Being shot at close range by a gun-wielding man intent on killing you is something no one wants to face. Many have encountered such a terrifying situation, but only a few in history have lived to give an account. Malala Yousafzai was 15 when this harrowing experience became her story. What could have been a terrible tragedy, instead became a powerful pathway to changing not only her life but the lives of millions of others!
Growing up – warrior girl
By Malala’s own account, she was just like any other girl in her town, the beautiful Swat Valley in Mingora, Pakistan. She was born to devoted parents who gave her a real sense of love, security and honour right from the beginning — a little different to cultural norms in that region at the time. Her parents named her after a famous Afghani poet and warrior woman, Malalai Maiwand, who was like a Pushtan tribal version of a ‘Joan of Arc’. Malala’s name means ‘grief stricken’, but she was definitely no sad-sack,warrior was written in her DNA!
Malala’s father, Ziaudden, was a pretty gutsy and genuine guy himself. By profession, he was a teacher and he ran the school Malala attended. His passion for teaching and helping children learn was obvious to everyone who knows him. He was also a bit of a social activist, outspoken about anything causing unrest in his homeland or that challenged the equality he believed should be available to all. Having a dad like this was probably a really big influence on Malala, and maybe one of the reasons she started thinking about being a politician instead of a doctor.
When learning is a crime
The Taliban terrorist regime was beginning to throw its weight around in Malala’s homeland, making life harder for her people. In among this growing volatility, this gutsy girl was finding her voice.
According to reports, the Taliban was pretty oppressive when it came to women and girls, limiting what they were allowed to do.. In fact, they didn’t believe in formal education for girls and were known for shutting down schools.
Put yourself in the shoes of some of these girls. Most of you have probably been going to school since way back when, and though at times it may have been a bit of a drag, hopefully you can see what it has added to your life. You’ve learnt so much and you know it is giving you opportunities and outlets for now and for later, that you wouldn’t have without it. So imagine, something or someone trying to take this away. This was Malala’s predicament, along with all her friends and classmates. Their thirst for education was tied in with the reality that their future depends on that classroom learning. This basic right was being turned into a crime and Malala wouldn’t have a bar of it!
The world takes notice
The rest of the world was definitely keeping an eye and ear out on what was happening in Taliban-controlled areas. This was helped by a British journalist who convinced Malala’s father to have one of the girls at his school blog on her experiences.
After finding a girl willing to share her story online, measures were taken to protect her identity. But as we all know, things got worse instead of getting better and when the situation continued to escalate, the girl and her family feared for her safety.
In stepped Malala, who was only 11 or 12 at the time. Her pseudo identity was ‘Gul Makai’, and she wrote diary entries published by BBC Urdu about life under Taliban rule. It was two years of giving an anonymous account of her experiences before her true identity was discovered. Much support had already been generated by the world readers of this regular diary the true nature of suppression and control was no secret anymore — and one girl’s defiance had gathered a powerful momentum that would not be stopped.
Taking a stand
Malala, with the full support of her family, and a world audience, maintained her resolve in courageously speaking up for the rights of girls being allowed to receive an education. She did not waver when her identity became known. She stood to face the fear and the very real threat against her safety, for the sake of basic rights. She was not going to back down.
When the Pakistani military stepped in to the region with a strong attempt to get rid of the Taliban, another journalist in New York made a documentary about Malala and her father’s life. She became even more prominent, with TV and newspaper interviews. The world was listening, taking notice and responding to the passionate and courageous call of this go-getter! Her campaigning did not go unrecognised in her own country and in 2011 she was awarded the first National Youth peace prize. Go girl!
When the enemy strikes
The Taliban crew didn’t like this publicity at all. Extreme ideologies call for extreme measures? Surely, no one would harm an innocent young girl. Who would stoop so low? The Taliban, that’s who. These guys didn’t muck around with those who didn’t follow their orders. Along with her father, Malala had caused a lot of trouble for them and they were calculating when they would strike.
On 9 October 2012, a Taliban gunman boarded the school bus Malalawas travelling in, shooting students at point blank range. Malala was hurt, but miraculously didn’t die. Two of Malala’s schoolmates were also hurt, but not critically.
Stand and fight
Malala did come close to dying that day. Fortunately, at what appeared to be just the right time, a visiting paediatric trauma specialist from the UK was at the local hospital Malala was rushed to for treatment.
The bullet had hit the side of her skull, missing her brain but damaging her ear canal, down and into her shoulder. The injuries weren’t the only problem, with swelling and infection also playing a hand in slowing her recovery.
After receiving emergency care, Malala still needed specialist help. To add to the dilemma, she had a threat looming over her life from the Taliban. But the world’s’ eyes were seeing her plight and people were voicing their contempt at such a cowardly action. Malala had already won many hearts, and it was a united ‘how dare they’ and ‘we will do anything’ mentality that was going to help Malala through.
Hearing of her struggles, a wealthy Arab King offered his hospital plane, decked out with a full intensive care unit, to transport Malala all the way to a London hospital that specialised in treating military trauma victims. That visiting specialist had pulled some strings and was giving Malala the best chance she could possibly have. The momentum was set, all or nothing for Malala. That was nothing less than the tone she had set for fighting for the rights of others. She had taken a pretty significant stand and now the world stood with her to fight.
Back to school
The next few months were not easy for Malala, her body had taken a massive hit and there was no denying she had to work hard at getting physically back to full health. What remained true and steadfast within her was a gutsy determination, and it helped her to push through what she had to do in rehabilitation. Reports say she never complained, never cried out in pain and was always pleasant and patient with those around her.
Malala received many words of encouragement from thousands around the world at this time, and she states this strengthened and inspired her.
Resilience was her trademark. It took her nearly a year to recover and it was not until March 2013 that she stepped back into a classroom for the first time. This time though, it was not in her homeland of the Swat Valley, but in the new family home in Birmingham England. Talk about a massive change and turning point!
Malala at the UN
On 12 July , 2013, her then 16th Birthday, she was invited to speak at the United Nations Assembly. That’s a pretty high honour! They declared it to be Malala Day, but by her own words, this was not to be her day, but every girls’ day, shining a light on the most vulnerable girls around the world, and the basic rights to education and equality they all should receive.
A force to be reckoned with
Malala started her own charity organisation called the ‘Malala fund’ (link) with her father, dedicated to giving girls access to education and equal rights around the world. She spreads this message far and wide, humbly emphasising that her story is not a unique one because it’s just the same as the story of many girls around the world. It’s a girl power movement like no other, fighting with a voice as their weapon.
Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with another children’s rights activist, and becomes the first Pakistani and youngest person ever to win. Now, this girl is on fire! It was in her well-publicised acceptance speech she highlighted the very heart of this powerful movement. It’s a movement that is continuing to make girls a force to be reckoned with. She stated that she is “not one person, but many, that she is not a lone voice, but many”. She had gathered girls from around the world that day. At the ceremony she had friends from Nigeria, Syria and her own Pakistan to represent 130 million girls from around the world deprived of education. These girls were inspired and empowered to affect change.
There have been books written, documentaries made, #YesAllGirls campaigns, ‘Malala fund’ schools opened and Girl Power Trips made. This year, Malala was appointed the first ambassador for children’s education by the United Nations. Malala will be studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford Uni. Her dreams are being fulfilled.
Malala defied a regime, she fought for her dream. She stood in the face of fear and spoke up for her rights and those of others, even when doing so threatened her own life. Gutsy, determined, courageous, relentless and resolved! You don’t mess with the fire of this queen!