Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shooting a Free Spirit

Malala Yousafzai showed the way for young Pakistanis to speak freely, and Taleban extremists reacted with the only methods they know.
By Anthony Borden
  • Malala Yousafzai attends an Open Minds awards ceremony, December 2010. (Photo: IWPR)
    Malala Yousafzai attends an Open Minds awards ceremony, December 2010. (Photo: IWPR)

The Institute of War & Peace Reporting deplores the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old blogger in northwest Pakistan who had participated in our Open Minds student training programme.

The attack was a ruthless attempt to stifle independent thought, and curtail Malala’s relentless free spirit. In Taleban eyes, Malala’s particular crime was her courageous support for girls' education, for which, despite her age, she was reportedly placed on a hit list.

In the attack, on October 9, two gunmen hailed her school bus and sought her out by name. Her Taleban assailant shot her twice from close range, hitting her in the head, and also injuring two other girls.

Malala underwent an operation to remove a bullet that had travelled from her head to lodge in her neck. According to reports from Pakistan, doctors said on October 12 that the patient was in a critical condition on artificial ventilation, and that the next 36 to 48 hours would be crucial. The wounds to the other girls were not life-threatening.

The Pakistani Taleban movement claimed responsibility for the attack.


related article

A schoolgirl participating in IWPR's Open Minds project in Pakistan's Swat valley has shown the way for young journalists from the region, publishing a series of diary articles on the BBC news website during her family's displacement from the volatile area in summer 2009.

Malala has come of age through struggle against the Taleban, and always understood that she could face reprisals. Her career as a writer and advocate in fact started because of the risk. She took up an invitation from the BBC in 2008 to write a blog about the importance of education for girls only because the parents of another girl, four years older, thought the task too dangerous and made her stop. Malala took her place.

Growing up in the Swat Valley, Malala – then just 11 – had been influenced by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who used to run a school for girls. He had become known for standing up to the Taleban in Swat during periods of violence. A key part of the Taleban effort to impose their hard-line views in Swat was closing down girls’ schools.

“Those were the most terrible days – the darkest in our history,” Ziauddin Yousafzai told IWPR in 2009. “We spared no efforts to speak up against terrorism and that struggle brought us into the limelight.”

Malala, he said, “got influenced by what was going on and gradually she joined me in our struggle against extremism”.

When the Taleban were driven out of Swat, Malala and her family felt it was safe to reveal her identity. In 2009, Malala took part in IWPR's Open Minds programme, which encourages young people aged from ten to 19 to write about issues they care about, and hosts discussion clubs to support open debate.

In a 2009 article featuring Malala's blog success, Open Minds trainer Niaz Khan said her example was inspiring other young people to take part and try to get their own work published, including many girls. All had been catalysed by Malala's courage and willingness to speak out.

In 2011, Malala was the inspiration for Pakistan’s National Peace Prize. She was the first winner, and the annual award now goes to a young person who contributes to peace and education. She was also runner up for the 2011 International Children's Peace Prize awarded by the Dutch organisation KidsRights, nominations for which were announced by Nobel Peace prizewinner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Following the attack on Malala, many people in Pakistan have expressed fears that some of the voices – adult as well as the young – raised against extremism could fall silent.

This attack follows the assassination in January of Mukarram Khan Atif, a Pakistani broadcaster and journalist who was also a trainer and advisor to IWPR’s Open Minds programme. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2001.

“Pray to God for her – we need a lot of prayers,” Malala’s father said after the attack. “I am proud of my daughter.”

Anthony Borden is Executive Director of IWPR.

IWPR is making a contribution to assist Malala Yousafzai’s recovery from the Sahar Journalists’ Assistance Fund, which commemorates Sahar al-Haidari, the courageous Iraqi woman reporter killed by extremists in 2007. To make a contribution to Malala via the Sahar Fund, contact Cynthia Sadler.