On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai’s young life was abruptly altered.
“They thought that the bullet would silence us. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
~ Malala Yousafzai
That was the watershed day she and two of her friends, Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, were shot on their school bus by an armed Taliban brigade in Pakistan’s lush Swat Valley. A bullet entered Malala’s left brow, requiring extensive surgery and a titanium plate to fix the damage. But though the gun wreaked physical havoc, it did not touch what made Malala so astonishing: a fierce intelligence, commitment and compassion that belied her youth.
She was just 15 years old. Yet, Malala had already drawn the world’s attention with her voice. In 2009, she began writing a daring, anonymous blog for the BBC expressing her views on education and documenting life in the Swat Valley as the Taliban banned music and television, made it impossible for women to leave their homes to shop and severely curtailed schooling for girls. Though the blog was halted, she continued speaking out in the international press and in 2011 Malala received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. Shortly after, at a meeting of Taliban leaders, a vote decided that the teenager should be assassinated.
Malala would recover but it would not be easy. She had to make a new life in the far-away town where she’d been evacuated for expert medical care: Birmingham, England. For the time being, it is not safe to return to her beloved home in Pakistan.
The bullet that nearly ended Malala’s life thrust her into the limelight, as this unthinkable attack on a young girl awoke the world to her story of valor. But that story is really just beginning. As she has worked tirelessly to recover, Malala has refused to step back or compromise her beliefs. Instead of going silent, Malala was determined to continue her campaign. She carved out a new, unprecedented role as an advocate for girls and children everywhere – for refugees, for kids in war zones, for all children who lack access to schools or an education – with the same fearlessness with which she lived before the shooting.
Undeterred by new physical challenges, she continued her work in the UK, while figuring out how to be herself in a completely new culture. She co-founded the Malala Fund with her father Ziauddin and Shiza Shahid, which advocates globally for girls’ education, she wrote a best-selling book, I Am Malala (with Christina Lamb), she gave a rousing speech at the United Nations and she began travelling the world to plead for children’s rights.
In December of 2014, in the midst of the making of HE NAMED ME MALALA, Malala became the youngest person in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She received the award jointly with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights advocate.
“When I was little, many people would say, ‘Change Malala’s name. It’s a bad name, it means sad.’ But my father would always say, ‘No, it has another meaning. Bravery.’”
Malala admits in HE NAMED ME MALALA that she wasn’t always sure she liked the name that has now become an iconic emblem of girls’ rights and education across the globe. It was something she had to grow into. But for Davis Guggenheim, the story behind her name was at the center of his vision for the film – so much so that it became his title.
“I chose the title for its mystery. I hope people will come into the film wondering why did her father name her Malala? And why was that so important? The fact that Ziauddin, not knowing all that would happen to his daughter, named her after a girl who spoke out and was killed for her bravery will always be extraordinary. The act of naming her has deep repercussions and deep meaning in our film.”
Ziauddin Yousafzai chose to call his daughter Malala because he wanted a name that would always remind her of the power she could have as a woman. So he named her after one of the greatest heroines of the Pashtun people: Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun girl often compared to the French saint, Joan of Arc, for her selfless acts of inspiration in war. In the 1880s, when the Pashtuns in Afghanistan were fighting against British colonialists, Malalai, though merely a teen, journeyed to the battlefield to aid the wounded. During the heated Battle of Maiwand, Malalai saw her besieged brethren losing morale, so she grabbed a flag and took off shouting out words of faith and encouragement, only to be struck down by bullets. Buoyed by her words, the Afghan soldiers prevailed.
Some have pointed out the fatefulness of Malala’s name, given that she too was shot fighting for what she believed. But there is also something else that came from that name, something Ziauddin tried to instill in his daughter from an early age – an understanding that she was not barred from doing great things because she was a woman.
“In the course of the story you see the importance of her name,” says Guggenheim. “We learn that Malala’s family tree goes back hundreds of years but it’s only men. Imagine that. None of the women were considered worthy enough to be recorded in the family tree. But Ziauddin had the simple instinct to say, ‘No. My daughter deserves to be here, and she will be recorded in this family’s history.’ With that moment, he gives her permission to be who she wants and she took that to heart.”
