No ordinary girl: the story behind the BBC’s publication of the diary of Malala Yousafzai

The shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai by Taleban gunmen in Pakistan this week has shocked the world. She has made herself an eloquent spokesperson for her compatriots in the face of the determination of the Taleban in her native Swat to stop girls from attending school. News of Malala’s shooting prompted an analyst at BBC Monitoring to remember how her diary came to be published on the BBC Urdu website:

Malala Yousafzai

I was a desk editor in the BBC Urdu team when Malala Yousafzai's Swat diary was published on BBC websites. I was responsible for coordinating with our Peshawar-based correspondent Abdul Hai Kakar, who was our conduit to Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai.

I was editing the raw copy of the second instalment of the Swat diary when I was struck by the maturity of the narrative and the skill with language on display in every paragraph. It was extraordinary.

The description of the Swat landscape and the way she gave a true sense of Taleban terror to the reader was no ordinary writing.

‘How can an 11-year-old write like this?’ was my immediate reaction, as I questioned every fact stated and every word used (normal practice on editing desks). What if this Gul Makai girl (the pen name for Malala) turns out to be a fictional character or the whole content of the Swat diary a fictional narrative with actual events inserted in, I thought, as I pushed my professional editor’s scepticism to a level some might say borders on cynicism.

As is the referral procedure in the BBC for all editorial content, I consulted the head of the Urdu section. He left the decision to carry or drop the diary to me.

I considered the whole scenario once again. The correspondent midwifing the content is a trusted colleague. Why would he create an embarrassing situation for himself and his organisation? Shall I question or cross-check every report filed by our correspondent? Certainly not. Whatever he sends is sacred and the last word for us. So what is the problem with this diary? We decided to go-ahead with the Swat diary.

When the Taleban were pushed out of the Swat valley, our Gul Makai surfaced as Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan and in international media - the girl whose writings were the world's only window to what was happening in the Swat valley.

I heard her talk on television. "Our school has opened but two years of our lives have already been wasted. Things are still far from normal: there is a curfew, helicopters fly overhead; there is a sense of fear in people's hearts," she told the Capital Talk programme of Hamid Mir on 19 August 2009. When speaking, she had the same maturity of thought and language that was the hallmark of her diary.

To top it all, she was friendly on camera and full of sincerity and innocence. "I want to get an education. I want to be a doctor," she said at the start of a New York Times documentary before bursting in tears, forcing her viewers to do the same. She really is an extraordinary girl, to say the least.

Today, while walking to work on a chilly London morning, thousands of miles away from the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar where Malala Yousafzai is recovering from a successful operation, I was mulling over and over a question my 13-year-old daughter asked me last night: "Why do they want to kill her? Because she wants to get an education and become a doctor?" I had no energy left to explain to her the twisted world view of the Taleban. 


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