Four days ago on 12 July – her 16th birthday – Malala Yousafzai, wearing a shawl that had belonged to Benazir Bhutto, delivered a speech to the United Nations. On 9 October 2012, along with two classmates, she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen, wanting to suppress the education of girls. I am reluctant to use terms like ‘icon’, still less ‘poster-girl’, but undeniably she quickly became a symbol for a struggle for freedom against forces of terrorism. Western governments and media seized her story; she was flown to Birmingham, UK, and treated in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
The shooting incident did not parachute her from nowhere onto the world’s stage. Nor was the speech to the UN her first. She had blogged anonymously and spoken publicly for some years about the drive for education for Moslem girls. She had chaired public meetings, made videos. She featured in a 2009 TV documentary about The Taliban’s attempts to close down her school; and this public profile undoubtedly had something to do with her school van having been sprayed with bullets that day last October.
Immediately I have to marvel at the extraordinary assurance she shows in the opening minute. She has learnt how to convey confidence by opening with a very measured pace. She perfectly reflects the decorum of the setting. The only incongruity, if I might nit-pick, is in the words, “I don’t know where to begin my speech”. Oh yes she does!
At that second the camera cuts to three people sitting in reserved seats. In the middle is Ziauddin, her father; so I assume the others to be her brother and mother. I think we are observing whence this speech came. I don’t mean they wrote it for her or coached its delivery, though they may have made contributions; but we see the family unit that provided the nature, nurture and support that has put an astonishing degree of fire in this young belly, steel in her backbone and eloquence in her tongue. We can no more than guess at the constant peril in which they live at home in Pakistan.
Did I say steel in her backbone? Listen to the defiant auxesis with which she declaims from 4:35 that the bullets ignited thousands of voices in support of her campaign. Did I suggest that she knew exactly what she was doing in preparing this speech? Listen to the epistrophe that begins at 5:31, or the anaphora at 7:31
Does she know how to work a crowd? Listen to, and marvel at, the list of her heroes beginning at 6:30. That is a lesson in inclusivity. The list concludes with her parents and could be desperately saccharine, even emetic, in less skilful hands.
Her enunciation is excellent. Never does she sound over fastidious, yet every word gets across. At 9:03 the word “asked” has both the ‘k’ and the ‘d’ discreetly and effortlessly yet clearly uttered. She is really very good indeed.
If bullets do not silence her she has a distinguished future, but what will be the nature of that distinction? If I were to pray for her it would be for the wisdom of Solomon. As with the fictitious Dictator’s Speech by Charlie Chaplin that I critiqued a few weeks ago she, her talent and her message could be used to support many creeds and philosophies, not all of them benign though plausible and backed by immense political strength.
She will need that fire; she will need that steel; she will need that eloquence; she will need that wisdom.