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The Politic Blog

He Named Me Malala: The Girl Behind the Heroine

In a small village more than 100 years ago, an Afghan army battled British forces. All seemed lost until a teenage girl, Malalai of Maiwand, rallied the army and raised the flag, inspiring the Pashtun forces to defeat the British. Malalai was killed in battle and is revered as a martyr. Ziauddin Yousafzai named his daughter, Malala, after the heroine. At age 15, Malala spoke out in Pakistan for girls’ education and was shot by the Taliban.

Malala is an international icon. Last year, she became the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She traveled the world promoting girls’ education. Self-possessed, stoic, and passionate, Malala is a symbol of fearlessness.

The new documentary, He Named Me Malala, fills in the gaps of Malala’s story. Scenes of Malala at home with her family show her to be self-effacing and funny. She fights with her brothers, worries about fitting in at school, and blushes at photos of Brad Pitt. Seeing Malala as a sweet teenage girl, it is hard to imagine her as such a threat that Taliban forces would attempt to assassinate her on a school bus.

Interspersed between scenes of Malala speaking out for girls’ education are scenes from her village, Swat, where the Taliban steadily erode the freedom of the people who live there. Perhaps most chilling are the nightly Taliban radio broadcasts in which leaders read out a list of sinners in the town, some of whom end up dead in the morning. The gruesome reality of the Taliban occupation makes Malala’s courage all the more extraordinary.

Malala was just one of many people targeted by the Taliban. When Malala’s father is asked who shot his daughter, he responds, “It is not a person. It is an ideology.” Malala and her father have committed their lives to opposing this ideology. Ziauddin Yousafzai is a life-long educator and public speaker, encouraging young people to think for themselves. The film’s close attention to Malala’s father helps to explain her courage and commitment to speaking out against injustice.

As a young girl, she saw schools being bombed and people being killed for standing against the Taliban. From the age of 11, Malala started speaking out against Taliban suppression of girls’ right to education. In the documentary, clips of a young Malala giving passionate speeches and calling out Taliban leaders in Swat are astonishing.

As Malala said in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not.” In the film, Malala is shown meeting with Syrian refugees and the parents of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. Both the struggles for girls around the world and the oppression people face in her home village underline the scope of Malala’s work.

Though she has said she would like to go back to Swat, Malala states matter-of-factly, “Would I be shot? Of course I would be shot.” Just as she knew the risks before her attack, Malala knows the danger she faces by continuing to speak out. He Named Me Malala offers insight into the circumstances in which Malala found her courage. The film reminds us that despite her extraordinary bravery, Malala is a person who also has to rebuild her own life while also improving the lives of others.