Great individuals are often defined not by their beliefs, but by how they react when those beliefs are tested. These individuals are not always formidable or influential people, but are just common men/women who decide to stand up against their oppressors, even at the cost of losing their life. The story of Malala Yousafzai who made global headlines in 2009 when she was shot in the head by the Taliban because of her advocacy for girls’ education is one such story. This young girl is now part of an elite cadre of people who have impacted the world with their immense courage and fortitude. Malala’s passion for education especially among girls has inspired her to fight for the freedom of securing it, despite the fear of the Taliban. So instead of crumbling under the threat, this brave girl decided to voice her opinion, not just in her country but throughout the world as well.
The Swat valley of Pakistan is completely controlled by the Taliban, who have banned the education of women in any form. Anyone who defies this order is brutally punished by this extremist group.The Taliban are responsible for blowing up hundreds of girls’ schools in the region; an action they take to reiterate the message that education of girls is against the law. Standing firm against this decision is Malala Yousafzai who in 2009 started a blog about her life under Taliban rule and her thoughts on girls’ education. A year later, she also took part in a documentary by the New York Times about the death threats she was receiving in Swat. In October 2012, Taliban members boarded her school bus and shot her in the head, shooting two of her friends as well. Malala spent days fighting for her life and miraculously survived this fatal incident. The courage and bravery of this one young girl has inspired people not just in her region but across the world, including fellow Pakistani girls who are now telling stories about their lives and schools in the region.
Malala has won many awards for her bravery and her relentless campaign for education of girls. The girl whose struggle was once ignored, now has regular audiences with presidents, monarchs, rulers and Hollywood A-listers. Named as one of the 10 most influential people in the world (higher even than Barack Obama), she has been called “a symbol of hope, a daughter of the United Nations” by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. She was recently conferred the Nobel Peace Prize, 2014 an immense honor for this young girl. The youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner (journalist Tawakkol Karman was 32 when she won it) Malala’s victory at just 16 is an incredible achievement. Malala may not have expected such a positive and favorable reaction to her activism, but her courage and determination has definitely created a butterfly effect. Once a young Pakistani girl who was just known to her family and friends, Malala has today become an international icon for hope and bravery. So even though she is just sixteen and was even younger at the time she began her journey of activism, she has fought bravely and continues to fight and inspire others, even in the face of incredible danger.
I have added a transcript of the TED TALK of Ziauddin Yousafzai below, who is the father of this brave heart. I believe that it is through his values and inspiration that Malala has emerged as a true champion and activist. This is a perfect example of how parents can inspire their children and help them become true models for not just their community, but the world at large.
In many patriarchal societies and tribal societies, fathers are usually known by their sons, but I’m one of the few fathers who is known by his daughter, and I am proud of it.
Malala started her campaign for education and stood for her rights in 2007, and when her efforts were honored in 2011, and she was given the national youth peace prize, and she became a very famous, very popular young girl of her country. Before that, she was my daughter, but now I am her father. Ladies and gentlemen, if we glance to human history, the story of women is the story of injustice, inequality, violence and exploitation. You see, in patriarchal societies, right from the very beginning, when a girl is born, her birth is not celebrated. She is not welcomed, neither by father nor by mother. The neighborhood comes and commiserate with the mother, and nobody congratulates the father. And a mother is very uncomfortable for having a girl child. When she gives birth to the first girl child, first daughter, she is sad. When she gives birth to the second daughter, she is shocked, and in the expectation of a son, when she gives birth to a third daughter, she feels guilty like a criminal.
Not only the mother suffers, but the daughter, the newly born daughter, when she grows old, she suffers too. At the age of five, while she should be going to school, she stays at home and her brothers are admitted in a school. Until the age of 12, somehow, she has a good life. She can have fun. She can play with her friends in the streets, and she can move around in the streets like a butterfly. But when she enters her teens, when she becomes 13 years old, she is forbidden to go out of her home without a male escort. She is confined under the four walls of her home. She is no more a free individual. She becomes the so-called honor of her father and of her brothers and of her family, and if she transgresses the code of that so-called honor, she could even be killed.
And it is also interesting that this so-called code of honor, it does not only affect the life of a girl, it also affects the life of the male members of the family. I know a family of seven sisters and one brother, and that one brother, he has migrated to the Gulf countries, to earn a living for his seven sisters and parents, because he thinks that it will be humiliating if his seven sisters learn a skill and they go out of the home and earn some livelihood. So this brother, he sacrifices the joys of his life and the happiness of his sisters at the altar of so-called honor.
