The Day I Met Malala

13/11/2015 6:59 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Lisa Wilkinson

It's a long time since I've been this nervous before an interview. But for this one, I had just flown half way around the world, and as Malala Yousafzai's father said on the day his baby daughter was born back in 1997 in the picturesque Swat valley of north east Pakistan, "This child is different".

Well, this child is now a woman. Just. At 18, Malala has packed more into a mere handful of years than most of us could hope to fit into a dozen lifetimes.

Become the international face of courage and dignity as you stare down one of the most feared regimes on the planet? Tick.

Deliver a spine-tingling address to the UN on your 16th birthday? Tick.

Meetings with the US President to discuss world affairs? Tick.

Queen Elizabeth too? Tick.

Be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before you are even old enough to vote? TICK.

Yes, an extraordinary young woman.

At just 10, an age at which most of her young friends were still playing hopscotch and learning the homemaking skills that would unquestioningly become their fulltime future, it was clear Malala was taking a different path.

For it was then that she first took to the podium in the footsteps of her activist father, Ziauddin, speaking out to all who would listen about the right for every girl to have equal and unimpeded access to quality education.

As a child, Ziauddin himself was so poor that his school lessons were taken under a tree, something that drove his lifelong ambition to one day open his own school.

Malala's mother Tor Pekai meantime, was the embodiment of all that her daughter was fighting so hard for her generation to overcome.

Born female meant hardline religious prejudice had denied her an education. Illiterate all of her life, Tor has only recently taken the hugely brave step of finally learning to read and write.

As Malala became a teenager, word of her quiet charisma, eloquence and influence quickly spread.

Who was this young girl so determined to be heard on the issue of female education? Who was this upstart, presuming she could actually change the world around her?

After five years, the Taliban could take it no more, and on the afternoon of October 9, 2012 as Malala and her friends travelled home under cover from school, her bus was stopped.

A group of men shrouded in black suddenly appeared as the door opened, one asking "Who is Malala?". She didn't answer, but the gunman knew his prey. And so, as she squeezed the hands of her young friends either side, he brought his gun up to her head and pulled the trigger four times.

Two of those friends were also shot, but Malala was their sole target. The Taliban had got their girl. This message of a female's right to education had to be stopped. And as Malala was rushed to hospital, the world prayed. Could it be that this powerful voice for change would soon be heard no more?

Ah, but there was more to the story.

Miraculously, Malala lived. And soon came back stronger, more powerful and influential than ever before. Those assassins bullets, intended to stop her making a difference in her local community, had now enabled Malala's message to reach the entire world.

These days, home for the Yousafzai family is the UK, not far from the Birmingham hospital that carefully nursed this hero of human rights back to health.

And it's from this base that she and her father launched their unrelenting global campaign through the Malala Fund.

And yet, that man with the balaclava, and thousands like him, have not gone away. They lurk, still, in her much-loved homeland, and for them Malala remains Public Enemy Number One.

And there are reminders of this dangerous undercurrent with every step I take on my way to our interview in one of London's most iconic, old-school hotels, better known for its afternoon teas, than hosting heroines.

Security is tight. From the men in dark glasses talking into their sleeves in the foyer, to the three checkpoints I have to pass before I finally reach the floor where Malala is temporarily in residence. More security. More checkpoints.

Yes, Malala is a wanted woman in every sense, and as she spearheads the PR campaign for the just-released movie of her extraordinary life, "He Named Me Malala", just one journalist has been chosen from each country to have the privilege of an audience. The honour is enormous. And that's where my nerves come in.

In the presence of someone who comes with such a profound backstory, someone of such immeasurable influence, its hard not to feel shallow as a birdbath.

Yet despite those qualms, here now in front of me is Malala, a gentle, smiling figure swathed in fuscia. She is tiny, but I think I expected that. The fact she is in pink seems a girl power statement in itself. Shoot me in the head four times because I'm a woman who wants to empower my fellow females through education? Then, I'm going to come back more powerful, more influential, and more feminine than ever, she seems to be saying.

And she is stoic grace personified.

As she speaks I can't help but look for signs of the devastation wreaked by those four life-threatening bullets that brought her so close to death. I can't see any -- on her person, or in her spirit.

malala lisa wilkinson

How does she feel towards the man who pulled that trigger three years before? "I have forgiven him. I believe in tolerance, and that we should forgive people and help them to be better, and give them love so that they do not pick up guns tomorrow."

When I congratulate Malala on the movie, she seems humbled, genuinely pleased that I enjoyed it so much.

The story of course was always going to be a winner, but this is also a beautifully crafted and in-part, brilliantly-animated journey through her life so far, including a charming glimpse into her everyday home-life and the wonderfully normal, typically combative relationship she has with her two cheeky younger brothers.

There is her crush on Justin Bieber, her fascination with cricket, especially Aussie all-rounder Shane Watson, and the random Google searches she does of Brad Pitt.

Here, we are also reminded that for all the modern thinking, there are still some elements of old school gender-divide that remain in her life, including the fact that while her brothers are allowed to have girlfriends, Malala admits there are restrictions on boyfriends for her.

How does she feel about seeing her life writ so large on the big screen? She immediately bats it off choosing instead to talk of the talented team behind the cameras and the passion they brought to the project.

As to where this journey will eventually take her, Malala says that her most passionate desire is to return to her homeland and become Prime Minister of Pakistan. But the Taliban have made their murderous menace public.

Should she dare to put just one small foot on Pakistani soil, she will be shot dead. And when I gently suggest this could put some logistical hurdles in place on the road to her ultimate political goal, her answer is typical. "To become Prime Minister I have to be 35, so I have some time before I can achieve that." So, for Malala, the only hurdle there is a simple matter of maths.

That's because in Malala's world, everything is a possible. Things might get delayed, inconvenient bumps in the road may present themselves, but those just drive her forward, at an even more energetic speed.

The inspiration Malala engenders in young girls meantime is incalculable. Her magnificent speeches have clocked up an untold number of views on youtube. Understandable, with words like:

"I stand here, one girl among many.

I speak not for myself, but for all girls and boys.

I raise up my voice, not so that I can shout,

But so that those without a voice can be heard.

So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism

And let us pick up our books and pens.

They are our most powerful weapons.

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world."

So in an age when we fear that the whole famous-for-being-famous culture is robbing our youth of the truly inspiring role models of their generation, be assured, this humble young woman in pink is there. Composed, focused, sure of her path and ultimate goal.

Malala is there.

And like millions upon millions of others I am so very grateful that she is.

Watch Lisa's Today interview with Malala here.

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