The name “Malala” (or “Malalai”) has long been associated with freedom and female strength in Afghani culture. One of Afghanistan’s most beloved folk heroes is Malalai of Maiwan, who led her people into battle against the invading British colonisers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. But the Malala most of us know is Malala Yousefzai, a young Pakastani woman fiercely in support of girls’ education.
In his latest documentary effort, He Named Me Malala, David Guggenheim delves into both the story of one of the world’s most famous teenagers but also the intricate history of her name. It’s not a perfect film, but it does a formidable job of showing us that Malala is a unique, surprising individual, and also part of a larger, longer story of humanity standing up to oppressors.
Malala Yousefzai is a familiar face and name to most of us who keep up with social media, humanitarian figures, and a little thing called the Nobel Peace Prize. One October afternoon in 2012, Malala nearly became a casualty of the Taliban’s efforts to prevent girls from attending school when she was shot in the head on her school bus by a Taliban gunman. Her miraculous recovery and public speaking has turned her into a global figure for peace and education.
The film showcases her moving story, and her awe-inspiring speeches. Beautiful animated sequences show Malalai the warrior as well as the love story of Malala’s parents. But the true power in this project lies in the moments where we get to better understand her family and her relationships. Her awareness of herself as a child, a teenager, a sister, and a daughter shines through typical teenage moments and lighthearted interactions with her brothers.
In one scene, her little brother berates her for her devotion to homework, and laments that she rarely gets in trouble for her naughtiness. In another, Malala shows us images of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt and talks celebrity crushes. She isn’t just a Nobel laureate – she’s a girl like any other who giggles over a special someone and has nerves about the dating world. She appreciates her life in England, and how she’s been able to recover and continue her education, but she’s homesick for the earth, people, and legacy of her home country.
Astonishingly (or maybe not so much?) Malala appears to have no desire to seek revenge or retaliation against her attackers. Her voice is full of emotion as she speaks of the men who shot her – disappointment that they ignore Islam’s call for peace, and pity for their own lack of love and education. Even so, she stands against them and will not be stopped.
Just like her namesake, Malala has picked her battle and she’s determined not to be defeated.
When Ziauddin Yousefzai’s wife gave birth to a girl on 12 July 1997, he surely had no idea that his daughter would lead a bold campaign in the face of death and danger. But he named her Malala anyway – and she has grown into a force as legendary as her namesake.
So check out He Named Me Malala for a fascinating, if cursory, glimpse into the world of this strong young woman. It reminds us that the fight for justice is not metaphorical; it’s very real, with sweat, blood, and bullets, especially for girls and women across the globe.