Malala Yousafzai: A Warrior, who fought for Educational Rights

“I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through not only educating our minds but our hearts and souls.”- Malala Yousafzai

We have often heard and talked about male serving the nation or protecting the people, but have we ever talked about a female being a saviour?

Malala Yousafzai was born on July 12, 1997, in Mingore, the largest city in the Swat Valley in what is now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. She is the daughter of Ziauddin and Tor Pekai Yousafzai and has two younger brothers.

She was named after Malalai of Maiwand, a famous Pashtun poet and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan. Malalai of Maiwand is the name that every Pashtun children grow up with the story of, how she inspired the Afghan army to defeat the Britishers in an Anglo-Afghan war. She is a household name for Afghans, Yousafzai’s father used to sing songs about her bravery and works when she was a baby, which led him to naming Malala after her. Similar to Malalai of Maiwand, he wanted his daughter to be fearless warrior, and she is one, who fought for educational rights.

At a very young age, Malala developed a thirst for knowledge. For years her father, a passionate education advocate himself, ran a learning institution in the city, and school was a big part of Malala’s family. She said in her autobiography how her father used to tell her stories of her as a toddler when she would enter into a class and pretend as if she herself was a teacher.

In 2007, when Malala was ten years old, the situation of Swat Valley changed rapidly for her family and community. The Taliban began to control the Swat Valley and quickly began to dominate the socio-political force throughout much of northwestern Pakistan. Girls were banned from attending school, and cultural activities like dancing and watching television were prohibited. Suicide attacks were widespread, and the group made its opposition to a proper education for girls a cornerstone of its terror campaign. By the end of 2008, the Taliban destroyed around 400 schools.

Determined to go to school, learn and a firm belief in her right to education, Malala stood up to the Talibans. Alongside her father, Malala quickly became critic of their tactics. “How dare the Talibans take away my basic right to education?” she once said on a Pakistani TV.

In early 2009, Malala started to blog anonymously on an Urdu language side of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). She write about her life in the Swat Vally under the rule of Taliban, and about her desire to go school. She used the name ‘Gul Makai’, she described being forced to stay at home, and she questioned the movies of Taliban.

Malala was 11 years old when she wrote her first BBC diary entry. Under the blog heading “I am afraid,” she described her fears of a full-blown war in her beautiful place Swat Valley, and her nightmares about being afraid to go to school because of the Talibans.

On January 2009, her first entry was posted to BBC Urdu blog. She hand-wrote notes and passed them to a reporter who scanned and e-mailed them. The blog recorded Yousafzai’s thoughts during the First Battle of Swat, as military operations took place, fewer girls show up to school, and finally her school shut down. That day she wrote: “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because of the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 out of 27 pupils attended the class because the number decreased because of the Pakistani Taliban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families after this edict.”   

Pakistan’s war with the Talibans was fast approaching, and on May 5, 2009, Malala became an Internally Displaced Person (IDP), after having been forced to leave her home and seek safety hundred miles away.

On her return, after being far away for weeks from Swat Valley, Malala once again used the media and continued her public campaign for her right to go to school. Her voice grew louder and stronger and over a course of three years, she and her father became known throughout Pakistan for their determination to give Pakistani girls access to free quality education. Her activism resulted in a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011. The same year, she was awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. But not everyone supported and welcomed her campaign to bring about change in Swat. On the morning of October 9, 2012, Malala was 15-year-old and was shot by the Taliban.

She was heading towards her home from school in a bus, Malala was talking with her friends about schoolwork. Two members of Taliban stopped the bus. A young bearded Talib asked Malala by name, and fired three shots at her. One of the bullets entered and exited her head and lodged in her shoulder. Malala was seriously wounded. That same day, she was airlifted to a Pakistani military hospital in Peshawar and four days later to an intensive care unit in Birmingham, England.