For Malala, her name is something she now sees as belonging to a movement as much as to one person. “I’m hopeful that this name will become a symbol of the fight for rights and for education,” she says. “Something that really inspired me was that after I was attacked in Pakistan, was that girls raised banners that said ‘I am Malala.’ They were saying, ‘I’m here to stand up for my rights.’ So, it’s not just the name of one girl. It’s a name that now symbolizes girls speaking out.”
The Home Left Behind: The Swat Valley
The home Malala and her family were forced to leave behind might currently be war-torn but it is also one of the most stunning locales in the world. The picturesque beauty and rich cultural background of the Swat Valley was something Davis Guggenheim hoped to evoke throughout the film.
“When you think of Pakistan, you tend to think of grainy footage and bad news – but when I looked at pictures of the Swat Valley, I saw a paradise which was green and lush and actually had a long tradition of education before the coming of the Taliban. So I really wanted to show a bit of this world that is not really very well known,” says Guggenheim.
Nestled amid the soaring Hindu Kush Mountains, the Swat Valley is a verdant patchwork of fertile meadows fed by towering, snow-capped peaks and tumbling rivers. Yet this gorgeous region has tumbled through a complex and turbulent history. It was conquered by Alexander the Great in 320 BC, became the birthplace of Vajrayana Buddhism in the 2nd Century BC, then became home to the Pashtun tribes who remain there today. The Swat Valley was later invaded by the Afghan ruler Mahmud of Gazni who introduced Islam into the region before it became a part of India under British rule. In 1917 the Yousafzai state of Swat was founded by Mian Gul Abdul Wadood. He and his son Miangul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb ruled over Swat state till in 1969 when it was incorporated into the new country of Pakistan.
The Swat Valley underwent another shift in the 1990s with the rise of radical militancy. In 1992, Sufi Muhammad founded the TNSM (Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi), a Taliban-linked organization promoting strict Sharia law. In 2002, his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah –dubbed the “Radio Mullah” for his fervent radio speeches – took over the leadership of the TNSM. By 2007, amid deadly skirmishes with the Pakistani military, the group took control of much of the Swat Valley.
Growing increasingly severe in his pronouncements, it was in 2009 that Fazlullah announced a complete ban on female education in Swat, cutting off 40,000 girls from school. An ongoing campaign of destruction began – resulting in the bombing, torching and dismantlement of up to 400 schools.
All of this coincided with Malala’s youth. But she had a different perspective. Her father was well aware that the region had a long tradition of favoring education. And as she confesses, from a very young age, she knew she was a student at heart, willing to do anything to learn.
In the hopes of training a new generation of women leaders, Ziauddin Yousafzai started the Khushal School, named after a famed Pashtun poet, Khushal khan khattak, in Mingora in 1994 with just 3 students, with Ziauddin serving as headmaster, teacher and even janitor. The school quickly grew and Malala started attending at the age of five. Though the Yousafzais are no longer there, Khushal School continues to educate girls in Swat Valley. Leaving the school behind is one of Ziauddin’s greatest heartbreaks. He says: “I want to be with the children in Pakistan, to go to the school I started and to other schools to spread this message for education, and to walk in the lush green hills of Swat Valley again.”
Since the military operation in 2009, there have been improvements in the Swat Valley. Children have returned to school and there has been a decrease in violence. But the situation remains tenuous and the same Taliban leaders who called for Malala’s death were implicated in the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, which killed 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren between 8 and 18 years old.
In the Yousafzai home, there is still a dream of returning. “For us it is very difficult that the life we had in Swat, going to school in the morning with Malala, meeting children with their smiling, beautiful faces, meeting the elders of the area – that part of our family life is gone for now,” says Ziauddin.
Malala’s Call: Education for girls
“I have the right to sing, I have the right to go to market, I have the right to speak up. I will get my education, if it is in home, school, or any place. They cannot stop me.”
