Malala Yousafzai: The 'Voice of Swat Valley'
An interview with her former collaborator Abdul Hai Kakar
As Malala Yousafzai clings to life following a gun attack by the Pakistani Taliban, people around the globe are paying homage to the 14-year-old's bravery in defending her and others' right to an education. One is Abdul Hai Kakar, a former BBC Urdu Service reporter and current Radio Mashaal broadcaster who helped bring Malala's message to the world's attention. I spoke with him recently.
When did you first meet Malala?
In 2008, the Taliban took control of the northwest Pakistan Swat Valley. They imposed a ban on girls' education. I was working for the BBC and floated an idea that I would like to start a diary from Swat that would be genuine, I mean from a Swat girl. [I wanted] to give a human touch and first-hand eyewitness account of the conflict, which was a very humanitarian conflict. Malala Yousafzai's father was my friend and he was running a school in the Swat Valley. I talked to him because [I was hoping] he could find a schoolgirl for me. He tried for days and called me back and said nobody was ready to talk because everyone was afraid of the Taliban. But he hesitantly told [me] that if I agreed, then his daughter could work with me. Then I contacted her and started the diary.
How much risk was Malala taking in writing the online diary for BBC, a project she began at the age of 11? What measures were taken to ensure her safety?
Anybody in Pakistan who speaks against the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani Taliban [is a target because] there is a jihadist paradigm, jihadist mindset, and jihadist narrative. Anybody in Pakistan who is countering this narrative is a target. I thought [Malala] would be like that because she was giving us first-hand information, her perspective, and she was representing Swat. That would [pose] a problem both from the Taliban and the army. There was an impression that the Taliban and Pakistani army were and are the same faces of one coin. Then we decided that her [pseudonym] name should be Gul Makki. Gul Makki in our folk stories is a heroine. I wanted to give an indigenous, symbolic attachment to Swat and so that the people could own it journalistically.
You have said Malala was very close to you and your family. What is she like?
[There] were two or three things I liked about her. She was very confident. Whenever she was talking she wasn't shy. She belongs to a tribal area, so, in our region it's difficult for the child to talk to their elders. They're shy, but she was not. The second thing was she had a very good political understanding of her area. She was influenced by her father, obviously, because he was a political activist and he was trying to talk to her to tell her the environment. So she had good knowledge of the area and she was trained by her father how to talk to the media. Thirdly, she was a very keen observer. When she was writing her diary, it was like the voice of Swat Valley. Everybody I met would say, "Wow, this is a very nice diary." And what we have seen in the content is all true.
What was your role in the writing process and publication of her diary?
I talked to her and told her, "You can tell me on [the] telephone what you did that day, what you thought, what were your feelings, and what you saw." So [I told her] just share with me and I will take notes and then I will write it down. So, from my wife's telephone number I would call [Malala] because her [my wife's] phone was safe. So we used to talk to each other for 30 minutes each night for five or seven days [in a row]. Then after that I would send it to BBC English and Urdu to publish.
How important was it to publish Malala's diary? What kind of effect did it have in Pakistan?
So when people saw [Malala's diary], it was appealing for them journalistically and also for the international media. I mean, the Pakistani media was not highlighting the humanitarian issues but trying to show the world that it was only a security problem. But this diary gave a humanitarian face to the tragedy. All the international media was lifting this story.
What kind of effect has the attack on Malala had in Pakistan? Has it led to greater condemnation of the Taliban or the Pakistani Army, which many Pakistanis believe supports militant groups?
This [diary encouraged] ... people to hate the Taliban and they unanimously condemned them. All the people are with Malala -- I would say 180 million people [Pakistan's population] are with Malala. So, it [highlights] what she meant for the people. She was a kind of a celebrity for them and they have an attachment with her. She is symbolizing the rights for [girls'] education. She shook the entire country and [only] now the people are debating and talking about how to fix the Taliban, army, and jihadist mindset and the militants.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.