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How Close Should an Activist Icon Get to Power? An Interview with Malala Yousafzai

“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-one, 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.

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