More than 60 million school-age girls around the world are currently not attending any school. The average length of a girl’s education in the world’s poorest countries is just 3 years. In Pakistan, girls receive an average of only 4.7 years of schooling. In some 70 countries worldwide, girls are threatened with violence just for wanting to go to school.
These are the realities – but the flip side is that educating girls is one of the most effective and efficient ways to uplift societies. When girls are educated, research shows that their entire family benefits through higher earnings and longer, healthier lives. A girl who gets just a single extra year of education can make 20% more money as an adult. Educated girls are likely to have smaller families, have healthier children, and have the skills to start businesses, get jobs and contribute more fully to their communities.
The importance of education is something Malala seemed to understand intuitively from a very young age as she was discovering her love of learning. So when the Taliban began closing off schools to girls, she could not bear the unfairness of it, which fueled her urge to speak out for what she saw, even at a tender age, as a basic human right.
This is also why Malala and her father co-founded the Malala Fund, an organization that focuses on empowering girls through quality secondary education. The Fund puts into action what Malala has always believed is the right of every person: “Malala wants to see all children have the opportunity to get a full 12 years of quality education,” says Meighan Stone, President of the Malala Fund.
The Malala Fund has three primary aims:
First, the Malala Fund is committed to ensuring that girls everywhere have access to a full 12 years of education.
Secondly, the Malala Fund invests in education projects that provide quality, safe schooling for girls, especially those who would otherwise have no access to high school.
Third, the Malala Fund works with global leaders, governments and private organizations to increase funding commitments so that every child’s right to education can be fulfilled.
In order to achieve these objectives, the Malala Fund advocates for international, national and local policy changes that will improve girls’ safe and affordable access to education; it invests in programmatic work in the countries where girls are most in need, including Nigeria, Pakistan, and countries housing Syrian refugees; and the Malala Fund amplifies the voices of girls and young women all over the world.
“Malala is all about empowering girls in this global campaign,” says Stone. “She always says that she is not one girl, she is one of many girls who know what it is like to be denied education, and she wants to champion others to speak out. That is something audiences will definitely see in the film and we hope they will join her.”
For The Malala Fund, HE NAMED ME MALALA is a chance for the world to learn more about the reality of life for many millions of girls worldwide, and the commitment of Malala and her father to ensuring every girl has the chance to go to school.
“At the Malala Fund we hope that people who see the film will be moved to rally behind the cause of girls’ education around the world,” says Stone.
Davis Guggenheim has long believed that education lies at the core of improving societies – whether in Pakistan, the U.S. or any country. “There are so many complex problems in the world … but one thing that we know really works is educating girls,” says Guggenheim. “We know it. When a girl is educated, it creates opportunity, it can change entire economies. What’s great is that the Malala Fund is already doing extraordinary things in this area. They’re not only raising awareness and building schools in many countries, but also convincing world leaders that this is a priority, getting them to put more money towards education, and changing laws so many more girls can be educated.”
Laurie MacDonald has seen the hunger for better schools become a force around the world. “This issue has become so important to so many communities. There’s an increasing realization that education is a way that countries can thrive better economically and fight against terrorism in a very real way. And Malala, because of her gifts, has the chance to be a big part of that change.”
In HE NAMED ME MALALA, Malala is not only seen at home, but also intrepidly traveling to some of the world’s hot zones — to advocate for Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram and to aid Syrian refugees in Jordan. Seeing her in action was essential to portraying who she is, says Parkes.
“She is utterly fearless. I think she has an intuitive sense of why she is in this world, of what she’s supposed to be doing — and she’s doing it,” observes Parkes. “Yet, when I see her at the Syrian border, or grilling the president of Nigeria about girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, I feel I am seeing the same girl I met in the family’s living room. No matter where she is, she is deeply authentic.”
For Davis Guggenheim, that authenticity would never have been given as a gift to the world if Malala had been born in a family that did not emphasize the universal value of a rich and deep education. “I hope this movie shows how Malala’s own education gave her the power to try to transform her world,” he summarizes. “Through her own education, Malala found her voice and then she made the choice to use that voice for what she believed. If others are inspired to speak out by seeing this movie that would be something special.”