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.
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.