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Malala Yousafzai talks to 285 South about Pakistan, immigrant life, and Atlanta.
"I know from reading your newsletter that there is a large Pakistani-American community, so perhaps next time I visit I can spend time in these areas of the city. "
Four years ago Malala Yousafzai walked up to the podium of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a black dupatta draped loosely over her head. She thanked Reverend (and now Senator) Raphael Warnock for his kind introduction. A sea of faces looked up to her, waiting to hear what she would have to say.
Malala was here in Atlanta and it was her first time speaking in a church. "Dr. King raised his voice to change the world – and he did. With my voice, I hope to do the same for 130 million girls who are out of school today."
The Malala the world knows is a young woman who braved Taliban bullets for her beliefs. She's a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose words stir world leaders and young girls alike. She's the co-founder of the Malala Fund - which is currently funding initiatives to support young girls whose education has been thwarted because of COVID.
She's also a fellow Pakistani woman and Bulletin writer (check out her newsletter Podium), who's been living an immigrant experience since she moved to the UK almost a decade ago. So I was delighted when she agreed to talk to 285 South about how to cope with being far from home, the challenges of living in a new land, and balancing multiple identities.
What are the things you do, eat or watch that help you feel closer to Pakistan?
So many things…I still listen to Pashto songs and other Pakistani music, watch Bollywood films and cheer for Pakistan’s cricket team. My mother’s cooking always reminds me of home. My father is in regular contact with so many friends and relatives in Swat. And I look forward to going to Pakistan soon.
For many Pakistani parents, their dream is for their children to be successful — this often means they're a doctor / lawyer / engineer, are married with children and deeply connected to family and the local Pakistani community. What advice do you have for those who don't fit the mold?
All parents want what is best for their children, but I know how hard it can be when our definition of “best” differs. Even though I have always had the support of my parents, it was not always the case with my extended family. Some relatives felt it was inappropriate for me to give interviews when I was first beginning my advocacy for girls’ education – because they had never seen a girl with my background on TV. Over time, they grew to accept it and now they support me.
The world is changing and “successful” today doesn’t always mean being a doctor or lawyer or married with children. So my advice is to try to talk to your parents and explain to them why you have chosen a specific path in life, how it benefits your community and yourself.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get the support or validation you want from your family. But if you are certain the path you’ve chosen is the right path for you – prove to them that you are making the best decisions for yourself. Keep moving forward. And if you’re happy, eventually they will be too. It might take longer than you would like to gain their approval, but if they truly want what’s best for you, they will come around.
When you look at future generations, what do you hope they carry with them from your ancestors?
I look at my generation, who are determined to make the world a better place, and I am hopeful for the future. But I hope we don’t entirely reject our parents’ and grandparents’ way of life, because there is so much we can still learn from them. Specifically, I hope future generations of Pakistanis carry forward our ancestors’ strong sense of community and hospitality.
For the Pakistani diaspora in Atlanta, but also immigrants all over the world, what advice do you have as they balance dual, or multiple, identities?
Don’t feel like you need to hold all these identities equally or appease anyone but yourself. Find ways to express your identity that feel natural, not like a performance. Don’t think you need to wear your hair or dress a certain way or like a certain food just because other people do. Living your life to win someone else’s approval will never be satisfying. People may comment, but you only have to answer to yourself.
I'm a lit junkie too. What are your favorite books about migration, diaspora and identity?
In the last year, I have been recommending Nadia Owusu’s memoir Aftershocks. She’s such a talented writer with an incredible story of growing up across countries and continents. I would say that anyone who is struggling with their identity, who feels out of place or lacks a sense of home should read Aftershocks. (Also, Obama listed it on his best books of 2021 list, but I chose it for my book club first!).
What's your favorite Pakistani food?
My mom’s rice and chicken – but really anything she cooks is delicious.
You were in Atlanta in 2017 when you spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church. How did you like it? Any plans to come back?
I wasn’t in Atlanta for very long, but I was able to visit Dr. Martin Luther King’s childhood home and Ebenezer Baptist Church. I hope to visit again – I know from reading your newsletter that there is a large Pakistani-American community, so perhaps next time I visit I can spend time in these areas of the city.
Top photo: Malala Yousafzai in Sydney in 2018. Photo credit: Louise Kennerley/Fairfax Media via Getty Images