Photo by ‘Simon Davis/DFID
On a cool April day this spring, Malala Yousafzai stood on a stage in New York City, and was named the youngest ever UN Messenger of Peace, one of the highest honors that can be awarded by the United Nations. As she accepted the award she emphasized what has become her message to audiences around the world: “Education is the basic basic human right of every girl.” A petite dark-haired girl with a ringing voice, she is not shy about expressing herself. “If you educate girls, you change the whole community, you change the whole society.”
This simple statement has become the anthem of the Pashtun girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, a girl born to an illiterate mother and an educated father who believed in the power of literacy to help change a family and a community, and who named their daughter after a Pashtun heroine. In truth, Malala’s entire story begins with her family.
Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the son of an imam or preacher of Islam, was instilled from his youth with a deep love of learning, one which he passed down with unwavering impartiality to his children, both his two sons as well as his oldest, a daughter named Malala. With the birth of his own children, Ziauddin became even more passionate about the rights of every child to take advantage of a good education. “My father educated me and my brothers,” he once told a reporter for The Guardian, “but he didn’t send my sisters to school. I thought it was an injustice.” Ziauddin was determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, founding a school in their small town for both boys and girls.
Malala loved the school, a rundown concrete-block building with a large rooftop terrace open to views of the snowcapped mountains that surround the Swat Valley. As she grew older, she was always first in her class. “She was an ordinary girl with extraordinary abilities,” said one of the teachers, “but she never had a feeling of being singled out, of being special.”
Malala came into her early teens during a resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan, a time when Jihadists had swept out of the mountains and overtaken the surrounding countryside, terrorizing the pastoral and at times war-torn regions around her hometown. As militants gained control of the Swat Valley in 2007, they banned girls from the schools, denouncing those who attended as haram, or offensive to Islam. During the occupation, the Taliban destroyed over 400 schools, 70 percent of them, schools that were dedicated to the education of girls. In a recent speech to a joint session of Parliament in Canada, Malala courageously recalled the trials of her youth. “I have seen fear, and experienced times when I didn’t know if I was safe or not. I remember how my mom would put a ladder at the back of our house so that if anything happened we could escape. I felt fear when I went to school, thinking that someone would stop me and harm me. I would hide my books under my scarf.”
By age 11, Malala was the top student in her father’s school, had read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” and was writing a blog for the BBC under the pen name Gul Makai—a look inside the Taliban, as seen by a schoolgirl. Despite the danger and the risk, Malala’s family fervently believed in the power of a girl’s education, and encouraged her to continue speaking out against the Taliban. Malala’s father believed that there was a power even greater than that of the sword or the pen—the power of women to be a change in their families, in their communities, and in their world.
In the book “I Am Malala,” she recounts evenings spent at home with her family, poring over Anna Karenina and the novels of Jane Austen, as well as the Twilight books by Stephanie Meyers. Her father and mother take pride in the fact that they were raising their daughter to be a strong, independant thinker, educated alongside their sons. “I wanted her to believe in my mission and philosophy,” her father told a reporter once. “I never tried to clip the wings of my daughter who was meant to fly high in the sky.” These words embody the attitudes of her parents, individuals who wanted their children to embrace the bright, inquisitive natures with which they were born, and to stand against the type of injustice and abuse that surrounded them on a daily basis.
During the reign of the Taliban,Malala’s father, Ziauddin, became one of an extremely small number of activists who dared to openly challenge the atrocities that were happening daily in what had been a beautiful, green, peaceful valley. Malala soon followed in her father’s footsteps, gaining worldwide attention as her blog about life under the Taliban regime began to be translated into English and gained popularity all over the world. By the age of 12, Malala was giving speeches arguing for education, speeches that her father helped her to write in long evenings at home.
The rest of Malala’s story is one that played out in front of an outraged and astonished world. Shortly after being nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by the UN, Malala’s real name was revealed, and, on a hot, humid day in October of 2012, a Taliban fighter forced his way onto her school bus, shouted out, “Which one is Malala?” and shot her in the head for speaking out about a girl’s right to an education. Miraculously, Malala survived the attack. She was airlifted to a hospital in the UK, where she underwent extensive medical treatment and lasting rehabilitation to repair the damage the bullets had done to her skull and shoulder. And just nine short months after being shot on that school bus in the Swat Valley, Malala stood and spoke in front of the UN.
“They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed,” she said. “And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. … Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.”
This fall, Malala began another sort of journey, fulfilling all the hopes that her mother and father held for their bright and passionate oldest child as she began school at the University of Oxford. She also continues her advocacy for women and girls, speaking often in defense of their right to education. “I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.” And Malala wants to see her parents’ vision continued in the lives of all those she can reach. Education, not just for some, but for all.
Written by ShelliRae Spotts