Retracing Malala’s footsteps in the Swat Valley

Today, the Valley is alive, children go to school, girls dream and people thrive, and it all started with a little girl with the courage to stand up for what's right.
Updated 07 Apr, 2023

I checked into Serena Hotel, a beautiful space nestled amidst beautiful mountains and jagged terrains. My last visit to Swat took place in single-digit ages where my family and I coincidentally stayed in the same hotel. The entrance looked familiar, as did the flower-themed rooms. The kind porter helped carry my luggage to the Daffodil Suite situated on the second floor, with quintessential valley views visible for days.

It’s hard to imagine that just 10 years ago, Swat Valley existed under the Taliban regime. The October air was crisp and autumnal, and a calming peace radiated in the air. I sipped on my apple juice, freshly squeezed out of the fruit picked from the hotel’s sprawling gardens.

It was a quick pit stop tour with little wiggle room for whiling away time. I quickly changed into my dependable trainers and hurried towards the hotel’s exit gate. The atmosphere outside Serena buzzed with life and activity. Brands old and new were a stone’s throw away, women freely roamed the streets, Pashto music played in the distance, and children skipped their way to school…or in bunches of eight, squeezed in the back of a rickshaw.

“People value education here,” Khalid  —  our rented car driver  —  explained. “We try our best to make it a way of life. I just finished my bachelors in engineering.”

“Is it the same for women, though? Do girls acquire an education at par with men?”

“Yes, things are changing. Girls sometimes move to bigger cities for further education now. This would never have been possible a decade ago. You know, we’ve had a role model to open doors for girls in Swat.”

I nodded in agreement. It’s inconceivable that the once Taliban controlled Mingora  —  capital of Pakistan’s Swat district  —  was the epicentre of the fight for girls’ education. Malala Yousafzai’s strength and resilience have rightfully won her deserving accolades across the world. To say her journey has been exhilarating would be an understatement.

Her 2021 appearance on the cover of British Vogue further drew me to the Swat Valley. I like to think we have some elements in common. We’re both Pakistanis in the UK, we both went to Oxford, we’re feminists and we find joy in reading and writing. I also had the opportunity to interview her once so in another life, we could be friends. However, at this moment, the journalist in me was inclined towards retracing the footsteps of where our national hero’s journey began.

Mingora is nestled amidst the hubbub of its bazaar, with tightly knit streets straight off the motorway. It twins with Saidu Sharif due to their adjacent proximity to each other. The Serena Hotel is a short 10-minute car ride away and before I knew it, my rented transportation had come to a halt outside Khushal School and College.

 I visited Khushal school, founded by Malala’s father Ziauddin — Photo: Author
I visited Khushal school, founded by Malala’s father Ziauddin — Photo: Author

It was thronged with the usual 1:30pm rush where dads simultaneously picked up and dropped off young girls enrolled in the afternoon shift at the school. They were traditionally dressed in the uniform of loose white trousers, a coloured tunic, and a white headscarf.

Khushal functions in a conventional Pakistani school building with large playing grounds and lecture halls along one side. Rickety bookshelves line the corridor. A proud sign hangs outside with the school’s name in bold. Lingering children looked on curiously as I took photos of the school’s exterior. They were quickly ushered in by teachers who smiled, equal parts confused and curious.

Khushal School was founded 27 years ago by Malala’s father  —  Ziauddin Yousafzai  —  who continues to believe that the solution to Pakistan’s problems lies in educating its women. A few kids tentatively approached me, asking for a closer look at my camera. I took it as an opportunity to make polite conversation about the career paths they’d like to pursue in future.

There was a chorus of “doctor!” while low voices muffled different responses. The words “fashion designer” caught my attention and I knelt down to speak to the little girl softly voicing her dreams.

“That’s so cool! Where would you study fashion?”

She smiled shyly before bursting into giggles. “Lahore!”

I was pleasantly surprised. It was heartening to witness these children having hopes and desires. Ten years ago, this would have been an anomaly. Swat now has its own university  —  the University of Swat  —  with a dedicated campus established solely for women in 2017. Even though the courses offered are limited, it provides a space for women to hone their skills in a learned environment. Only one medical college existed before the university, and conservative families wouldn’t allow their daughters to move out and study elsewhere. This started to change once their hometown heroine championed girls’ education in the valley.

In 1922  Miangul Abdul Wadud  —  the then ruler of Swat  —  made education mandatory for all children in the area. This was when the valley was a princely state under the British Raj. However, the legacy continued after Swat integrated into Pakistan during independence. It had one of the highest literacy rates in the former North West Frontier Province of the country for decades. After Malala’s near fatal shooting, the Pakistani government followed suit and made education mandatory for all children between the ages of five and 16 in Swat.

Today, around 1,600 public schools scatter the Valley’s rugged terrain, where a population of 2.3 million lives. Teachers at Khushal believe the number is still low and more needs to be done. There aren’t enough schools outside Mingora and other urban areas and the mountainous landscape makes it difficult for parents to send girls alone. Mindsets continue to gradually change, but not at the pace teachers want.

Wishing the little students the best of luck, I waved goodbye and Google Mapped my way to my next stop: Malala’s former home. It sits along a quiet alleyway on the next street over in a middle-class neighbourhood. Houses were shielded from the street by towering brick walls and dramatic iron gates. Swat doesn’t do sweeping front lawns, despite glimpses of fruit-laden trees peeking over (almost) fortified walls.

 The gate to Malala’s family home is locked — Photo: Author
The gate to Malala’s family home is locked — Photo: Author

The Yousafzai house was no different. The fat lock on the front gate indicated it was empty. Gold leaves sat strewn at its feet and an apple tree peaked over the wall. A whitewashed structure loomed from behind the brown gate. The house had been vacant for years, and was last visited by Malala and her family during a brief visit to their hometown in 2018.

Even though their beautiful abode was only a short walk from Khushal, Malala rode the school bus every day due to Taliban control, security threats, instability, and a total lack of freedom for women. Her house and school street meet at an intersection  —  the very spot her bus was stopped by the Taliban who shot her.

It’s an unassuming road with a convenience store bearing posters of Iman Ali in a Jazz advertisement. Some boys played football, and a man spat paan on the footpath corner. Yet, the intersection holds historical significance. It shaped Pakistan’s image on the international stage. It elevated Malala’s status as a champion in the fight for girls’ education. It forced important conversations worldwide. And it played a pivotal role in restoring life in the region.

These days, signs of the Taliban in Swat have all but disappeared but perhaps not from the minds of the people. It was only around four years ago that military checkpoints keeping a watchful eye on Mingora began closing. One military base still operates from the outskirts of the valley  —  a solemn reminder of Swat’s difficult past.

Most people I spoke to see Malala as their role model. Her determination to fight for a better life for women created a path for a brighter future for Swat Valley. A decade later, Mingora nights are dynamic and vivacious. The capital is alive with streetlights, laughter, and Nishat Linen storefronts.

Bazaars and restaurants stay open late. Aromas of Peshawari naan infiltrate the air. Musicians have returned. Families stroll down the winding paths of the Fiza Gatt park stretching along the river.

Swat truly is unrecognisable now, and it all began with a little girl with the courage to stand up for what’s right. The local government and community have also been working hard to restore and promote the valley’s tourism industry, ensuring the safety and comfort of visitors. May the peace and prosperity in the valley always prevail. Long live the people of Swat. Long live Malala.

Header images by AFP