I know the brave Malala Yousafzai who challenged the Taliban when they overran Pakistan's northwestern Swat valley in spring 2009. Earlier this month, two Taliban shot Malala, 15, as she headed home in a school van. She now lies in a Birmingham, U.K. hospital, the extent of her injuries unclear.
I first heard of Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator who operates schools in Mingora, Swat, from a New York Times documentary. Malala, who attended her father's school, spoke out against the Taliban's order to close schools. She knew the importance of girls' education and lamented the Taliban decree that girls' should not study beyond the fourth grade.
Moved, I wrote about those girls who longed for an education but couldn't obtain it. Through contacts in Pakistan I got the Yousafzai's number and spoke to the father and the daughter. I asked how I could help. Malala's response: Tell people about us.
In March, 2009 the Anchorage Daily News published my op-ed.
A few weeks after we spoke, the Pakistani Army launched an offensive against the Taliban, forcing Malala's family to leave Swat for a refugee camp. After the Taliban's defeat Malala and her family returned and her father reopened the schools. Soon students, including girls, were back in class.
I kept in touch with the family and called periodically for updates. Yousafzai thanked me for my support and invited me to come visit his family in Swat.
Last spring I traveled from my home in Anchorage to visit Malala.
Since 2009 Malala has received recognition as an advocate for peace and girls' education. In 2011 the Pakistani government honored her with the first-ever National Youth Peace Prize. The Dutch KidsRights Foundation nominated her for its International Children's Peace Prize. Sadly this made her a target.
'I FEEL NO FEAR'
I met Malala for the first time in March, in Karachi. She was receiving another award for her work on behalf of girls' education. Earlier that morning I had learned that the extremist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, had placed Malala on its hit list.
Tears welled in my eyes when I first saw Malala, a slight figure in a pink shalwar-kameez suit, her head covered with the matching duppata (scarf). We talked about her school, classes and her newest award. She believed fearlessly in her cause and spoke softly without a hint of hubris, unaffected by her fame or her awards.
I mentioned the Taliban threat and her father's face registered a momentary shock; but Malala kept her composure. I asked her if she was frightened. Her eyes flashed. "No. I feel no fear. Life and death are in Allah's hand."
The next month, I draped a chaddar (a large covering) around my head and shoulders and boarded a bus for Swat.
I stayed in Malala's room. Her awards, trophies, and citations from the United Nations and foundations crowded the shelves.
Books in English and Urdu jostled for space. There was the "Twilight" teen series," "Oliver Twist," "Anna Karenina," a biography of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and a translation of Engel's "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State." I noticed physicist Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." I wondered if she found the book difficult. "Yes, and no. My favorite subject is physics so I understood most of the book."
I saw Malala play and watch TV with her younger brother and cousins. I saw her help her mother. She did her homework. And she spoke spiritedly with her father about politics and her desire to stay home instead of going to a boarding school. Aware of the threats, her father was considering a boarding school.
She spent time on her new iPad; watched Pakistani soaps with her friends. When I asked her for an iron, she took my clothes and ironed them. She was selfless, generous and gentle.
I discovered a young girl, carrying a huge burden. She appeared mature beyond her years, and possessed independence. "I want to study and have a career. I never want to depend on anyone," she told me.
She wanted to study physics and then law, "So I can enter politics and become Pakistan's prime minister someday." She exuded absolute confidence about attaining her goals.
She observed her world, particularly Swat, and voiced criticism. "I want Swat's administration strengthened so we can build schools and clean the river so it won't be a carrier for diseases. No one pays much attention to health, education and roads. They only want to loot money."
Many young people in Pakistan aspire toward a Western education, but not Malala. "I'll only go abroad when I am finished with my education in Pakistan. I don't want to be westernized, but I want to learn the good things in the West."
On my last day in Swat she wrote an Urdu couplet from a famous children's poem: "The only good people in this world are / those who are ready to be useful to others."
Then Malala grabbed her schoolbooks. "Malala, cover your face," her father called out to his feisty daughter, worrying about her appearing to defy tradition.
"She covers her head but not her mouth," said her father. "I always have to remind her that we live in Swat." The reality of that was made tragic 16 days ago.
Shehla Anjum lives and writes in Anchorage, Alaska. She was born in Karachi and visits Pakistan annually.