By Marya Shakil
What do you say to an 18 year old who acknowledges the qualities of her opponent with grace and humility? She says her friend in the Opposition is "committed, hardworking, a kind person, a good student and is a role model to all girls of her school including me." Her choice of words leaves one mildly bewildered.
Her ambitions and desires are ordinary but there is everything extraordinary in her approach towards them. Don’t young adults her age have a tendency to overestimate their abilities and underestimate others; has this generation been stereotyped? I jog my memory back to reality — I was not in in the company of an ordinary teenager, this one is the world’s youngest Nobel Laureate.
Malala Yousafzai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2014 wants to be the head girl of her school in Birmingham and that's her immediate goal. She admits with a hint of a smile that it would be embarrassing if she loses and hence, is working with a quiet resolve to win her first electoral battle when the school's students and teachers vote to elect the student leader of their school. She explains the various stages of the selection process for her school’s top job — in the first stage, the candidate writes a letter outlining her suitability for the position and their ideas about developing their role. When I met Malala and her family on a cold winter afternoon in Birmingham, her mother and father were consumed with the thought of what the content of her letter should be. It’s exhaustive enough for this teen to burn the mid-night oil as she juggles between her public role as the Nobel laureate and a school student.
Malala's home reflects Pashto traditions, with songs of Sardar Ali Takkar, known for singing revolutionary poems of Ghani Khan, playing in the background — 'aay zama watana da laal on khazaney zama', lyrics indicating a longing for home in Pakistan.
Exuding confidence, Malala said she worked as a "maths mentor for a class 8 student" and that "this engagement with juniors shows her commitment towards her school." While building a case for her candidature she cautiously rests her arguments on "her creative ideas, communication skills, commitment and passion." The sense of purpose that makes her stand out is that "knew the importance of building of leadership skills right from the beginning, thus, took responsibilities such as the role of charity representative and form representative several times since she was in class 9."
For a girl who was stopped and shot at for attending a school in Pakistan to now competing with those her age in a new country, Malala is conscious of her strengths and weaknesses. She says she is fortunate to get an education while many her age are still deprived of it. After a SWOT analysis of where she stands versus her fellow candidate, she adds that her competitor is a theatre artist who recently played the lead role of Éponine Thénardier from Les Misérables in a school play and charmed everyone. She believes that while acting and performance aren't her strengths, she is a debater proven track record of representing her school on several inter-school competitions and has been relentlessly working on her communication skills.
"It pays to know the enemy not least because at some time you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend," said Margaret Thatcher, for decades that quote seemed to be an example of leaving a window of engagement open with the enemy in a war, as the future is always full of surprises. But for Malala who didn’t wish to disclose the name of her opponent as she feels it’s against propriety in a battle, she wasn’t really an enemy.
Her letter concludes and her best friend arrives. Malala is going to attend a concert in which her challenger is performing. I leave Birmingham convinced that my young acquaintance’s work has already caught an attention of the entire world and this election should pretty much be a cake walk for her.
Two weeks later, I spoke to her family to get an update on Malala’s journey. Her father gladly said that she has been selected for the final round along with four other girls including the one she thought was a strong candidate and will now be delivering a speech in front of the entire school. We were told that a long list of applicants was drawn on the basis of the letters to the principal and candidates had to undergo two rigorous rounds of interviews before the final selection to this stage.
Her speech was reminiscent of her unbroken bond with her home in Swat Valley in Pakistan. The stories of her childhood that have shaped her present. Conscious that her home is still 3692 miles away in Pakistan, she reminds her schoolmates that she has been in the UK for just 3 years and thanks to her school, she is able to pursue her dream of getting an education.
Her wit reflecting her grit, when she told me — "Despite being one of the shortest girls, even with a bit high heels and the majority of year 7s being taller than me, I believe I have the qualities, ideas and most importantly the passion and ambition a head girl needs, as they say, good things come in small packages."
The school voted. Malala didn’t become the head girl. She was elected as the Deputy leader of her school.
"It was a close contest," she told me later but in her graceful acceptance as the second in command, she emerged a victor. With no bitterness, Malala communicated to the newly elected head-girl that she would work with her in complete sync and they would form a great team. She has already put forth an idea of a
"mentorship programme" called "student squads" in which girls in class 6 would create small subject groups such as history squad etc to teach revision and exam techniques to girls in lower years.’
Today as she invariably prepares for the next stages in her life, Malala Yousafzai the young teenager standing up to atrocities of Taliban, continues to provethat she is tough and there are lessons to be learnt from every lost battle. Her next stop could be Oxford University where she is applying to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics where Benazir Bhutto her Country’s first woman Prime Minister was the president of the Oxford Union. Is it a telltale sign? I wonder.