Malala Yousafzai has carved for herself a place as an education crusader willing to go to extraordinary lengths for the rights of female children. Daughter of a schoolmaster, she was imbued with the values of education from early childhood in a part of the world where the female is usually relegated to second-class status. The ultra-conservative region of the Swat Valley in Pakistan generally considers their role to be wife and mother only, for which education is not deemed a necessity.
Malala Yousafzai rebelled against this culture from a very early age and was an ardent fighter for the cause at 11 years old. The Taliban had forbidden girls’ education in 2009 and destroyed hundreds of schools, most of them for girls. They claim that educating girls is a western concept and goes against Islam. They believe rather than training young people to be accountants, engineers, teachers or doctors, the priority should be training them as jihadists.
She refused to comply. In October 2012 she was sought out, identified by name, shot in the head and almost killed for her beliefs. Her story immediately set the world’s consciousness alight. It followed her progress from near-death in her hometown of Mingora to Birmingham, England where she hung between life and death. The prayers of the world for her recovery accompanied her medical treatment.
The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo is currently exhibiting an ominous reminder of the event that catapulted her onto the international stage. The bloodstained school uniform the 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was wearing when she was shot is on display for two months.
Malala Yousafzai’s education crusade shines a light on this extraordinary warrior, whose fight for the universal right of the girl child to education has been unflagging. Although only 17, she has a maturity, an other-worldliness, almost an asceticism for a higher purpose.
She is single-mindedly focused on her own education. She denies herself the usual youthful pleasures of TV, cell phones, Facebook and video games, lest they interfere with her progress at school. She does take the occasional selfie for altruistic purposes, highlighting the issues she believes in. While modestly accepting her win, Malala Yousafzai is grounded and focused enough to realize that it will not help her in her tests and exams.
She has fought for her right to education in the midst of threats to her very existence. Today she is concerned when her grades go down and has aspirations to study at Oxford University and come to the United States for postgraduate work. Her ultimate desire is to lead her country one day. She continues to face threats to her life, but is not deterred her from her goals.
Malala Yousafzai has few friends, and finds it hard to integrate into her alien surroundings. She does not conceal the fact that she feels isolated. Although famous the world over, she does not know her neighbors. She speaks of her longing for home and keeps in touch with old friends through Skype.
She writes poignantly in her autobiography I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. She says she would like to indulge in fun, but does not quite know how to go about it.
On December 10, appropriately designated Human Rights Day, Malala Yousafzai received one of the world’s highest accolades. The youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for education and children’s rights. She shared it with Kailash Satyarthi, 60, an Indian activist who has worked tirelessly for the education and eradication of child labor for over three decades. These polar opposites in every way, age, gender, nationality, religion and circumstances, joined handsand pledged solidarity and cooperation towards their common cause.
The words of these two newly minted Nobel laureates echoed similar sentiments as they stood jointly before an august audience. Malala Yousafzai dedicated hers to those children who yearn for education, peace and change. Satyarthi said he represents all children and wants to give voice to their silence, innocence and invisibility.
Malala Yousafzai’s concern for girls’ rights to education goes beyond her own country. She has vowed to fight for girls in Palestine, Syria, India, and Nigeria where she spent her summer vacations to campaign against the Boko Haram and their kidnapping and murder of girls snatched from their schools.
She hopes her award will inspire young girls all over the world to fight for their rights and step up as leaders. She is confident this is the right time for girls to claim their rightful place in light of inevitable progress and change . She shares her award with all young girls who fight to be heard. It is their voices she raised and echoed in her acceptance speech.
Malala Yousufzai underlined this feeling of global sisterhood by bringing female guests from Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan to the Nobel ceremony to showcase their aspirations to the world. Through this global perspective, her love for and pride in her home country, its people, their love for peace and harmony shines through her eyes. She becomes animated, emphasizing it is extremists and fundamentalists who mar its image in the world.
She is not without her detractors, even in Pakistan. Ironically, a group of private schools has publicly denounced her, commemorating an “I am not Malala” day. The organizers contend she is a creature of “the West” being manipulated to disavow Islamic tenets.
Yet there are also those who tirelessly fight for children’s, women’s and human rights. Supporters in her hometown organized a march for peace to mark her winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala Yousafzai underpins an international advocacy for girls’ education. This includes a nonprofit organization, two bestsellers, and activities that span many nations. She is critical of fundamentalists, extremists and prevailing Islamic cultures where women are denied equal rights, status and opportunities. Hers is the face of moderate Islam, who stopped wearing a burqua because it took away her freedom.
She takes her campaign seriously, donating large sums of money despite her family’s modest circumstances. She has contributed the entire $50,000 World Children’s Prize she won towards rebuilding a U.N. school in Gaza, which was damaged during the Israel-Hamas war. She plans to donate to the same cause in her country.
Malala Yousafzai goes toe to toe with leaders and heads of state. She fearlessly questions their policies and actions, demanding to know why powerful nations wage war so easily, yet find it so hard to bring about peace. She asks why aid in weaponry is so much easier than distributing books and knowledge, and why building armor is a priority, but building schools is not. Satyarthi speaks in similar vein. He contends that although the world is so globalized and connected in physical, material and commercial terms, but there is a fundamental disconnect of the human heart, and that it is of extreme urgency to bring about global empathy and compassion.
Malala Yousafzai believes in universal education and girls’ rights, and crusades for them with extraordinary passion. She believes this increases opportunities, reduces exploitation and subjugation, and ensures a better upbringing for posterity. Educated girls contribute to their communities, and can bring about change and leadership. Knowledge and learned skills bring them out from the dark, and give them independence and empowerment.
By Bina Joseph
Photo by Statsministerens Kontor – Flickr License
Photo by United Nations Information Center – Flickr License