Malala and the Two Kinds of Operation

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Malala Yousafzai, the youthful activist for female education in Pakistan, reportedly is doing OK after weekend surgery to place a titanium plate over the bullet wound in her skull. The 15-year-old has been in hospitals, first in her homeland and then in Birmingham, England, since last October when the Pakistan Taliban botched her assassination. The Tehrik-e-Taliban extremists reportedly are still gunning for Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who they say is responsible for a deft bit of pro-secular ventriloquism (surely a girl couldn't have thoughts of her own).

But her appearance in the headlines today puts her successful five-hour surgery on the back burner and instead focuses on a video she made on January 22 but had not released until now. In it, she sticks to her own guns, citing the eponymous nonprofit that continues her own work on empowering girls. In three languages—English, Urdu, and Pashtu—she said, "I want to serve the people and I want every girl, every child, to be educated and for that reason we have organized the Malala Fund."

The fund, run by the global NGO Vital Voices Global Partnership, is making its first grant in the Yousafzais’ home turf of the Swat Valley in Pakistan.

If the timing of the release of Malala’s video seems a little opportunistic, that’s been in keeping with the media-astute history of the family. As Pakistani reporter Irfan Ashraf explained to our Marc Herman last November, Malala Yousafzai’s saga flowed from a relationship between the Yousafzais and the media after fundamentalists started taking aim at girls education in 2007.

Initially it was just local media, but in 2009, international media waded in. Ashraf himself produced a documentary, Class Dismissed, for the New York Times on Malala and the girls school her father founded; at the same time she blogged anonymously for the BBC’s Urdu service under the pen name of Gul Makai, which means “grief stricken.” After she was shot—while on a school bus, no less—her profile grew apace; at one point she was a leading contender to be Time magazine’s person of the year.

Both the media and the family were interested in pursuing a good narrative, as Ashraf points out:

This is an issue about you, me. Even the militants. We needed a doll, didn’t we? We needed this story that will fill the belly and we needed Malala to say these things. Everyone else is scared to say things.

This is why I say this issue is also a media issue. I want to give her agency. But we made her this icon. I don’t know if, at that age, you can understand what it means to become an icon.

Ashraf himself saw the transition:

People know that Malala is—and very actively—in all of these [anti-militant efforts]. But her father was very reluctant. … He of course was worried for his family. In initial days when I was meeting him he was very worried about his family and the way I was covering her. And when I was shooting that [documentary], Class Dismissed, he was very reluctantly giving me permission.

He is not the same Ziauddin now, what I have seen in, oh, the last three or four years, in fact. The type of media coverage they were in, the people he came across, the type of public opinion that built around him—all this stuff contributed toward his boldness. And he is, visibly, he could be seen as a rock against the Taliban. We made him so bold that he is now as if … his boldness has been manufactured I would say. …

So while I think most of us agree that the Yousafzais are on the side of the angels in this quest, they have been and continue to be media-savvy. As Rahm Emanuel so eloquently phrased it, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”