Malala’s Diary

Posted on November 15, 2012


Many of you wouldn’t have heard of Malala Yousafzai before she was shot by the Taliban in North-west Pakistan a little over a month ago. But many more of you, like me, will never have heard her voice. And when you do, it will stop you in your tracks.

While recording a documentary on the story of Malala, to be broadcast on Radio 4 tonight, that was the one clip which kept giving me goose-bumps. We know what she looks like. Before she was shot, an assured, confident 14-year old who fixed the camera with a steady gaze. After the terrible events of October the 9th, dazed and puffy-faced, but still straight-backed and composed.

But her voice, featured in the documentary in English and Urdu, is unexpected. It’s both deep and mature, and girlish and shrill at the same time. There’s drama in there, that’s completely raw and real, as she talks about living in a mountain paradise in a time of murderous, shadowy Taliban figures; of edicts on who could go to school issued regularly by an illegal FM radio station; and of the constant buzz of low-flying military helicopters.

Malala’s diary describes how she spent many months in 2009, stuck at home, desperate to go to school, and being driven steadily crazy by her younger brothers.  You can hear the frustration in her voice that there may be no name on the Honours Board this year, because the school may not be open to conduct exams. This is clearly a girl who loves exams, wants to beat her classmates and get her name on that board.

This is the Pakistani school experience. I can say this, because I spent 6 months at a school in Lahore in 1984. And I have never known such fiercely competitive girls. Yes, they were privileged – their drivers dropped them off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoons; they all had the best eyebrow-threaders and beauticians on speed-dial; they knew all the moves from the latest Madonna video. But they studied and competed as if some great tragedy would befall them if they didn’t get top marks. Second place was pointless. I was only there temporarily, so I rolled around the lower half of the class, amusing them with my weird accent, scraping 29 per cent in subjects I’d never studied and occasionally writing a good essay.

But something of their devotion to studying rubbed off on me, and when I returned to Glasgow and a new school, I knuckled down and moved from being unfocussed and average to a straight-A student. I have those girls and the Pakistani education experience to thank for that.

Pakistan has many problems, but its education system is not one of them. Girls who attend school are not indulged – they are pushed hard. It’s access to education that is the issue. Poverty and inequality mean that an estimated five million children there don’t go to school, three million of whom are girls. Around the world, 32 million girls are not in school. And religious extremism means that many more girls like Malala, have had to fight for their education.

Some commentators have identified October the 9th as the wake-up call needed to rouse Pakistan’s leaders from their slumbers; to force them to address religious extremism and the rights of women. Others feel the raw shock will fade and nothing will change.

I’m a bit like Malala. I prefer to be optimistic.

‘Malala’s Diary’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 23.30 tonight. You will be able to listen again via the iPlayer here.

Posted in: Foreign News