On October 15 2012, UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister, visited Yousafzai while she was in the hospital, and launched a petition in her name and “in support of what Malala fought for”. Using the slogan “I am Malala”, the petition’s demand was that there be no child left out of school by 2015, with the hope that “girls like Malala everywhere will soon be going to school’. Brown said he would hand the petition to President Zardari in Islamabad in November.

The petition contained three demands:

  1. We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child.
  2. We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.
  3. We call on international organizations to ensure that world’s 61 million out-of-school children are in education by the end of 2015.

Once she was in the United Kingdom, Malala was taken out of a medically induced coma. Though she would require multiple surgeries, including repair of a facial nerve to fix the paralyzed life side of her face, she had suffered no major brain damage. In March 2013, after weeks of treatment and therapy, Malala was able to go to school again, in Birmingham.

After the shooting incident took place, she recovered incredibly and returned to school which resulted in a huge support for Malala. On July 12, 2013, her 16th birthday, Malala visited New York and spoke at the United Nations. Later that year, she published her first book, an autobiography entitled “I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” On October 10, 2013, European Parliament awarded Malala the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in acknowledgement of her work.

Yousafzai even had an audience with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace. In September, she spoke at Harvard University, and later met with then, US President Barack Obama and his family; during that meeting, she confronted him on his use of drone strikes in Pakistan. In December, she addressed the Oxford Union. In July 2014, Yousafzai spoke at the Girl Summit in London. In October 2014, she donated $50,000 to the UNRWA for reconstruction of schools on the Gaza Strip.

Even though she was fighting for women’s rights as well as children’s rights, Yousafzai did not describe herself as a feminist when asked on Forbes under 30 Summit in 2014. In 2015, Yousafzai told Emma Watson she decided to call herself a feminist after hearing Watson’s speech at the UN launching the HeForShe campaign.

On her 18th birthday, Yousafzai opened a school in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, near the Syrian border, for Syrian refugees. The school, funded by the not-for-profit Malala Fund, offers education and training to girls aged 14 to 18 years. Yousafzai called on world leaders to invest in “books, not bullets”.

Yousafzai has repeatedly condemned the Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. In June 2015, the Malala Fund released a statement in which Yousafzai argues that the Rohingya people deserve “citizenship in the country where they were born and have lived for generations” along with “equal rights and opportunities.” She urges world leaders, particularly in Myanmar, to “halt the inhuman persecution of Burma’s Muslim minority Rohingya people.” In September 2017, speaking in Oxford, Yousafzai said: “This should be a human rights issue. Governments should react to it. People are being displaced, they’re facing violence.” Yousafzai also posted a statement on Twitter calling for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Suu Kyi has avoided taking sides in the conflict, or condemning violence against the Rohingya people, leading to widespread criticism.

However, Yousafzai noted in 2018 that her goal had changed, stating that “now that I have met so many presidents and prime ministers around the world, it just seems that things are not simple and there are other ways that I can bring the change that I want to see.” In an interview with David Letterman for Netflix’s show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Yousafzai was asked: “Would you ever want to hold a political position?” She replied: “Me? No.”

Malala, along with Indian children’s right activist Kailash Satyarthi, was named a Nobel Prize winner. At the age of 17, she became the youngest person to receive Nobel Prize. Accepting the award, Malala said that “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change.”

Malala has received a lot of national as well as international honours like:

  • She was nominated for International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011.
  • She won National Youth Peace Prize in 2011.

She won Anne Frank Award for Moral Courage. And a lot more awards like this. In 2020, she was honoured with Malala Elementary (Malala Yousafzai Elementary School) in Fort Bend, County Texas. It is operated by the Fort Bend Independent School District.

Today Malala fund has become an organization that, through education, empowers girls to achieve their potential and become confident and strong leaders in their own countries. Funding education projects in six countries and working with the international leaders, the Malala Fund joins with local partners to invest in innovative solutions on the ground and advocates globally for quality secondary education for all girls.

When the Taliban resumed control of Afghanistan in August 2021, Malala who was there, expressed her concern about the fate of women, losing the social and educational gains they had made in the preceding two decades.

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