Malala Inc: Global operation surrounds teenage activist

Published: October 11, 2013
Malala Yousufzai at the UN General Assembly. PHOTO: AFP

Malala Yousufzai at the UN General Assembly. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON: Teenage activist Malala Yousafzai has become a formidable force for rights in the year since the Taliban shot her, but an equally formidable public relations operation has helped her spread her message.

The 16-year-old campaigner for girls’ education has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, addressed the UN, published an autobiography and been invited to tea with Queen Elizabeth II, achieving a level of fame more like that of a movie star.

On Thursday she won the EU’s prestigious Sakharov human rights prize Thursday, drawing a fresh threat of murder by the Taliban.

But Malala and her family have help when it comes to balancing her recovery and her schooling with the demands of being a young stateswoman in demand from the international media.

One of the world’s biggest public relations firms, Edelman, has a team working on her behalf while politicians, journalists and book publishers are making her into something of a global brand.

Those close to Malala reject claims from some in Pakistan that she is being manipulated.

“I was worried about all the expectations placed on her before I met her,” Jonathan Yeo, a British painter whose portrait of Malala went on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London in September, told AFP.

“A lot of people wouldn’t want to deal with it, or have the presence of mind to deal with it, or be swayed by the things around it,” said Yeo.

“But my worries that any of those things might be going on were immediately reassured by her and her family.”

He added: “There’s no one with any ulterior motives, all the money is going to charity, there is no political agenda, she is still devoted to her country and still religious.”

A source who worked with the family told AFP: “From what I have seen, although she is only 16 it is very much driven by her personally.”

Malala had already been in the public eye for years before a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus on October 9, 2012, asked “Who is Malala” and shot her in the head.

It was Malala’s father Ziauddin, a school principal and himself a seasoned campaigner for education, who first helped propel the precociously talented girl from the Swat valley into the limelight.

At his encouragement Malala started writing a blog for the BBC’s  Urdu service under a pseudonym in 2009, when she was aged just 11, about how the Taliban were banning girls’ education in Swat. The New York Times filmed a documentary about her that same year.

But it was only after the shooting, and Malala’s subsequent miraculous recovery in a British hospital, that she became a truly global figure.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, a UN special education envoy, visited her in hospital shortly afterwards and took up her cause with a petition which he presented to the Pakistani government.

Brown later arranged for Malala to speak at the United Nations in July.

Behind the scenes Brown was also helping Malala and her family come to terms with their new reality.

“He has quite a close relationship with the family, particularly Malala’s father,” a source close to Brown told AFP, adding that Brown and his wife Sarah were helping the family with “things that have been fairly overwhelming”.

At the request of Malala’s father, Brown also personally asked consulting firm McKinsey to lend employee Shiza Shahid, a friend of the Yousafzai family. to chair the Malala Fund, the organisation that runs Malala’s education campaign and has won donors including Angelina Jolie.

The Malala machine really grew in November 2012 when the PR agency Edelman, whose clients include Starbucks and Microsoft, started working for her family.

A spokesman for Edelman told AFP it was carrying out the work on a pro-bono basis and now had a team of five people supporting Malala.

Edelman said its role “primarily involves providing a press office function for Malala” and “helping to advise the family on how to engage with the huge media and public interest in Malala’s campaign.”

There is now a two-month waiting list for an interview with Malala, the firm said.

The global spotlight has provoked a backlash in parts of Pakistani society, with some accusing Malala of acting as a puppet of the West while the Taliban have renewed the threat to her life.

Elsewhere there have also been concerns at the level of public exposure.

“It could be a burden. Imposing that on a child might not be ethical,” said Tilman Brueck, the head of Stockholm peace research institute SIPRI.

Malala herself insists the circus around her has not affected her personality.

“My world has changed but I have not,” she says in her autobiography “I Am Malala”.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • hmm
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:44AM

    She is already a millionaire, I hope she spends some of her income on girls education of which she speaks so much about.


  • Well
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:59AM

    The Nobel Peace Prize is an insult to decency and humanity, but this girl is obviously to young to appreciate that. I feel sorry for her.


