Several weeks ago I had the honor of visiting one of our Israeli pilot schools, where the 8th graders were giving presentations on the first peace hero they had studied. The teachers were quick to point out that this was a special event (“8th graders don’t do presentations!”), and the school even opened up its auditorium for the occasion. In total, six groups presented on Malala Yousafzai, each of them focusing on a different aspect of her life and work. Two of the teams did presentations that looked at Malala and children’s rights (the right to education) and Malala and women’s rights, and the various issues that arise from a violation of these rights and freedoms. It was fascinating watching Israeli students talk about their Muslim counterpart (Malala was a student just like them). The discussion that followed the presentations was also quite remarkable, as the teacher deliberately guided the students into an examination of these issues as they are manifested here in Israel. For many of the students, it was an exercise in awareness – suddenly they were able to transfer what they had learned about Malala into their own personal context, which, in turn, raised some very poignant questions and led to a very passionate/heated debate. I was pleased to see how interacting with this peace hero was making the students grapple with their own reality. That, I thought, is exactly the point of the program.

Inspired by this school visit and in honor of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share an abridged version of my write-up on Malala from the Peace Heroes program. May her life story inspire each and every one of us to look at our own contexts with new awareness of and sensitivity for the rights and freedoms of those within our sphere of influence.

Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 to a Muslim family living in the Swat Valley in the northern mountains of Pakistan. Historically, the Swat Valley had once been a stronghold of education, producing educated girls and boys and upholding a proud record in comparison to other areas in Pakistan. But when the Taliban took hold of Swat in late 2007, militant Islamism began to creep into the region, with “radio broadcasts threatening Sharia-style punishments for those who departed from local Muslim traditions” (Husain). This culminated (for Malala) in the edict issued by the Taliban that all girls were henceforth forbidden from going to school.

For thousands of Pakistani girls, receiving an education was a means of empowerment. By refusing these girls an education, the Taliban promptly shut the door on any opportunities for a better future. Malala was raised in an academic environment: her father, Ziauddin, had founded a small school before she was born, and by the time Malala was old enough to attend, the school numbered over 1000 students – both boys and girls. The family took it for granted that all their children, including Malala, would receive an eduction at that school. But in the wake of the Taliban’s edict, though Ziauddin held out as long as he could (insisting that both boys and girls should be able to attend his school), he was eventually forced to close as the army was unable to offer him adequate protection from Talibani militant forces. (It is worth mentioning that had Ziauddin agreed to only allow boys to attend, the Taliban would not have threatened him.)

The ban on female education was unbearable for eleven-year-old Malala, who refused to give in to the Taliban and decided – quite bravely – to speak out against their edict. Her goal was to raise global awareness concerning her plight and she did so by keeping a diary of her experiences, which was then published by the BBC. Malala managed to write a total of 35 entries before the Taliban were defeated by Pakistani government forces in 2009, all the while using a pen name and keeping her identity secret. But in the wake of the Taliban’s defeat, Malala grew bolder (though the risk was still high) and allowed a documentary to be made about her – thus uncovering her true identity. She wrote articles for Pakistani newspapers, and also began speaking out in public. As a result of all her campaigning, it was not long before Malala grew in prominence, both within Pakistan and outside it. She knew she was putting her life at risk, but being denied her basic human right to education was not something she was willing to accept quietly, without a fight. Silence was what the Taliban wanted of her. Silence was what she refused to give them.

Malala spent two years openly campaigning for female education – refusing to give in to fear or be cowed by anyone or any threat. Then, on October 9, 2012, when she was just 15 years old, Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban activist as she sat in a bus on her way home from school. The Taliban (wrongly) assumed that punishing Malala for not adhering to their oppressive code of conduct would finally put an end to her campaign. But Malala did not die that day; and neither did her courage. After the attempt on her life, Malala was flown to the UK where a team of medical experts saved her life. By openly telling her story, Malala had captured the world’s imagination long before the attempt on her life. Not surprisingly, then, news of Malala’s shooting reverberated around the world, quickly turning her into an international symbol for the plight of girls and women in repressive communities all across the globe.

Malala’s courage, her willingness to risk her life in order to be a voice for the voiceless, and her near-death experience, combined to give her a unique platform from which to conduct her campaign for equal education for girls as well as boys. Speaking at the UN on her 16th birthday, Malala stressed the fact that her goal is to create equal opportunities for all. In a remarkable extension of forgiveness, she told the audience:

I’m not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban, or any other terrorist group . . . I’m here to speak about the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of all the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hands and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhiji, Badshah Khan and Mother Teresa . . . Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.

In 2014, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education” (“Malala Yousafzai – Biographical”). She was 17 at the time, and the youngest person to ever win a Nobel Peace Prize. Today Malala continues to advocate for female education through her organization – the Malala Fund – which “through education, empowers girls to achieve their potential and become confident and strong leaders in their own countries” (“Malala Yousafzai – Biographical”).

Brenner, Marie. “The Target.” Vanity Fair News. Vanity Fair, April 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Husain, Mishal. “Malala. The Girl Who Was Shot for Going to School.” BBC’s 100 Women Project. BBC News, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
“Malala Yousafzai – Biographical.” Nobel Media AB, 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
Sweeney, John. “Battle of Swat Valley.” BBC Panorama. BBC Panorama, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Walsh, Declan. “Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Yousafzai, Malala. “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl.” BBC News. BBC News, 19 Jan. 2009. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.
_____. “Full Text of Malala Yousafzai’s Speech at the United Nations.” IBN Live. IBN Live, 15 July 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.