long 2009 New York Times documentary (A Schoolgirl’s Odyssey), Malala and her father met the late Richard Holbrooke, America’s special envoy to the region. “If you can help us in our education, please help us,” Malala told him. Later, this footage, as well as doctored photos of her with President Obama, would be widely distributed on social media as proof that she was “a CIA spy” and “a Zionist agent.”

“I don’t blame them,” she said when I asked her about the conspiracy theorists. “There is a severe dearth of leaders. The people don’t trust anyone anymore. They are constantly searching for answers, and there are no good answers, so I don’t blame them.”

Relatively open societies with a freer flow of information are less conspiracy-oriented than closed ones with controlled information. Which means that Pakistan—with its legacy of dictatorships and its smattering of high-profile state agencies that creep into every aspect of life, from tapping phones to kicking out foreign journalists whose reporting doesn’t quite sound the right notes—has a heightened sense of paranoia. As a culturally conservative society, Pakistanis are conditioned to secrecy. It’s how we grow up.

But, also, most Pakistanis can’t conceive of being loved and lauded by the West. They hate it (foreign intervention in Muslim lands, as well as U.S. support of Pakistani dictators), and they covet it (visas, jobs). When someone is feted by the West, the thinking goes: They must have betrayed Pakistan in some way. Soon after Mukhtaran Mai, Pakistan’s most conspicuous rape victim, began talking about her ordeal, then-President Pervez Musharraf told The Washington Post: “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”

Now, in between inaugurating Europe’s biggest public library, addressing the United Nations, and moving in a high-powered world of sharp-suited diplomats in her customary shalwar kameez and shawl, Malala goes to the Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham, two years away from graduating. In her spare time, she told me, she doesn’t care to watch Bollywood films, but she was bummed last month when her brothers went to see Despicable Me 2 and she couldn’t go because of a prior commitment.

I asked Ziauddin Yousafzai if he had paid special attention to his daughter. I wanted to know how she turned out the way she did. “I haven’t done anything,” he said. “But I did not clip her wings as most fathers and families do. That’s all I’ve done. In fact, you could say she is the way she is not because of what I’ve done, but because of what I haven’t done.”

There were a few other people in the room—including a novelist and an education activist—and one of them asked about how her fame affected her brothers, who would have been the ones doted on by their parents, grandparents, and clan.

“Yes! Tell them: How do you feel?” Yousafzai coaxed his sons. Malala’s younger brother, all of nine, got up from his chair and planted himself on Malala’s lap. He didn’t speak, but he hugged her, aggressively affectionate, wrapping his arms around her neck, as if to say, “She’s my sister.” Malala laughed and said, “You see, someone gave me an iPod as a gift. One day, he took it and put all his music on it. When I scolded him, he said, ‘Oh, so you’ve forgiven the Talib who tried to kill you. Why can’t you forgive me?’ ”

The room lightened up. Where the atmosphere had been hushed and deferential, suddenly there was laughter. And out of this, a gush of unsolicited advice: “Don’t ever change your last name, Malala,” someone said.

“It won’t happen,” the novelist said. “She’s not the type of girl whose husband would ever conceive of asking her to do that.”

I looked at her mother. A modest and startlingly beautiful woman who does not let herself be photographed, she has perhaps traveled the longest distance from a purdah-clad life in Swat to a publicly lived life in Europe and North America. She had put away the Koran and her eyes were dry. She was gazing at her children, at once apprehensive and proud, clearly cognizant of how much lay ahead of them.

Mira Sethi is a writer living in Lahore.