What we learned when we met Malala Yousafzai

While travelling through the Swat Valley in 2010, we interviewed the young school girl standing up to the Taliban.

We don't expect to switch on the news and see that someone we know has been shot, though this was our experience when we saw the face of young Malala Yousafzai on the television. During 2010, we had been to Pakistan to create a book that uncovered the difficulties of being a woman in Pakistan. We met and interviewed over 150 women and were fortunate that one was a fiery young girl named Malala.

While staying in Peshawar we heard about a school girl from the Swat Valley who was standing up to the Taliban and promoting education for women. This is an area of the world where women rarely walk the streets, definitely not alone and never uncovered. And as Malala's example shows, there is a genuine threat to your life if you dare to step outside the strict social fabric.

We left for Swat with some trepidation and against the advice of our local friends. Although the Taliban were officially ousted by the government, it was still an area known for extremist views and occasional lawless violence. It was supposedly safe but still foreigners were not allowed in. We took our chances; “let’s go and see for ourselves” was our policy. We went through the checkpoints without any fuss, almost too easily. We were left questioning how effective the military crackdown actually was.

As the mountain roads turned from tarmac to dust we passed by Buddhist relics, a reminder of Swat’s more enlightened times. Tragically many of the Stupas had been vandalised or destroyed by those determined to erase any non-Muslim aspect of Pakistan’s history. As we crossed the final mountain we were afforded a spectacular view of the valley, justifying its reputation for being a popular holiday destination. Only now it had the air of a dilapidated English seaside town; lots of hotels but no tourists.

We arrived in Mingora and were met by Malala's father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who unlike many Pakistani men, wasn’t in a hurry to talk about himself but preferred to give the centre stage to his daughter. On first appearances an ordinary twelve-year-old girl but when she spoke there was an aura of confidence that only comes from speaking the truth.

We asked Malala about life under Taliban rule and she replied that it was like being in the Stone Age, "everyone was afraid of the Taliban, a child or a young man, because they were so cruel, they just cut peoples’ throats or left them hanging in the square." The Taliban used the radio to spread their ideas, to appeal for money and canvas for new members. They took over the airwaves, imposed Sharia law onto the area and banned girls from attending school. They said any girl caught going to school would be kidnapped and married off to one of their young talibs.

Malala and her class had been the centre of resistance to the Taliban. This group of young girls lead by Malala were horrified at the idea of giving up their education at such a young age. While others were so traumatised by the violence they had witnessed that they stopped attending, Malala’s group continued schooling in secret. They were so afraid of being stopped and questioned by the Taliban, that they had to make their way to school wearing plain clothes and hiding their books.

We were taken to the school where the students gave a stiff formal greeting before giving way to fits of shy giggles. There we talked to the girls about their experiences under Taliban rule and Malala gave an impassioned speech about the importance of education for women.

Painted on her wrist was a small Pakistani flag and it became clear to us that this girl was speaking from a place filled with nothing but love for her country. She says that before the Taliban she wanted to be a doctor, but after witnessing the ineffectual nature of her country’s politicians, she now wants to become a spokeswoman for her nation.

As a child, she would have been excused for giving up on such a dream once the imminent danger had passed. Despite the disappearance of media interest in the Swat Valley, Malala has continued to promote freedom as proven by her National Peace Award.

Malala’s father is her inspiration. Throughout Taliban rule he also worked tirelessly, a lone voice promoting equality and education for women. He is an example of conviction and bravery, qualities that have been adopted by his daughter. She would make most fathers proud but these aren’t ordinary circumstances.  It is worth questioning the wisdom behind encouraging Malala to speak openly against the Taliban. Though it is disheartening to think that the only way to have avoided this devastating act, would have been to silence a young girl brave enough to carry the hopes of every woman in her country.

When Malala Yousafai spoke "there was an aura of confidence that only comes from speaking the truth." Photograph: Geoff Brokate and Kaye Martindale.
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories