Malala Yousafzai has been making her mark on the world since she was about thirteen years old or younger. Influential public figures her own age are usually raised in showbiz royalty (just see the millions following Kylie Jenner and Jaden Smith on Instagram) instead, she was gifted with passion for learning, a need to be heard and a supportive family. These things and some horrific circumstances are what it took for her voice to reverberate from a village in Pakistan’s Swat Valley to the entire world beyond.
By now Malala’s story is familiar, but for those who want to read a quick recap, here it is:
At eleven years old Malala began writing blogs for the BBC about life under Taliban rule in the Swat Valley. Her personal narrative provided depth and consequence to the bleak, factual news reports. Here was a child who did what adults were afraid to do. When 200 schools in the region were razed to the ground by the Taliban she spoke out for girls education. We need to remember that before the Taliban’s rise to power, she lived in a deeply patriarchal society where girls’ education was barely considered a top priority. But within a few years of the Taliban’s rise females were restricted to domestic lives. Yet Malala dared to speak her mind and oppose the views of the men with guns who controlled her home. For her considerable efforts she was shot at point blank range in the head. Knowing murder was the reality they faced we can see why others were reluctant to voice their discontent. Is any cause great enough to risk your own life or that of your family? But Malala survived and was moved to the UK for medical treatment where she, her parents and younger brothers have remained since. Malala did not die. She has recovered and continued as an activist for girls’ education, granted audience with many world leaders to press her case. With her father, she opened up the Malala Fund to “enable girls to complete 12 years of safe, quality education so that they can achieve their potential and be positive change-makers.” Today she is only 18 years old.
Malala’s dad must have had some inkling of the person she would become when he named her after Malalai. The first time I heard about this other girl was in the film “He named me Malala“. She was a young teenager whose words on the battlefield spurred deflated Afghan troops onto victory over British invaders in 1880. Doesn’t this story remind you of Joan of Arc, yet another teen who rallied troops but in medieval France? These outstanding historical examples show the immense power that lies withing teenage girls given the opportunity, courage and conviction to shine.
Malala’s story has resonated with me because I once was an eleven year old girl who likewise had visions of a better world, yet with no idea how to express them. Malala’s rise to the world stage coincided with my decision to use my voice in daily life, a difficult challenge even as an adult. She has inspired me to oppose inequality and intolerance by speaking my own mind to co-workers, family and friends. If Malala’s words can make a difference, then mine can too in my immediate circles. When you compare my personal battles for a better society to live in against taking on the Taliban it seems insignificant but the personal shift felt seismic to me.
You see, as a teenager I was idealistic and this was encouraged at the all-girls school I attended; but in my twenties it became that much harder to fit into the professional workplace and new friends I had made. Slowly, in attempts to find my place I would laugh along with offensively funny jokes, I would do domestic chores for my male housemates and maddeningly to everyone, I used the word “sorry” at least twice in every sentence in case the person I was talking to didn’t want to talk to me. I was ashamed of being me for absolutely no reason. After years of repressing my behavior and thoughts I felt dead. My personality was like that pilot flame that stays on during summer but it took years to find it again. But the fire burned when things came to head one day (it is a dramatic story deserving its own post one day) and then and there I made a conscious decision that if I was going to live in this world I was going to stand up for what was right.
To help remember my vow, each morning I would draw a small flower on my wrist in black ink. I’d look down at this and press the talisman for courage when I was about to speak out against words conflicting with my core values. Even speaking politely but firmly I soon learnt that opposition was not liked. My voice was received with awkward silence a lot, but I’ve never been a stranger to awkward. We are not quite mates but I avoid it less now. In this ongoing battle I have learned that some people have no desire to open up and change, but there are alternative ways to living side by side that take effort by invested parties. I’m proud to say that there has been change. My family are beginning to understand me more and let me do my own thing with generous support, and I have somehow found myself surrounded by more like-minded people. Best of all I feel alive and free.
A friend and I were discussing all this one day and she said “the world is not my problem”. It’s true. It’s all of our problem. Which brings us back to the hero of the story, Malala. By telling the truth about the Taliban’s operations in rural Pakistan she has gone one to change communities for generations, because that is the power of educating girls.
Malala’s dad said that as a parent he did not clip her wings (see the TED talk below). He believed in her and let her fly. In life we will always come across people that will hold us back, usually out of the best of intentions too, but the person who holds us back the most tends to be ourselves and our fears. If in doubt come back to your words and your voice. Because even teenage girls have the wisdom that changes the face of the world, when we give them the chance.
The Malala Fund: www.malala.org
I am Malala on Amazon