July 12, 2013 was Malala Day. Malala Day honors Malala Yousafzai, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who works to bring education to underprivileged girls around the world.
“Malala Day is not my day,” said Yousafzai in a speech before the United Nations. “Today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights. There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for human rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goals of education, peace and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured.”
From a young age, Yousafzai has fought to bring justice and equality to girls. When she was just eleven years old, she wrote a blog for the BBC about her life under the Taliban in her hometown community, the Swat Valley of Pakistan. In response to those who questioned why this young girl would risk her safety to write this blog, Yousafzai replied, “Terrorism will spill over if you don’t speak up.”
Her father, Ziauddin, supported her decision to write the blog. In January 2012, he shared with BBC Outlook, “Of course, it was a risk [to let her write the blog]…but I think that not talking was a greater risk than that because then ultimately we would have given into the slavery and subjugation of ruthless terrorism and extremism.”
Unlike many girls in her community, Yousafzai was accepted by her parents, despite most families’ desire for a son. She was written into her father’s clan’s family tree, which is an honor generally saved for the males. Her father was also a teacher willing to educate his daughter. Through her unique educated background, Yousafzai noticed injustices in her community as a young child, such as rules forbidding a woman to go out in public without a male at her side.
The Taliban entered Swat Valley in 2004. Yousafzai says their presence was not felt until 2007, when the Taliban began taking action. The local Taliban leader would reward girls who dropped out of school by congratulating them on the radio. Girls who continued to attend school would stop wearing uniforms to reduce risk of being targeted. Over 400 schools were blown up, including 150 in just 2008.
In an interview for Glamour magazine’s 2013 Women of the Year, Yousafzai reflects that when these events started taking place, “I got afraid. Not of the Taliban, but because they were banning girls’ education.”
In 2009, Yousafzai began to speak publicly about the need for girls to get educated, making appearances on radio and television shows and in documentaries. In 2011, Malala was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
Soon after Yousafzai began to speak out, the Taliban set out to quiet her voice. On October 9, 2012, a man stepped onto a school bus. Malala was on it, heading home. He approached Yousafzai and shot her in the head and the neck with a Colt .45.
Yousafzai received emergency surgery in a military hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan before she was quickly airlifted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in England, where she was given further special treatment. “The doctors told us that we needed to pray that she would make it through the next 72 hours. No one knew if she would make it. I prayed for a miracle,” wrote family friend Shiza Shahid in the Huffington Post’s online source. Six days after the attack, Yousafzai awoke from her coma.
The shooting left the world reeling with anger and shock. Hamid Mir, a popular Pakistani talk show host, began his show: “I can see the whole nation’s head bowed in shame today.” Locally, protests took place in Peshawar, Multan, and Yousafzai’s hometown of Mingora. In addition, politicians and leaders worldwide openly spoke out against the shooting. These condemnations were echoed by news outlets and citizens across the globe.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon labeled the act as “heinous and cowardly,” while Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the “attack reminds us of the challenges that girls face, whether it is poverty or marginalization or even violence just for speaking out for their basic rights.”
Yousafzai recovered at an astounding speed, standing within 10 days of the shooting. She eventually regained all her cognitive abilities; the shooting did not cause her to forget what she was fighting for and why. Her determination to bring education to girls did not die despite the Taliban’s attempt to silence her.
Spokesperson for the Taliban Ehsanullah Ehsan explained why the organization targeted her. “She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.”
Despite the Taliban’s attack and threats, Yousafzai has continued to spread her message to the world. “No one can stop us,” she fearlessly declared. “We will speak for our rights and we will bring change through our voice. We must believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the world.”
Feryal Gauhar wrote in the local Express Tribune, “Malala was the lone voice in the wilderness.” He added, “Hers was the voice which made us consider that indeed, there can be alternatives, and there can be resistance to all forms of tyranny.”
In an interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show this past October, Yousafzai explained, “In Pakistan, when we were stopped from going to school, and that time I realized that education is very important and education is the power for women. And that’s why the terrorists are afraid of education. They do not want women to get educated because then the women will become more powerful.”
“By targeting her, extremists showed what they feared most: a girl with a book. Malala embodies the power of education to build peace. She is truly a role model for the world,” proclaimed Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon.
Yousafzai cannot return to her hometown because of the danger she would face. The Taliban has openly stated, “We will target her again and attack her whenever we have a chance.” Another Taliban spokesman echoed this idea, saying in a Sky report, “If we get another chance, we will definitely kill her and that will make us proud.” In addition, the man responsible for organizing the attack on Yousafzai has been named the new Pakistani Taliban chief.
Despite the danger, Yousafzai’s efforts to spread the message of girls’ education have only grown, and she has become a worldwide symbol of girls’ education and resistance to the Taliban.
Through her book, I Am Malala, Yousafzai continues to spread her message and story on a global level. It is self-described to “make you believe in the power of one persons voice to inspire change in the world.” Yousafzai decided to establish The Malala Fund, whose website expresses the “goal of creating a world where every girl reaches her true potential” through “education [which] empowers girls to raise their voices, to unlock their potential, and to demand change.”
Yousafzai was the youngest person ever nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. However, in October 2013, the prize was given to the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani politician, responded to this news by tweeting, “Really? This award too is now loaded with political concerns.”
Piers Morgan tweeted, “Very disappointed #Malala didn’t win the Nobel peace prize. Nobody in the world right now is a more powerfully eloquent advocate for peace.”
However, some people of Swat Valley seemed relieved that Malala did not win the award. “We are glad to see her speaking on education for girls, and that is worth more than an award,” explained Mahmood Hassan, Malala’s cousin the principal of a school Yousafzai used to attend. “I was worried for Yousafzai, as a Nobel Peace award-winner, because it would have attracted more threats.”
Yousafzai is not fearful of threats or danger; instead, she notices how they have spread her message. In her UN speech, this brave girl proclaimed, “They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence came, thousands of voices.”