In 2012 in Pakistan, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in retaliation for her activism. She survived, and the name Malala has come to represent the movement for the right to education. Now 20, Ms. Yousafzai has used funds raised by her charity and the money from her Nobel Peace Prize to build schools in Pakistan and promote education programs for girls in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and countries that house Syrian refugees. Between delivering two public talks in Toronto, Ms. Yousafzai sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss her critics, her views on Western feminism and the role of men in her movement.
You made your first trip back to Pakistan just a couple of weeks ago – the first time since being shot. Tell me what the most jarring thing was about returning to that country.
Going back to Pakistan after 5½ years was the most beautiful and exciting time for me and my family. I think just going there and going to my home and seeing the street, my room, my old trophies, dining place, everything again was the most beautiful moment of my life and I really, really enjoyed it. It’s something I can’t describe in words. Even the warmth of the air, even just putting my feet on the land again was an incredible moment.
There are many critics of the work that you do and what you represent back in Pakistan – they say it’s anti-Islamic. How do you respond to that?
Firstly, it’s a very small number of people who are criticizing my work for education. I think most of them do not understand my message or the cause I’m standing up for. There are still Pakistanis standing with me and supporting me. I think some of these criticisms are actually absurd and they don’t make sense, but I hope that people will understand what I stand for and that I am standing up for all girls in Pakistan and around the world to have safe and quality education.
You’ve spent more than $6-million now from the Malala Fund to build schools in Pakistan. But there’s still a lot of content in the curriculum the government has created that promotes suspicion of the West and is in support of anti-blasphemy laws. How do you take on a challenge like that?
I think curriculum is an issue in Pakistan and in other countries as well. That’s why when we talk about education for children we talk about quality education that encourages critical thinking, problem-solving skills, but also questioning among children. I hope that our government authorities and the responsible people will aim to bring quality education and we’ll also try our best to make sure children have access to safe and quality education.
You’ve lived in Britain now for several years. How have you come to view Western feminism and the goals of that movement compared with where your activism began?
Growing up in Pakistan, I thought that in the West everything’s perfect for women. When I came to the U.K. and I started to [hear] about the issues women are facing, it actually shocked me. Hearing that women are not paid equal as men - there’s a gender gap in that. Women are not equally participating and given opportunities in politics even. I think the issues may vary that women are facing in the West compared with the Eastern countries, compared to the developing countries, but it is a positive sign that women are at least raising their voices, joining their hands.
You speak a lot about your father and the sort of hero status he has in your life. But there are not a lot of other Pakistani fathers who have played similar roles in their daughters’ lives or hold the same politics or sense of activism that he does. What is the role of men in this movement?
I think it’s a good question and I have been asked this many times. What can men do? What can boys do? I think it is important for men to understand what is it that is good for their daughters, for their wives, for their sisters. Thinking that’s how they should treat other women as well. Women don’t need any extra training or any other extra skills. All they need is no one standing in their way in allowing them to achieve their dreams - no one stopping them. Men’s contribution in that would be really helpful to allow women just to follow their dreams. My father says, “Don’t ask what I did for my daughter, ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.