Take that, Islamic extremists, anti-Muslim bigots, Pashtun-bashers and misogynists! Malala Yousufzai has become the youngest person to win any Nobel prize and, fittingly, did not appear before the media to respond for several hours because it was a school day, and the girl’s got priorities.
A year ago the Guardian sent me to interview Malala in Birmingham, where she still lives, and I asked her why she thought the Taliban felt so threatened by her. At first she laughed. Then she said: “I don’t know, but many people say that they’re afraid of education,. They’re afraid of the campaign we’re doing for girls’ rights.”
But as she continued to speak – her ideas enlarging, in contradiction to my expectation of someone who would already have stock responses to all the obvious questions – she said: “I believe it’s my life and it’s my choice how to live it. The Taliban thinks that everyone should be in and under their control. I am not a slave. I am not their follower … I will use my mind.”
Listening to the interview again, I am more struck than previously by her understanding that the Taliban’s power comes from their ability to terrify those who oppose them. In the last few months Islamic State (Isis) has made it impossible to keep from thinking about how anyone is supposed to stand up to brutality instead of responding with acquiescence or flight. It’s a question to which Malala had to find an answer as a child.
When she was 13, two years before she was shot in the head, a Pakistani journalist asked her if she was frightened of the threats the Taliban directed at her. “Yes,” she said, “but I don’t let anyone see it.” When I put the same question to her, she said: “Fear was spread all over the valley of Swat, but we [she and her father] were not afraid of fear. At nights our hearts were beating fast, but in the morning we were like normal people, and we said we’ll continue our campaign. Our courage was stronger than fear.” She says a thing like that, and there’s no question of doubting her.
In Pakistan, news of the Nobel prize has led to an outpouring of accolades from official figures, led by the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who called her “the pride of Pakistan”.
Also among the praise-singers is the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the public relations wing of the military. All this is as it should be. But officialdom has refrained from commenting on the fact that the pride of Pakistan is unable to return to Pakistan because the Taliban remain too great a threat.
As of June this year, Pakistan’s military has been engaged in an anti-Taliban offensive, during the course of which it captured 10 men who are allegedly members of the group that planned the attack on Malala.
But it’s hard to gauge the success of the operation, and difficult not to think about what Malala said to me about an earlier military operation against the Taliban: “In the military operation they didn’t target the Taliban leaders – they fled. But suppose a Talib went to a shop and asked for a comb – then the shopkeeper would become a [military] target, and be killed. They [the military] are doing nothing to the leaders.”
Malala isn’t the first Pakistani to win a Nobel – that accolade goes to Abdus Salam, joint winner of the 1979 physics prize.
Like Malala, Salam was in exile from Pakistan when the Nobel prize was announced. His was a self-imposed exile in protest at the Bhutto government’s decision to pass a law declaring members of the Ahmadiyya community, to which he belonged, non-Muslims. Salam never returned to live in Pakistan again.
When I listen to Malala talk about her home of Swat, it’s hard not to hope history will turn out differently this time.
It isn’t when she describes Swat as “paradise” that her heartbreak is evident, but later in the interview, when she remembers the river near her house. “I miss that river. It smelled a lot. It was full of garbage. But still, I miss it.”