Malala (pronounced Ma-la-leh) Yousafzai was born in 1997 into a Muslim family living in the Swat Valley in the northern mountains of Pakistan. She lived in the region’s largest town, Mingora, until a Taliban activist shot her in the head on October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen years old. She was then airlifted to a hospital in Peshawar and from there transferred to the United Kingdom where she could receive specialized medical treatment. Malala and her family remain in England till today, making Birmingham their home – at least for the time being.
What problems did Malala face?
The problem for Malala (and thousands of others) was the discrimination she faced for being a girl, particularly in the area of education. 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: as early as the 1950s, “Swat became known across Pakistan for the number of professionals it was producing – especially doctors and teachers” (Husain). This was an unusual accomplishment. According to a UN study, even in 2016 some 5.1 million children were out of school in Pakistan – two-thirds of them girls. 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). For Malala, this culminated 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. The ban on education was inconceivable to Malala, who 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 education 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 Taliban militant forces.
The ban on female education was unbearable for eleven-year-old Malala, who wrote in her diary: “How can they stop us going to school? . . . It’s impossible, how can they do it?” (“Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl”). It was beyond her comprehension that such an edict could actually be carried out. This is because for Malala, receiving an education was the only way to true freedom, as she explains: “For my brothers it was easy to think about the future . . . They can be anything they want. But for me [as a girl] it was hard and for that reason I wanted to become educated and empower myself with knowledge” (“Diary”). But the Taliban promptly shut the door on a better future for Malala (and every other girl pursuing an education) by forbidding her from going to school.
What was Malala's approach to these problems?
Malala refused to give in to the Taliban and decided – quite bravely – to speak out against their edict. Malala understood that “education was a threat to [the Taliban] because it gives you the power to question things, the power to challenge things, the power to be independent.” The Taliban, she explains, “were not about [the Muslim] faith. They were about power” – and they would stop at nothing to hold on to that power (He Named Me Malala). Their tactic was simple: to instill fear in everyone living within their sphere on influence. Those who did not abide by the Taliban’s edicts were sought out and killed, their bodies often left in the marketplace as a warning sign to everyone else that this is the end of anyone who would dare to challenge them. They instilled fear in children by bombing over 400 schools, causing students and teachers alike to stay home, afraid that they might be killed in one such bombing. It was a reign of terror which few people had the courage to speak out against. And it was, for the most part, successful. But Malala, young though she was, understood one thing very well: that “there is a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up” (Named). This was one of those moments. Would she sacrifice her love of learning, her desire for an education, because she was afraid of the Taliban? Or would she have the courage to stand up for what she believed in – no matter the cost?
Remarkably, at eleven years old, Malala chose bravery over cowardice — and sealed her place in history as a result. Her education meant too much to her to simply let it slip through her fingers. “We realize the importance of light when we see darkness,” Malala would later say. “We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way . . . we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the [Taliban’s] guns” (“Speech at the United Nations”). So when an opportunity was given her to convey to the world – in the form of a blog – what was happening in the Swat Valley, Malala did not hesitate to grab hold of it. Encouraged by her father and with his unwavering support, Malala took up her pen and began to write. “I will get my education,” she told her readers, “if it is at home, school, or any place” (“Diary”).
Malala hoped that through her writing she would be able to raise global awareness concerning her plight. A journalist for the BBC World News Service asked her to keep a diary of her experiences, and these were subsequently published on the BBC’s website. Her entries captured people’s attention in a way that news briefs could not. People all over the globe started reading about the day-to-day challenges of a girl living under the repressive Taliban regime. Through her writings, Malala gave the struggle for girls’ education a human form and voice. She wrote a total of 35 entries, all the while using a pen name and keeping her identity secret. Malala’s diary was an incredibly powerful medium for drawing both attention to and sympathy for the cause of female education in Pakistan. “This is our request to all the world,” she pleaded with her readers. “Save our schools. Save our world. Save our Pakistan. Save our Swat” (“Diary”).
The Taliban were finally defeated by Pakistani government forces in 2009, and in the wake of their defeat Malala grew bolder. Though the risk was still high (as the Taliban were still killing people who did not adhere to their stringent laws, and students – particularly girls – were still too scared to be seen in school), Malala allowed a documentary to be made about her, thus uncovering her true identity. She wrote articles for Pakistani newspapers in which she openly campaigned for girls’ equal right to education, and she also began speaking out in public, agreeing, for example, to be interviewed on Pakistani television. As a result of all her lobbying, 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.
