“This is an issue about you, me. Even the militants. We needed a doll, didn’t we? We needed this story that will fill the belly and we needed Malala to say these things. Everyone else is scared to say things.”
In spring of 2009, after militias loyal to a local warlord seized power from town councils, Pakistani reporter Irfan Ashraf, then working with the New York Times’ digital unit, co-produced and assisted on two short documentaries depicting the closure of girls’ schools in the northern region of Swat. Last month, a star of that documentary, Pakistani high school student Malala Yousafzai, was shot after followers of the same warlord, Maulana Fazlullah, attempted to assassinate her.
Yousafzai, who was 12 years old when she starred in the documentary, became a high-profile advocate for girls’ education. She has received numerous awards, and the suggestion, by actress Angelina Jolie, that she be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. After the shooting, the BBC revealed that Yousafzai had written a blog for its Farsi service under a false name.
Shortly after the shooting, Ashraf published an essay, “Predatory Politics and Malala,” in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, questioning whether he and other reporters working in the region bore any responsibility for the attack on Yousafzai.
“For the past three years I had had a premonition that this young, promising girl was unnecessarily being exposed to dreadful consequences,” Ashraf wrote. “My predawn arrival at Malala’s house was a source of worry for her father Ziauddin … Our presence put Ziauddin and his family at risk.”
In a recent hour-long interview with Pacific Standard, Ashraf told the story of how girls’ education came under literal fire in Pakistan, of Yousafzai’s symbolic role in the broader story of militancy in Pakistan’s border areas, and how it culminated in the attempt on her life.
Ashraf and I have never met in person but we have been acquainted since 2009. We were introduced by Adam B. Ellick, the co-creator of Class Dismissed and a second documentary starring Malala Yousafzai. Since the shooting, Ellick has appeared frequently in reports on the case. Though I was not involved in the documentary—I have never been to Pakistan—I know both Ashraf and Ellick well, so it is worth stating that this interview involved work done by people who are not strangers to me, or at any sort of clinical distance. Today, Ashraf, 38, lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is pursuing a PhD in mass communications at the University of Southern Illinois.
This interview has been condensed and in a few cases, edited for minor grammatical corrections and some continuity. English is not Ashraf’s first language, though he speaks it fluently.
In early November U.S. officials told reporters that Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, believed to have ordered the assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai, had established a safe harbor in western Afghanistan.
Malala Yousafzai continues to receive treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, for severe injuries caused by gunshot wounds to the head and neck. Her prognosis is good, according to multiple reports.
One of two other girls injured in the attack, Kainat Raiz, recovered from her injuries and returned to school in early November. Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper and others reported that she was feeling better, but had trouble getting to class, because taxi drivers, aware of the previous attack, are scared to pick her up.