Pakistani Heroine: How Malala Yousafzai Emerged from Anonymity

The teenage blogger shot by the Taliban had been anonymous on the BBC's Urdu service -- until her family decided to take her public.

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Niranjan Shrestha / AP

A Nepalese student holds a photo of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai during a candlelight vigil to express support for her held in Katmandu, Nepal, on Oct.15, 2012

For the head of the BBC’s Urdu service, Oct. 9 began like any other Tuesday in London. Aamer Ahmed Khan walked through the doors of the BBC’s Art Deco Broadcasting House, just north of bustling Regent’s Street, grabbed a coffee at the staff café and took an elevator to the fifth floor, home to the BBC’s 26-language services.

At 9:30 a.m., as his staff of 20 trickled in mumbling morning greetings in Urdu, Khan sat down at his desk and logged on to his computer. That’s when he saw the news posted overnight on BBC Urdu’s website by its team in Pakistan: Malala Yousafzai,  a schoolgirl who had blogged about her life in the Swat Valley for BBC Urdu two years earlier, had been shot by the Taliban. As Khan’s producers saw the news, they sat looking at one another in stunned silence across the bank of desks. Some hung their heads. After a few minutes, Khan’s news editor, Raja Zulfikar Ali, said solemnly, “We have to lead with this. This is a huge story.”

The journalists desperately wanted to find out how bad the wound was. All they knew was that Malala had been flown to the city of Peshawar after a bullet reportedly pierced her neck. It took several hours of working the phones for them to find out that the bullet had torn through her head.

(MORE: Malala Yousafzai’s Injuries: How Difficult Will Her Recovery Be?)

Such events seemed unthinkable in late 2008, when Khan and his colleagues had discussed a novel way of covering the Taliban’s growing influence in Swat: Why not find a schoolgirl to blog anonymously about her life there? Their correspondent in Peshawar, Abdul Hai Kakar, had been in touch with a local schoolteacher, Ziauddin Yousafzai, but couldn’t find any students willing to do it. It was too dangerous, their  families said. Finally, Yousafzai suggested his own daughter, 11-year-old Malala.

And so Malala chose a pseudonym — Gul Makai, the name of a heroine from a Pashtun folk tale — and began dictating her diary to Kakar weekly over the phone. She described going on trips to buy bangles, living in a place as beautiful as the Swat Valley and the disappointment of being banned from school by the Taliban. It was just the sort of personal story the Urdu desk had been looking for. “We were absolutely thrilled by the way she was writing. I wouldn’t call it mature. I would call it a very, very fresh, untainted and straight-from-the-heart sort of a take on what was going on,” says Khan. “She would use these little anecdotal bits to bring out the atmosphere of fear surrounding schools and children in particular. She was clearly a very, very intelligent and a very observant girl.”

The entries, which ran on BBC websites in Urdu and English from January to March 2009, were a hit with BBC Urdu’s following, which includes Pakistani readers in the United Arab Emirates, India, the U.S., Canada and the U.K. “It was obviously one of the most popular blogs that we had done in quite a while,” says Khan. As well as being translated into English for the BBC, her entries were regularly reproduced in local Pakistani media. “She had a huge audience, both local and international.”

(MORE: How Malala Yousafzai May Affect Pakistan’s Culture Wars)

But the BBC editorial team worried about her safety and whether the Taliban might discover her identity and make her a target. “We had long discussions about that, and not only within ourselves but also with her family,” says Khan. The BBC editors protected her anonymity while she wrote for them. They had no control over the actions of her father, however, who had already taken Malala to a local press-club event in Peshawar in 2008, where she gave a speech titled “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” that was widely publicized in Pakistani newspapers and on TV. At the time, Ziauddin Yousafzai told a reporter, “People said to me, ‘How can you let her do this?’ We needed to stand up.”

Children’s-rights experts say it would have been impossible for Yousafzai to anticipate the danger Malala would be in. “We have to be very mindful of the best interests of children in terms of activism,” says Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International. “But I think that it’s not fair to say that she’d been pushed forward in a dangerous way. No one really expected that this would happen.” Bede Sheppard, a senior researcher in the children’s-rights division of Human Rights Watch, agrees. “I don’t think the solution is to silence the voices of children who want to speak out and share their lives with the world,” he writes in an e-mail. “Instead, it is the obligation of the Pakistani government to ensure that children can go to school safely and express their views safely.”

Despite all that has happened, the BBC’s Khan does not regret finding Malala and helping take her voice to the public. “If I was to sit here at my desk today and think, oh my God, if we hadn’t found her, this would never have happened, that would actually mean that I am not taking into account the contribution that children like Malala make to a cause that we so strongly believe in,” he says. “Would you be talking about the state of education for girls in Pakistan if it had not been for her?”

MORE: The Malala Yousafzai Saga: Like Father, Like Daughter