  • Uhuh
    Oct 11, 2013 - 12:25PM

    Malala being packaged and manufactured? No one is being surprised. Everyone in Pakistan has been saying that but obviously we are conspiracy theorists!


  • Ashkenazi
    Oct 11, 2013 - 12:44PM

    Girl power! Great effort by PR agency Edelman they all deserve a nobel peace prize.


  • Afaaq
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:01PM

    Shame on all who criticize her. She has achieved more in 16 years than many wont in a lifetime. We are a nation full of couch experts and conspiracy theorists. All she does is highlight the importance of education. Can we not be civil enough to appreciate that.


  • Minority
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:02PM

    Go Malala go. You are the one of the last remaining hopes for the people of the increasingly hopless country that Pakistan has become.


  • Aamir
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:02PM

    What ever the world thinks about her and what all the plans behind offering her the Nobel Peace Prize, being an impartial human, I must say, she in herself, deserves it and far better than Obama and Kissinger.

    Those who hate her out of their either love or sympathy for Talibans or the Taliban movement must accept the fact that she is actually a 16 year old girl who for real stood for education adn was shot in the head, a lethal try.

    Those who compare her with Afia Siddiqui and try to diminish her effort in this comparison, must accept that Afia was and is a US citizen. She, for whatever good reasons, at least chose to live in another country and who was grown up enough to make decisions. Meanwhile, Malala is and was a teenager when she stood up for education and was shot. If US is a culprit if it punished Afia for doing something wrong whether the punishment is more than she deserves although it is not death penalty, then why attacking Malala gets no condemnation which was meant to kill her and her crime was trying to get schools opened which Talibans closed. Taliban did close and destroyed hundreds of schools in KPK. It is no myth. It is for real.
    Thanks for reading.


  • Afaaq
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:03PM


    How is the Nobel Peace prize against decency and humanity?


  • Shaban
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:08PM

    Dear Mr.Taliban,
    Plz shoot me.. I too want to become rich and famous..


  • Goodness Gracious
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:11PM

    Malala and her father who is the real activist behind her deserve all the support they can get.
    However the Edelmans and the celebrities and politicians from around the world who want a slice of Malala are much too manipulative and nasty to imagine that they are doing it for girls education in Pakistan and around the world. I wouldn’t trust their intentions.
    But as I said, well done Malala and Mr. Yusafzai I recognize your bravery and your efforts.


  • Fareed
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:12PM

    You are so naive


  • AG
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:20PM

    [She has achieved more in 16 years than many wont in a lifetime]

    Oh well. Someone just got out of a cave.

    Welcome sir! Here is a news for you. Remember Arfa Karim? No? How could you. You were living in a cave for last few decades. Let me help you out.


  • Allama
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:35PM

    Any civilized face coming out of a tribal savage society, will be emotionally embraced by the world. Good luck, malala


  • Yahudi Arabia
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:45PM

    Talk is cheap but PR isn’t.


  • Uza Syed
    Oct 11, 2013 - 1:53PM

    Malala is courage and ambition personified. I wish and would like many many such wonderful girls over here in Pakistan. Go on girls (and boys!) be inspired and have courage to stand up and be counted, Pakistan needs you, one and all, help transform your country and make it a great example for others to emulate. Go on, may God be with you all.


  • sattar rind
    Oct 11, 2013 - 2:00PM

    God givin her repect and we are thankful to God. We also praying to God that she may win Noble prize.


  • Chief Yusufzai
    Oct 11, 2013 - 4:28PM

    We were proud that black sheep do not exist amongst us and then when our pride touched the peak, God sent Malala. The era of shame begins.


  • Chief Yusufzai
    Oct 11, 2013 - 4:30PM

    We were proud that our tribe doesn’t have black sheep and when our pride touched the peak, God sent Malala. Now, the era of shame begins.


  • Faiz
    Oct 12, 2013 - 4:05AM

    @Chief Yusufzai:
    Swallow your shame and be brave–applause Malala! We have already been shamed by the Taliban and their apologists.


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