By: Jamie Gregory
A hooded Taliban gunman stood on a bus, asked for Malala, and shot her in the head. However, she was just getting started. On July 12, the world celebrates the birthday of Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist, author, and speaker, Malala Yousafzai. In fact, her birthday is marked as “Malala Day” in honor of her activism for education.
Although she is an international figure of women’s rights and education, she says that what has made her stand out is hardly noteworthy at all:
“I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is the story of many girls.”
Yousafzai was born in northern Swat valley, Mingora, Pakistan, on July 12, 1997. While this area is known for its beautiful views and tourist appeal, a Pakistani Taliban group took over control in 2007, drastically changing the region. She told the BBC that women were banned from going to the markets and shopping. More than 400 schools were bombed. Music and television were forbidden.
Yousafzai was attending her father Ziauddin Yousafzai’s school, Khushal Girls High School and College, a testament to his own progressive values. The Taliban takeover threatened their way of life, particularly Ziauddin’s education efforts which directly defied Taliban decrees. However, showing great courage, Malala not only kept attending school, she also directly spoke out against the Taliban and efforts to repress girls.
Her first speech at a press club in Peshawar when she was 11 years-old was titled “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Right to Education?” She also contributed to a BBC Urdu blog in 2009 at the age of 11 using the pen name Gul Makai (read excerpts here) although her identity was revealed in 2011.
“I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”
It is difficult to put into words the courage she showed at such a young age in the midst of explicit threats and bombings and shootings. Even walking among corpses in her daily life did not deter her.
While the Pakistani army did eventually push back against the Taliban, threats remained. And a Taliban gunman found her, on a bus traveling home from school. But she used her voice before being shot, and she has no plans to stop:
“We realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them.”
Giving students opportunities to learn more about Yousafzai will open the door to inquiry about more than just her individual story: women’s rights and freedoms; why cultures and religions oppress women; how gender and ethnicity play roles in a country’s economic system; how open education systems end cycles of violence and poverty. This video from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty provides a compelling introduction to these issues in the context of Malala’s work.
For younger readers, several articles about Malala have been published in Scholastic magazines Junior Scholastic and Scholastic News, and there is a young reader’s edition available of her book, I Am Malala: How one girl stood up for education and changed the world. Also find her picture book, Malala’s Magic Pencil. For young adult and adult readers, read her memoir I Am Malala: The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. (Little, Brown provides a helpful discussion guide on its website.) There are numerous other biographies available for all levels of readers, as well as a documentary produced by her father, titled “He Named Me Malala.”
She published another book this year, We Are Displaced: My journey and stories from refugee girls around the world, detailing her own story of being an internally displaced person in Pakistan as well as the personal stories of other displaced refugees.
Use Banned Books Week this September to connect students to Malala’s story. The discussion questions with links in this article from Education World relate to intellectual freedom and human rights, which broadly connect to Banned Books Week. I frequently use an article from Globe and Mail, published Nov. 11, 2013, titled “Schools Ban Teen Activist Malala’s Book” by Zarar Khan. In this article, Pakistani school officials describe Malala as being a “tool of the West” and some even suggested that her shooting was staged so the Western world could make her into a hero. It’s no surprise that her book would be banned.
Malala returned to her home town in 2018 for the first time since being shot, pledging $6 million from her organization Malala Fund for education projects. Despite recent efforts, more work is needed. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that over 55 percent of women over the age of fifteen in Pakistan remain illiterate. In 2016, the World Economic Forum reported Pakistan ranking 143 out of 144 in terms of women’s economic participation and opportunity, ahead only of Yemen.
There’s another way to connect her story to religious freedom. Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge met with Malala recently to discuss education ahead of the G7 summit in France this August. In a move of incredible irony, Malala would not be permitted to become a teacher in Quebec and also wear her head scarf because of Bill 21 which prohibits public workers from wearing or displaying religious symbols. Fear manifests itself as censorship in various forms around the globe.
Let’s inspire our teens to learn about the power of education. When they learn how education challenges small groups who use violence to overpower others, they can take action to destroy ignorance.
Malala wrote, “It never fails to shock me how people take peace for granted.” Unfortunately, her story is not unique. It is the story of many girls around the world. It is happening today. It does not have to happen tomorrow.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.