On October 9, 2012 fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai was aboard a school bus on her way home in Swat Valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of northwest Pakistan when a gunman sent by the Taliban boarded the vehicle and asked for her by name, threatening to kill everyone on board if they did not speak. Once she was identified, Malala was shot, with the bullet going through her head, neck, and ending in her shoulder.
The reason for her death sentence? Her human rights advocacy for education, especially for girls like her. For the Pakistani Taliban, who had at times banned girls from attending school, Yousafzai’s activism is an act of “propagating against Islam” that carries the penalty of death, as stated in their religious scripture.
Fortunately, fate still wanted Yousafzai to continue with her fight for women’s and children’s rights. She survived the assault although it left her comatose and in critical condition for several days. She improved enough to be sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England for intensive rehabilitation. She has since recovered and found a temporary home in the English city together with her parents. Time magazine has hailed her as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World” and, perhaps more importantly, she became a co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.
Yousafzai was born on July 12, 1997 into a Sunni family of Pashtun ethnicity. Her first name means “grief-stricken” and was derived from the name of a famous Pashtun poet and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan, Malalai of Maiwand. She got her activism from her father, Ziauddin, who was a poet, school owner, and an educational activist. He ran a chain of private schools, and recognized his daughter’s political aptitude early on. In September 2008, he brought Malala to speak at a local press club in Peshawar, where she questioned the Taliban for taking away her basic right to education.
Late that year, Ziauddin received a correspondent of the BBC Urdu website. He was looking for any student who could blog anonymously about life in Swat that was increasingly being influenced by the Taliban, which had banned television, music, and girls’ education, and women from going shopping. No one accepted the task for fear of Taliban reprisal. So Ziauddin suggested his own daughter, who was 11 at the time. To protect her, BBC Urdu had Malala use the pseudonym “Gul Makai,” which means “cornflower” in Urdu. She wrote her blogs until March 12, 2009.
Soon after, father and daughter were approached by a New York Times reporter about filming a documentary, Class Dismissed. In it, Yousafzai declared, “I have a dream…I must be a politician to save this country. There are so many crises in our country. I want to remove these crises.” In her younger years, Yousafzai wanted to become a doctor.
The documentary opened the floodgates for Yousafzai’s activism, appearing in media interviews locally and even on Canada’s Toronto Star. She began to publicly advocate for female education. This led to her being nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize of the Dutch international children’s advocacy group KidsRights Foundation in October 2011. Two months later she won Pakistan’s first National Peace Award for Youth. Unfortunately, this increasing popularity reached people who strongly opposed what she was fighting for, and would go to extreme lengths to silence her.
Click the photo to see how Malala continues to advocate for the education of girls
Yousafzai’s assassination attempt shocked the world, and generated overwhelming sympathy and anger. More importantly, it galvanized the public into moving to make her advocacy a reality, with over 2 million people signing a petition that led to the ratification of the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan. The Malala Fund for girls education was also set up, with Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie donating $200,000. UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown launched a petition in Yousafzai’s name, with the slogan “I am Malala,” demanding that no child should be left out of school by 2015.
In July 2013, Yousafzai spoke before the United Nations, and met Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham palace. Then in September she spoke at Harvard University, and in October she met U.S. President Barack Obama and his family where she talked about America’s use of drone strikes in Pakistan. Also in the same month, her memoir, I Am Malala: The Story Of The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, co-written with British Journalist Christina Lamb, was published.
Most of the rest of the world may be toasting Yousafzai and her mission in life, but back in her native country, she is seen as a pawn of Western imperialism, and worse, a CIA spy. But these allegations will never deny the fact that despite her age, gender, and culture where she grew up, Yousafzai’s legacy will never be stopped by any bullet, and that she has become a force of change that ultimately will make the world a better place for everyone.
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