What was the outcome of the stand Malala took?
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 fifteen years old, Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban activist as she sat in a bus on her way home from school. After shooting her, the Taliban issued a statement which said that they were targeting Malala specifically because “she has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she [is] openly propagating it” (qtd. in Walsh). They (wrongly) assumed that punishing her 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. “[The Taliban] thought that the bullets would silence us,” Malala would later say. “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born” (“Speech”).
Malala’s injury was life-threatening, and many did not believe she would survive the gunshot wound, which had shattered her skull and wreaked havoc in her brain. Initially Malala was airlifted to a hospital in Peshawar, but when the complex nature of her injury became evident, she was evacuated to the United Kingdom, where a team of medical experts worked round the clock in an effort to save her life. News of Malala’s shooting reverberated across the globe as Malala was by now an internationally known figure. By openly telling her story, Malala had long since captured people’s imagination and won sympathy for her campaign on a much wider scale. Now, as news of her dire situation spread, people everywhere found that they were emotionally invested in the life of this young girl from Pakistan, and prayers were lifted up for her recovery from every corner of the world. Overnight, Malala became a symbol of something much bigger than the plight of girls in Pakistan. As she lay fighting for her life in a hospital bed in the UK, Malala’s plight became the plight of every girl and woman living in repressive communities all over the world. People needed to know that her fight for equal education had not been in vain; that her courage in the face of fear and oppression would bring real change. Her survival would be a signal of hope.
After days in a coma, Malala finally opened her eyes and the world breathed a sigh of relief as her doctors asserted that her life was no longer in danger. But she had a very long road to recovery ahead of her, both physically and emotionally. Malala’s family had followed her to the UK – there was no thought of going back to Pakistan, since the Taliban had promised to kill Malala if she returned. The Yousafzais now faced the difficult task of building their life from scratch in a foreign country, far from the people and places they had known and loved – far from the only place they called home. But regardless of the challenges, Malala and her family knew that her story had taken on new significance, and must continue to be told, even from this new place. The campaign for equal education for girls and boys was far from over. Malala would continue to fight for this right, no matter where in the world she was.
In an ironic twist, by shooting her in the head, the Taliban had inadvertently turned Malala into a celebrated champion for girls’ education all over the world. “I tell my story not because it is unique,” Malala would later say, “but because it is the story of many girls . . . I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys. I raise up my voice . . . so that those without a voice can be heard” (“Malala Fund,” “Speech”).
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 sixteenth 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 nonviolence that I have learnt from Gandhiji, Badshah Khan and Mother Teresa.
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 seventeen 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”). As of 2018, there are over 130 million girls worldwide who are not able to go to school. Malala’s work is more needed today than ever. So let us, together with Malala, “wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world” (Malala, “Speech”).
Key Vocabulary Words
- Right to Education
- Freedom of Speech
- Gender Discrimination
- In what ways is Malala different from the other peace heroes you have studied so far? In what ways is she the same? In what ways is Malala different from you? And in what ways is she the same?
- Consider the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Why do you think reading and writing can have more of an impact than fighting or using violence? Can you think of examples of people using words instead of violence to bring change? What are some examples of books that have impacted the world in a positive way? What is a book that has impacted your own life?
- “I want education for the sons and the daughters of all the extremists especially the Taliban”— Malala. Why would Malala say that she wants education for the children of the Taliban?
- Malala has said “Peace is necessary for education.” In what ways is peace necessary for education and in what ways is education necessary for peace?
- “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”— Malala.
How did Malala’s pen change Pakistan? How can your “pen”—your writing, your ability to tell your story and talk about what matters to you—change the world? Be as specific as you can.
- Make a leaf for your peace tree with Malala Yousafzai’s name on it. Ask the students what words they want to write on the leaf that will help them remember her best.
- Speech/Creative Writing Integration: “Now it’s Time to Speak Up”
- Beginning at “Dear sisters and brothers, now it’s time to speak up” (or a different point of your choosing), give each student a sentence or section to memorize, then present them in succession for each other, another class, or your entire school.
- Have students, individually or in small groups, answer the following questions: What are the various issues and human rights that Malala references? How do they connect with each other (e.g. How does gender inequality connect to poverty or peace)? Who does she list as her own peace heroes? What are some of Malala’s character traits and values as evidenced in this speech? List quotes to support each trait/value.
