“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.”
In spring of 2009, after militias loyal to a local warlord seized power from town councils, Pakistani reporter Irfan Ashraf, then working with the New York Times’ digital unit, co-produced and assisted on two short documentaries depicting the closure of girls' schools in the northern region of Swat. Last month, a star of that documentary, Pakistani high school student Malala Yousafzai, was shot after followers of the same warlord, Maulana Fazlullah, attempted to assassinate her.
Yousafzai, who was 12 years old when she starred in the documentary, became a high-profile advocate for girls' education. She has received numerous awards, and the suggestion, by actress Angelina Jolie, that she be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. After the shooting, the BBC revealed that Yousafzai had written a blog for its Farsi service under a false name.
Shortly after the shooting, Ashraf published an essay, "Predatory Politics and Malala," in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, questioning whether he and other reporters working in the region bore any responsibility for the attack on Yousafzai.
“For the past three years I had had a premonition that this young, promising girl was unnecessarily being exposed to dreadful consequences,” Ashraf wrote. “My predawn arrival at Malala’s house was a source of worry for her father Ziauddin … Our presence put Ziauddin and his family at risk.”
In a recent hour-long interview with Pacific Standard, Ashraf told the story of how girls' education came under literal fire in Pakistan, of Yousafzai’s symbolic role in the broader story of militancy in Pakistan’s border areas, and how it culminated in the attempt on her life.
Ashraf and I have never met in person but we have been acquainted since 2009. We were introduced by Adam B. Ellick, the co-creator of Class Dismissed and a second documentary starring Malala Yousafzai. Since the shooting, Ellick has appeared frequently in reports on the case. Though I was not involved in the documentary—I have never been to Pakistan—I know both Ashraf and Ellick well, so it is worth stating that this interview involved work done by people who are not strangers to me, or at any sort of clinical distance. Today, Ashraf, 38, lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is pursuing a PhD in mass communications at the University of Southern Illinois.
This interview has been condensed and in a few cases, edited for minor grammatical corrections and some continuity. English is not Ashraf’s first language, though he speaks it fluently.
How did you first come across Malala’s story?
In the initial phase of Swat I was heavily in touch with [her father, Ziauddin]. I would frequently go to his school and to his house, meeting with Malala and Ziauddin. He is a good friend.
Why were you in Swat? To work for a newspaper, or to make a documentary?
I was a reporter there. I lived for three years in Swat. That was from 2007 till 2009’s end, and I was reporting for Dawn News. Dawn News was a newly launched English language television channel.
In 2007 I went to Swat to report one of the incidents there. That was some calamity [disaster], a natural calamity. In that incident I realized that there is one guy, Maulana Fazlullah, a cleric, and he is [gaining influence with] people. It was very much interesting to me, though I hate all these Maulanas and these clerics and all these religious people. Whatever was happening in Swat was not … it was not something ordinary. It was extraordinary.
So you met Malala’s father at that time.
Ziauddin came onto the scene just eight, nine months later, when I was in the process of doing the work that I’d started on Swat Taliban. So Ziauddin came into the scene as part of the Swat story. He was already running a school there.
Why I came in touch with him? Because of his vocal approach. Since in Swat nobody was openly talking to us. You understand, a journalist will be after people who will be very vocal, who will be very liberal, who will be very progressive, because these people “feed” us in that way.
Then we start developing some relationship ... I needed Ziauddin because of his thoughts, because of his insight into affairs … So he was a source. Then he became a friend. He was Pashtun, I was Pashtun. A source became a friend.
My close interaction started in 2009 when I started making this documentary, and then I was in touch with him. Because I feared for him most of the time. That … my documentary may cause him … harm.
Ashraf explained that he worried the documentary would expose Malala’s father and Malala to militant ire, and offered to act as a middleman to militant forces if, after the release of the New York Times documentary, Malala’s family received threats.
I knew the Swat militants and they knew me. I was in touch with [Ziauddin] so, if he felt that anything was wrong, I would be involved into the process of reconciliation....
I was morally bound to stay in touch with him so he would not feel threatened because of my work.
Was it foolish to run a girls' school at a point when the Taliban threat was rising? Not that it wasn’t the morally correct thing to do, but it seems like it would be almost inevitable that there would be a reaction.
No, no. Swat has very modern schools in the province. Swat is known for schools in that way, and Swat is a very liberal and progressive valley—the most liberal part in the Pashtuns in fact, I would say. The schools are very much part of the story. Schools are a profitable business there because of the liberal approach of the people there. It was not something new.
The emergence of Taliban is new of course, … we were not expecting Taliban in Swat, which is a liberal-progressive valley. Their emergence was extraordinary. Otherwise, what Ziauddin was doing, it was very much part of the normal story.
This was in 2007, right? When violence started emerging?
Yeah. This was in 2007, when the Jamia Hafsa incident took place in Islamabad.
The July 2007 Jamia Hafsa incident was an attack by Pakistani government troops on the so-called “Red Mosque” and related religious boarding school, the Jamia Hafsa, associated with several militant groups. Following a weeklong siege, more than 150 members of the mosque and school were killed when Pakistani troops stormed the two targets. Accusations of excessive force dogged Pakistan’s then-leader, Pervez Musharraf, following the violence.
This [cleric] Fazlullah, he was in touch with the Jamia Hafsa [school]. … Initially, I was not expecting that he would be that violent. Off and on I would engage him in arguments, and sometimes these were very fiery arguments. But that was when he was not involved to such a huge scale in violence. Later on, when [Fazlullah-linked militants] started slaughtering people, I realized the mess that I was involved in.
When did people start to close the schools?
The militants were there, and they would be using FM channels [radio broadcasts] and they would be asking people to stay inside houses … don’t go to this and that. They would be telling ladies that they should avoid English education. But they were not that strong, as to take law and order into hand. In a sense, they were not ruling. They were just instructing people. They were just influencing the people.
In Swat, things started turning after 2007. Slowly and steadily the militants started showing their presence. [They built a] madrassa [a religious boarding school] in Swat, and along with that, they attacked the police stations here and there, exploding bombs.
These incidents started slowly and steadily. And with the passage of time the people realized that probably the valley is in great threat—is in danger. …
Things started getting more volatile when the [Jamia Hafsa incident] took place. [Fazlullah’s] people … implemented strategy by challenging the state. Initially passively, on the radio, where they would recite the holy Koran and then attack the state. And then inviting the state to fight them.
When the state came to fight them, they could fight back. In that fight they said "Now it is an open war and schools will be closed."
Schools were very handy for them to attack.
How did schools react?
They were not in a position to react. They were looking toward the governments.
Ashraf explained the relationship of local governments to the federal government in Pakistan. Here he is talking about local town councils in several towns that make up the Swat Valley region. Schools, which operate on the local level, appealed to local governments for support to stay open, he said.
But the governments were too weak to come to their help. Because at that time—I’m saying it’s the politics of militancy usually—the MMA [Mutahida Majlis-e- Amal, a Pakistani religious coalition] was ruling. MMA is part of a seven-party religious alliance. So they were looking at the militants as their constituency.
All these people were soft on militancy, because militants were an extension of their own parties. Why should they stop them?
Musharraf was ruling in Islamabad and he was so threatened after the Jamia Hafsa episode. Because he had handled that wrongly. So he was soft on the militants in the peripheral areas as well. In Islamabad he was finding it hard to handle only a simple madrassa.
Politics went on. Initially Musharraf was saying that the province [the local governments in Swat] was not asking the center for any help. ... The [national government] was looking the other way. They were saying, "I am not responsible, unless the province is asking, 'Come to our help.'"
Malala’s father’s school, which she attended, manages to stay open through all of this?
The school issue directly emerged in 2009. Before that, threats were there. Schools were [bombed]. But those were primarily government schools, only government schools, and that was part of a revenge strategy.
The militants bombed state schools, and left private schools alone?
Yeah. Initially, the private schools with an exception of a few cases, even private property was not that damaged. Since the militants were fighting the state, they were destroying the state property initially. And this started with girls’ schools.
Later on, in 2009, February 15, [the Taliban] sent an ultimatum [by] FM channels, that "from now onward," private schools will be closed, and no girls will be going to the schools.
But before that it was an attempt to go after the state? It wasn’t an ideological thing about girls studying?
Girls’ study was an issue before that, because that is an issue with all these religious militants. They are not for girls’ education. But what I am saying is that there was no blasting [bombing], there was no threat to private property in that way.
It was a fight with the state and they were damaging the state property. … Overall, education was not that much an issue—that much of a strategy—in 2007.
In 2009, February, [the Taliban] adopted [education] as a formal strategy by announcing by FM channel that from now onward, no girl will go to school. … Before then the threat was there, but schools were open. Usually the threats were not that formal.
Fazlullah’s group felt they finally had the power to make that kind of statement? Or had something else changed?
Ashraf explained the local political structure. Local elections had occurred in 2008, and voters in Swat had replaced a religious coalition with a more centrist party.