And there is one more norm of the patriarchal societies that is called obedience. A good girl is supposed to be very quiet, very humble and very submissive. It is the criteria. The role model good girl should be very quiet. She is supposed to be silent and she is supposed to accept the decisions of her father and mother and the decisions of elders, even if she does not like them. If she is married to a man she doesn’t like or if she is married to an old man, she has to accept, because she does not want to be dubbed as disobedient. If she is married very early, she has to accept. Otherwise, she will be called disobedient. And what happens at the end? In the words of a poetess, she is wedded, bedded, and then she gives birth to more sons and daughters. And it is the irony of the situation that this mother, she teaches the same lesson of obedience to her daughter and the same lesson of honor to her sons. And this vicious cycle goes on, goes on.
Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.
Dear brothers and sisters, when Malala was born, and for the first time, believe me, I don’t like newborn children, to be honest, but when I went and I looked into her eyes, believe me, I got extremely honored. And long before she was born, I thought about her name, and I was fascinated with a heroic legendary freedom fighter in Afghanistan. Her name was Malalai of Maiwand, and I named my daughter after her. A few days after Malala was born, my daughter was born, my cousin came — and it was a coincidence — he came to my home and he brought a family tree, a family tree of the Yousafzai family, and when I looked at the family tree, it traced back to 300 years of our ancestors. But when I looked, all were men, and I picked my pen, drew a line from my name, and wrote, “Malala.”
And when she grow old, when she was four and a half years old, I admitted her in my school. You will be asking, then, why should I mention about the admission of a girl in a school? Yes, I must mention it. It may be taken for granted in Canada, in America, in many developed countries, but in poor countries, in patriarchal societies, in tribal societies, it’s a big event for the life of girl. Enrollment in a school means recognition of her identity and her name. Admission in a school means that she has entered the world of dreams and aspirations where she can explore her potentials for her future life. I have five sisters, and none of them could go to school, and you will be astonished, two weeks before, when I was filling out the Canadian visa form, and I was filling out the family part of the form, I could not recall the surnames of some of my sisters. And the reason was that I have never, never seen the names of my sisters written on any document. That was the reason that I valued my daughter. What my father could not give to my sisters and to his daughters, I thought I must change it.
I used to appreciate the intelligence and the brilliance of my daughter. I encouraged her to sit with me when my friends used to come. I encouraged her to go with me to different meetings. And all these good values, I tried to inculcate in her personality. And this was not only she, only Malala. I imparted all these good values to my school, girl students and boy students as well. I used education for emancipation. I taught my girls, I taught my girl students, to unlearn the lesson of obedience. I taught my boy students to unlearn the lesson of so-called pseudo-honor.
Dear brothers and sisters, we were striving for more rights for women, and we were struggling to have more, more and more space for the women in society. But we came across a new phenomenon. It was lethal to human rights and particularly to women’s rights. It was called Talibanization. It means a complete negation of women’s participation in all political, economical and social activities. Hundreds of schools were lost. Girls were prohibited from going to school. Women were forced to wear veils and they were stopped from going to the markets. Musicians were silenced, girls were flogged and singers were killed. Millions were suffering, but few spoke, and it was the most scary thing when you have all around such people who kill and who flog, and you speak for your rights. It’s really the most scary thing.
At the age of 10, Malala stood, and she stood for the right of education. She wrote a diary for the BBC blog, she volunteered herself for the New York Times documentaries, and she spoke from every platform she could. And her voice was the most powerful voice. It spread like a crescendo all around the world. And that was the reason the Taliban could not tolerate her campaign, and on October 9 2012, she was shot in the head at point-blank range.
It was a doomsday for my family and for me. The world turned into a big black hole. While my daughter was on the verge of life and death, I whispered into the ears of my wife, “Should I be blamed for what happened to my daughter and your daughter?”
And she abruptly told me, “Please don’t blame yourself. You stood for the right cause. You put your life at stake for the cause of truth, for the cause of peace, and for the cause of education, and your daughter in inspired from you and she joined you. You both were on the right path and God will protect her.”
These few words meant a lot to me, and I didn’t ask this question again.
When Malala was in the hospital, and she was going through the severe pains and she had severe headaches because her facial nerve was cut down, I used to see a dark shadow spreading on the face of my wife. But my daughter never complained. She used to tell us, “I’m fine with my crooked smile and with my numbness in my face. I’ll be okay. Please don’t worry.” She was a solace for us, and she consoled us.
Dear brothers and sisters, we learned from her how to be resilient in the most difficult times, and I’m glad to share with you that despite being an icon for the rights of children and women, she is like any 16-year old girl. She cries when her homework is incomplete. She quarrels with her brothers, and I am very happy for that.
People ask me, what special is in my mentorship which has made Malala so bold and so courageous and so vocal and poised? I tell them, don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.
In the end, all I would like to say is that Malala has truly inspired me with her courage. You have shown us that education is the way to truly empower a society and bring about a more egalitarian world. Thank you for your story and inspiration. More hope, love and power to you girl, today and always.