- Ask students to select a quote from the speech that they find especially powerful and use it to create a poster or picture quote. If possible, display these in your school or on school computers.
- Have students write their own speeches, inspired by Malala’s speech.
Malala’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly is a powerful document touching on many important issues related to peace, education, and human rights. Consider studying this speech as a class. Some options are:
- Studying Malala’s speech, discuss its structure, effective rhetoric tools, and strategies for powerful speech delivery.
- Ask students to imagine being invited to speak to the UN General Assembly. What issue would they most want to bring to the world’s attention? What action would they like to request of world leaders? Have students write their own UN speech, modeled loosely on Malala’s speech.
- Alternately, students could write speeches for their classmates, school, or family members about the importance of education and the plight of girls around the world who are denied access to education. Ask them to end with a clear call to action for the audience: How can local people make a practical difference in this given situation?
- Give students the opportunity to practice their speeches and then deliver them for an audience (For example, at your Girls’ Education Campaign Day, in activity number 6 below). If a live audience isn’t possible, consider filming the speeches and posting them on a class website
- Even before Malala was shot, she was drawing the world’s attention to human rights violations in Pakistan through her blog posts on the BBC. Spend some time reading these posts as a class.
- Set up a class blog or individual blogs for each student where students can write about the issues that matter to them—either specifically about the issues they’re learning about from their study of Malala or other peace/human rights issues. Work to establish a readership for the blog, allowing students to work for change through the power of writing and educating the public.
- Girls in your class might consider submitting their writing to Assembly, the online publication created by the Malala Fund to highlight the voices of girls around the world.
- Ask students to write a personal essay entitle “My Courage,” responding to the following prompt: Describe a situation or challenge near you that needs to change, explaining why this matters to you. What can you do about it? How can you be courageous to bring positive change?
- As a class, create a short play that re-enacts Malala’s story – Malala as a child in school, the rise of the Taliban, the ban, Malala’s campaign, the shooting and its aftermath, and Malala’s work since then. Present the play for your school or on your Girls’ Education Campaign Day (activity number 6 below).
- Ask students, individually or in small groups, to highlight an aspect of Malala’s story that is significant to them in a creative art form: a song, a painting, a short film. Present these works of art to your class or on your Campaign Day.
Prepare for and organize a day at your school to raise awareness about girls’ education around the world. Allow your students to brainstorm the information and activities they want to include. Some possibilities to consider:
- Have students research the work done by international organizations to promote girls’ education worldwide. Their findings can be collated in a multi-media presentation, including individual stories, pictures, and videos to be presented on your Campaign Day. Alternately, they could set up individual visual displays around the classroom for each organization, which guests could view throughout the day. Possible organizations to highlight:
- Educating Girls Matters
- Girls Learn International
- Girl Rising
- Global Campaign for Education
- Global Education First Initiative
- Global Partnership for Education
- Half the Sky
- Let Girls Learn: USAID and Peace Corps Save the Children
- Teachers Without Borders
- The Working Group on Girls
- United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative
- I am Malala: How one Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
- Who is Malala Yousafzai (Who Was? Series) by Dinah Brown
- Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change: Courageous Actions Around the World by Garth Sundem: Stories of teens and children who have made a difference in their world, for students inspired by Malala to learn about other young people standing up for what they believe.
- He Named Me Malala (Documentary film)
- My Daughter Malala (TED talk) by Ziauddin Yousafzai. (Also consider the TED playlist “The Importance of Educating Girls” for further inspiring talks on this issue).
- A Message From Malala (A TED Blog Video): Malala could not accept an invitation to speak at a TED conference because she has vowed to never miss another day of school. She sent this message instead.
- Malala’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
- Malala’s Speech to the United Nations (video and text)
- Malala Fund: Includes information about Malala, the work she continues to do, and many opportunities to get involved in her advocacy work.
- Assembly: A Digital Newsletter from the Malala Fund
- Dear Malala, We Stand With You by Rosemary McCarney: This book is written as a letter to Malala alongside a photo gallery of girls around the world. It is a message of solidarity and an inspiring call to action, and could be used as a springboard for students writing their own letters to Malala.
- Picture Books:
- Malala Yousafzai: Warrior With Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya
- Malala: A Hero for All (Step into Reading level 4) by Shana Corey
- For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzi’s Story by Rebecca Langston-George
- Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter
- Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai