“I Know The Power A Young Girl Carries In Her Heart”: The Extraordinary Life Of Malala.
Even the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history is not immune to the occasional life freak out. “This is a question I have for myself every night,” Malala Yousafzai says with a groan when I ask her where she sees herself in 10 years’ time. “Lying awake in bed for hours thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’”
Malala – fresh from the previous day’s Vogue shoot and still only 23 years old – goes on, “Where do I live next? Should I continue to live in the UK, or should I move to Pakistan, or another country? The second question is, who should I be living with? Should I live on my own? Should I live with my parents? I’m currently with my parents, and my parents love me, and Asian parents especially, they want their kids to be with them forever.”
We sit in a quiet corner of a central London hotel. Malala’s hair is loose and uncovered. Her headscarf rests in the nape of her neck. “I wear it more when I’m outside and in public,” she says, seated at a quiet table, her discreet security detail sitting nearby. “At home, it’s fine. If I’m with friends, it’s fine.” The headscarf, she explains, is about more than her Muslim faith. “It’s a cultural symbol for us Pashtuns, so it represents where I come from. And Muslim girls or Pashtun girls or Pakistani girls, when we follow our traditional dress, we’re considered to be oppressed, or voiceless, or living under patriarchy. I want to tell everyone that you can have your own voice within your culture, and you can have equality in your culture.”
For almost 13 years, ever since she began campaigning for girls’ rights in Pakistan as an 11-year-old, this has been Malala’s message to the world. Under Taliban rule in the city of Mingora in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Malala – all girls – were banned from attending school. Her refusal to forgo her right to education led to an attack on her life aged 15, when a Taliban gunman shot her and two classmates as they travelled home from school in a bus in October 2012. She was airlifted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham with her father, Ziauddin, mother, Toor, and younger brothers, Atal and Khushal, made a miraculous recovery – and doubled down on her activism.
Her autobiography, I Am Malala, published in 2013, just a year after her attempted assassination, became an international bestseller. At the age of 15, she launched Malala Fund, which has taken her around the world as an advocate for girls’ education, campaigning for such causes as the release of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. She has sat with presidents and prime ministers, addressed the United Nations Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday, and become a one-word lightning rod for change across the globe.
Oh, and then there’s the Nobel Peace Prize, received at 17, all while she was busy achieving a string of A* grades at GCSE – in her third language – at home with her family in her adopted home city of Birmingham (she can even do a decent stab at the accent). In 2017, she was admitted to Oxford University to study politics, philosophy and economics, and graduated with honours. All of this is to say that there are high-flyers – and then there is Malala.
And yet, as I will discover, she is also a 23-year-old graduate with gap year travel plans thwarted by a pandemic, still living with her parents, playing a lot of the Among Us video game in her room and trying to work out what she wants. As she embarks on adult life after Oxford, the question is, what next for the world’s most famous university leaver?
First a little existential panic. It would be “literally 2am”, Malala remembers, her voice as warm and considered as ever, drawing you into her world. “I’m sitting in bed, scrolling through my private Instagram, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” Having moved home from university in March last year, to finish her degree and wait out the pandemic, she became a member of the Covid class of 2020: jobless, aimless, bored. From her childhood bedroom, she assessed her options. Naturally, her work with Malala Fund would continue, but at life’s great crossroads, what else was she going to do?
Should she look for a job? Apply for a master’s? Travel abroad? In the meantime, she slept, enjoyed her mother’s lamb curry, read – she has set herself the challenge of reading 84 books this year – and doom-scrolled. “I had a secret Twitter account for a year,” she reveals, “before I joined officially, and I had, like, 4,000 followers or something. I was doing really well.” (Post-reveal, she has 1.8 million and counting.)
Inspiration came from one of her great loves: television. She has always known the power of storytelling – when she was 11, Malala began blogging for the BBC under the pseudonym Gul Makai, sharing what it was like to live under Taliban rule. Like the Sussexes and the Obamas, who have turned to broadcasting to connect with the public on issues that matter to them, Malala started thinking about making her own programmes, and enlisting talent from around the world to help her do it.
She had meetings with the major streaming platforms: of course, they were interested – but one stood out. In March, she announced a multi-year partnership with Apple TV+ – also home to Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg – and the launch of a brand-new production company, Extracurricular. “I want these shows to be entertaining and the sort of thing I would watch,” she says of overseeing the early stages of development. “If I don’t laugh at them or enjoy them, I won’t put them on-screen,” she continues, firmly. So alongside documentaries on serious issues, such as girls’ education and women’s rights, she wants to make comedies – Malala is a huge Ted Lasso fan, partly because the titular star of the Apple TV+ hit has a moustache a bit like her dad’s. She may be a global icon, but she’s also just a young woman who loves a Jamaican takeaway and an episode of Rick and Morty.
Specifics are still hush-hush, but we can expect to start seeing her output next year. Animations, dramas, children’s shows, it’s all in the works – and she also hopes to give a platform to talent from around the world. “I come from a different background,” she says, considering the typical fare of the big streamers, “and I also wonder, if a woman from a valley in Pakistan had made South Park, what would that look like?”
“I don’t think there’s anyone quite like her,” muses Apple CEO Tim Cook over a video call from his office in California. “She’s an original.” He first met Malala in Oxford in 2017, and was instantly impressed. “She has a lifetime of experience in 23 years,” says Cook. “She has the story of her life, all of her accomplishments, and she’s focused on making a difference in the world. She has a North Star, which always impresses me about people. And despite all of this success, she’s humble and really down to earth and just a joy to spend time with. She’s amazing.”
She is certainly winning. Worldly yet guileless, she is the first to suggest we take selfies together, and is never less than sincere. Our conversations almost always come back to the subject of girls’ education, not in a tedious way, but because it sits forever at the forefront of her mind. Sweet-natured, to her close friends she is Mal, a young woman who laughs at her own jokes, bites her nails, loves to watch cricket (a five-day Test match is heaven), and will always text you back in a crisis. She is slyly funny – at one point, she confides that she lost out on the head girl position at her school. “Who could be more qualified than you?” I exclaim. “The school didn’t think that!” she replies, rolling her eyes conspiratorially, humble enough to send herself up about it.