What happened when I went to London to interview Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala

Somehow an email from National Geographic found its way into my spam, and while procrastinating on some work a week ago, I saw it there: an invitation to go to London as one of only two U.S. journalists being offered exclusive interviews with Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala. He would be there for the screening of the documentary film He Named Me Malala, which will debut for the general public on the National Geographic channel February 29th in the US and in 131 other countries in 45 languages.

To say I was excited is an understatement. For any of you who aren’t familiar with Malala, the world has been riveted by the story of this incredibly courageous girl over the past few years. At the age of 15, she was shot by the Taliban for standing up for the educational rights of young women in Pakistan. She survived this assassination attempt and has gone on to become a vocal activist worldwide and the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her father, an longtime activist for girls’ education in his own right, has been an educator and is currently the UN Special Advisor on Global Education.

To give just a little more background, there are many countries in the world, Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, where young women are not given the same access to education. Unlike boys, who are offered every opportunity, girls are expected to stay home, learn to cook and clean, be obedient in every way, get married, have children, and raise any daughters in the same manner. Young women face harassment and violence if they attempt to go to school. Ziauddin was an educator who wanted his daughter to have equal opportunities to his sons, so Malala and other girls were allowed into his classrooms. When Malala began speaking out for educational rights for all girls she was targeted.

At first, to be candid, I was a little bit terrified and confused as to why I was invited. I am accustomed to finding fun in every subject and asking quirky, irreverent questions. How would I handle such a serious and upsetting topic as oppression of women around the world? A moment of self-doubt made me question if I was up to the task. But as I watched the film and researched by listening to speeches by Ziauddin and Malala, it became clear to me that even though their story has such terrifying aspects, the message is warm and human and all about positivity and empowerment, something I can always relate to in my work and as a person.

In fact, the film is incredibly light at times; it doesn’t stop at showing us the terror of the attack against Malala and the violence against others, or the dark days when Malala was fighting her way back to health. We see how the family has maintained love and humor even in the face of such difficulties. We peek in on her life as a regular, mischievous teenaged girl who teases and fights with her brothers and has crushes on boys. We see a proud father and his fun-loving relationship with his daughter and sons, and it is inspirational. In spite of the unimaginable pain and adversity they have endured together, I saw that it might even be okay to ask Ziauddin what it felt like to ground a Nobel Laureate!

So off to London I went. Below is my interview. Ziauddin shares his and Malala’s message with strength and conviction, but he also shares an amazing positivity, fearlessness and excitement in his belief that we can all be agents of change, even an inconvenient interviewer like myself.

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