Courtesy of The Legacy Project
“Let us pick up our books and our pens,” I said. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai is not your typical teenager.
While others her age were taking selfies of themselves on Instagram, or posted about the food they ate or outfits of the day they wore, Malala worked feverishly to change the destiny of millions of girls in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Winner of the Noble Prize for Peace in 2014, Malala used her impressive skills in written and oratorical skills to stand up for children’s education. A member of the Pashtun tribe in the picturesque Swat Valley of Pakistan, her life story was truly remarkable.
Born on 12 July 1997 in Mingora, a town in the Swat District of north-west Pakistan, Malala was named by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai after Malalai, a Pashtun heroine who sacrificed her life to fight for her people’s freedom.
Using a pen name Gul Makai, Malala Yousafzai wrote an online diary for the BBC Urdu service in 2009. This was during the time when the Taliban’s military hold on Swat intensified.
In her blog, Malala wrote about fears that her school would be attacked and the increasing military activity in Swat. The online diary also highlighted the daily challenges she faced as a young school girl in Taliban controlled Swat at that time.
Co-authored with veteran journalist Christina Lamb, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is Malala’s first book, published in 2013 when she was only 16.
According to Malala, over 60 million girls around the world have to skip school each year. Many are forced to miss their education due to work. Others are stopped by “religious zealots” who interpret the scriptures in a different way. Still others have to care for their younger siblings.
The most tragic tales revolve around girls in their teens forced into early marriages. Often, these girls become mothers of multiple kids beginning in their mid-teens (14 or 15). Without an education or a viable means of livelihood, their independence is curtailed in a paternalistic society.
A pivotal moment in her life came while Malala was traveling to a speaking engagement in 2011. She saw a disheveled and disease ridden young girl selling oranges.
What broke Malala’s heart was how the girl tracked the oranges sold by scratching marks on a piece of paper as she was illiterate.
“I took a photo of her and vowed I would do everything in my power to help educate girls just like her,” Malala then declared.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s dad, is her greatest influence and inspiration.
A lover of books and learning, Ziauddin’s passion for education compelled him to run a school in Swat adjacent to his family’s home. An advocate for education and a respected social activist in his village, Ziauddin spoke up for education in a region which had the second highest number of out of school children in the world.
Malala shared her father’s passion for learning and loved going to school. The oldest of three children and her parents’ only daughter, she loved learning. A top student in her school, Malala is talented in both writing and speaking (you should listen to her speeches to appreciate what I mean).
As champions of education for both girls and boys, Malala’s parents provided free education in their schools for a sizable number of poor children. This resulted in the schools barely making any money, even during the best of times. One only needed to look at Malala’s humble abode to appreciate this.
Following her father’s footsteps, Malala spoke out publicly against the Taliban. She was also unafraid to criticize the Pakistani government for their lukewarm approach to fighting the Taliban.
Encouraged since young to write and speak in favor of education for all children, Malala was treated by her doting dad just like her brothers. Unlike other traditional Pashtun fathers, Ziauddin did not believe that a girl needed to be wrapped up in a burqa (Malala wears a hijab for modesty) or to be restricted to domestic chores at home.
With his gentle nudges, Malala was interviewed by the BBC, New York Times, and multiple national and international news organizations to promote education for girls. She also gave numerous public speeches, often advocating for the rights of girls to education.
In 2011, Malala won Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. She was also a nominee for the International Children’s Peace Prize, followed by the Noble Peace Prize in 2014 as a champion for children’s education.
Courtesy of Novel Gobblers
Unfortunately, Ziauddin’s activism resulted in him knocking heads with the Taliban. Malala’s actions also attracted unwanted attention from the hard-line militants.
When the North-Western border regions of Pakistan were gradually occupied by the Taliban, the group imposed draconian laws restricting the lifestyles of women and girls. Television and music were banned.
Women and girls could only move around if they were accompanied by their husbands, fathers or brothers. Initially prevented from going shopping alone, they were eventually banned from shopping altogether. Dancing and other forms of entertainment were also strictly forbidden.
The most significant edict set forth by the Taliban? That no girl should go to school once she reached a certain age. When operators of schools in the Swat Valley defied that order, the Taliban blew their schools up (usually when they were empty at night). Threats were also sent to operators like Malala’s father who ran schools for girls.
During those dark days, Ziauddin was told that his school had to close. The penalty for refusing to obey then was death.
When the Taliban eventually took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai became known as the only girl who dared to speak out. Malala refused to be silenced and continued advocating for the right of girls to an education.
On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when Malala was 15, she was shot in the head at point-blank range. Riding the bus home from school that day, her injuries were so serious that at one point, her chances of survival were slim.
Fortunately, Malala eventually recovered although not fully – the left side of her face is partially paralysed from the gun wound and hence she is unable to smile normally. Her cranial injuries were so serious that a permanent titanium plate had to be screwed into her skull.
Malala’s miraculous recovery took her on an extraordinary journey. She flew from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to a hospital in Birmingham, UK – her present family home. Her entire medical fees were sponsored largely by the Pakistani government.
Malala’s bravery also resulted in the President of Pakistan paying personal attention to her, and resulted in her gracing the hallowed halls of the United Nations in New York. At 16, she became a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Co-founded by Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai, The Malala Fund seeks to help girls in underdeveloped communities around the world to complete 12 years of primary education. By doing doing so, the foundation hopes to help girls to achieve their fullest potential and to be positive change-makers in their families, communities and nations.
Quoting from The Malala Fund website:
“We work with partners all over the world helping to empower girls and amplify their voices; we invest in local education leaders and programmes; and we advocate for more resources for education and safe schools for every child.”
The story of Malala Yousafzai as told in I Am Malala is one that has left a deep and indelible mark on me.
As an educator and a parent, I was deeply encouraged by Malala’s heroism and bravery. What truly amazed me was her humility, kindness and gentleness of heart.
When asked what she would say to the young militant who shot her, Malala did not express any anger or vengeance. Instead, she replied that she wanted to explain to them the importance of educating girls and to explain why it was so important.
Malala’s spirit of forgiving her enemies reminded me of political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Malala herself cited that women leaders like Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan (who was assassinated by militants in Pakistan) and Aung San Suu Kyi were her icons.
Last but certainly not least, I would say that Malala is the ultimate example of what we can truly call a social influencer.
While she may not be modeling the latest fashions, jet-setting to exotic holiday destinations, or eating choice delicacies, her exemplary behaviour has influenced a lot more people than most “social influencers” on the planet.
Among those whom she influenced? Global political leaders like President Obama, former UK PM Gordon Brown and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Now tell me if you know of any other person with that kind of influence!
“Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country – this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.” – Malala Yousafzai
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