By then the more progressive party had won the [local] election from MMA, the religious parties, in 2008. So another party was in rule. They tried to engage the militants in negotiations.
The state surrendered a bit, because when you are negotiating, you are softening your stance. So the state was not carrying out activities against [Fazlullah’s militants]. The militants were on the one side engaging with the state, and on the other side they were passing the decrees.
Ziauddin’s school closed for awhile. And then it re-opened?
It had closed for awhile when the government started [military] operations. The world media started crying that "militants are seventy kilometers away from Islamabad." So [the media] pushed the state to start a very strong operation against [the militants].
This was the three-month attack on the Swat militants by the Pakistani army.
Yeah, yeah. In 2009. Some two million people were moved out [fled fighting]. Schools were closed, everything was closed.
The military operation ends by spring of 2009. The state wins, Swat’s people go back home, the military takes control of the area, and the school’s re-open. Right?
Following the Pakistani military’s defeat of Taliban militias in early 2009, Malala Yousafzai emerges as a public spokesperson in favor of equality in Pakistani education. The New York Times documentary airs that spring, and Yousafzai and her father become internationally famous for their work on girls’ education.
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. …
I have seen Ziauddin over a period of time developing from a guy who is the village guy who is strong—but not taking the Taliban on. But now is a very changed person.
What do you mean “manufactured boldness?”
He is bold, but that is manufactured boldness in a way because media, and public opinion and everybody, encouraged him. … And now when I am looking at him he is very confident. Malala is very dear to him. But even this issue [the assassination attempt] has not shaken him to the extent that he could say, "Enough is enough."
She should be able to speak if she wants, right? Can’t the military offer protection?
For the military, … [the government] gives them a blank check because the military is fighting the militants. Still, the militants are always targeting people and killing people, and no one understands how it happens. This attempted killing of Malala is not the only shooting. There are many many people [attacked]. Two months before Malala they targeted the manager of one of the largest hotels—a very progressive, outspoken man.
Still this is an extreme case. Fazlullah is a powerful leader with his own army, and he’s threatened by one young girl? It seems like he’d find that cowardly, himself.
Do you really think she is a 15-year-old girl? She’s an icon. We had made her into an icon. And, she was speaking very directly, she is speaking directly about the militants. About him. For Fazlullah, Swat is his land. He has a rivalry with [a rival militant leader] in Waziristan. He can’t let this icon be there, and say this and that thing.
Do you think Malala understood the risks she was taking?
She’s a very bright girl. A very articulate girl. I would like to give her her agency. ...
But for most of the period you’re talking about—2007, 2009—she’s not even a teenager yet. She was 10 years old in 2007.
This, this is where the thing starts. There is an economy, this conflict economy. When I first spoke to Ziauddin it was 2007. After 2009, the international media came. They started talking about her and she knew that she had become important. She had become a very big voice.
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.
Have you been in touch with the family since the shooting?
No. I sent a message through a friend of the family I know. Someone called me also to help with making the arrangements to bring her here [to the U.S.]. To the hospital. But that did not happen. Ziauddin, the family, was not ready for that.
I have not called the family but it is not because of guilt. It is because I cannot do anything useful. If I cannot be helpful, I think it is better not to call.
Members of the staff of your newspaper have been murdered for reporting on the fight between the government and militants. When you finish your degree, will you go back to Pakistan? Is your own safety at risk?
Pakistan is a paradise for journalists. It is a very important area. You can do a lot in that way. … So many problems and so many issues that you can write about. But security is the major issue. You never know who is hitting you at which time. It would [distract] me to such extent that I would not be able to write.
Sometimes I want to be in Pakistan. But in Pakistan, sometimes, you only want to leave. Things are not good for me there. For a person who identifies themselves to be secular and progressive it can be difficult. And, I do risky things sometimes. I know I do them. I write an article and I think, "Anyone can read this." Even the ISI [the Internal Security Service] pursues me. They chased me to my house. When you are there, sometimes, you become very pessimistic. I don’t want to be pessimistic.
In early November U.S. officials told reporters that Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, believed to have ordered the assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai, had established a safe harbor in western Afghanistan.
Malala Yousafzai continues to receive treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, for severe injuries caused by gunshot wounds to the head and neck. Her prognosis is good, according to multiple reports.
One of two other girls injured in the attack, Kainat Raiz, recovered from her injuries and returned to school in early November. Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper and others reported that she was feeling better, but had trouble getting to class, because taxi drivers, aware of the previous attack, are scared to pick her up.