“Once I had asked God for one or two extra inches in height, but instead, he made me as tall as the sky, so high that I could not measure myself… By giving me this height to reach people, he has also given me great responsibilities.” – Malala Yousafzai
Our next two change makers for this month are women who through their selfless service have made an enormous impact on the lives of others and the world as a whole. One thing that they both have in common is that their parents’ influence shaped their lives in a positive direction and gave them the wisdom, knowledge, and the courage to fight for what’s right and to do good works.
Malala Yousafzai is one of those two who put those of us who come up with excuses for why we can’t make a difference to shame. Her activism began at the tender age of 11 and the threats to her life were real and would eventually prove to be near fatal. From that crisis Malala became stronger. Her fight went from local to global seemingly overnight, fighting for the right of women and girls around the world to be educated.
A Father unlike Most
In Pakistan as in many countries around the world, women are denied the right to an education. In Swat Valley where Malala Yousafzai was born and raised, it was no different. However, Malala had a father that was not like most others.
Ziauddin Yousafzai is a staunch advocate of the right of all to receive an education. In Pakistan where they are 2nd in the world in the number of children who do not attend school, Zaiuddin built a private school for girls adjacent to the family home. There Malala thrived and learned just like her brothers did.
When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in 2008, they went on a rampage shutting down schools for girls. Instead of cowering in the face of these violent Islamic fundamentalists, Malala at only 11 years old traveled to Peshawar to denounce the Taliban’s efforts to deny girls the right to an education.
Her father encouraged her activism, proudly supporting her efforts to enable her and her classmates to continue in their schooling. In 2009 her father gave her the idea to spread her message even further by blogging about what was happening in the Swat Valley to young girls. She did.
Resilience in the Face of Fear
The BBC allowed Malala to post her blogs on BBC Urdu under an assumed name; Gul Makai. She spoke about the threats that the Taliban had issued to girls throughout Pakistan and how they had systematically begun closing down schools for girls in the region.
Eventually her cover was blown and her real name disclosed from other news organizations. That winter the Taliban targeted Yousafzai’s school demanding that her father shut it down. Malala continued to advocate for equal education for all women, even being nominated for the 2011 Children’s Peace Prize by Bishop Desmond Tutu.
As her fame began to spread the Taliban issued a death threat against the young 14 year old Malala in order to get her to stop her activism. It scared her and she worried about her family and her father in particular. None of them truly believed that they would kill a child. The Yousafzais like many families in the Swat Valley eventually left.
The Act that Shocked the World
After several years of advocating on behalf of girls, the world did not know who Malala was but everyone in Pakistan did including the Taliban. On an October day in 2012 when Malala was on a bus headed home after school, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head injuring two of her classmates as well.
Malala was in critical condition. She was immediately taken to the Peshawar military hospital and then sent to Birmingham, England for more intense treatment. When news of this horrific act spread, an outpouring from around the world condemned the act and support for her cause only amplified.
Malala survived the shooting and had to undergo several surgeries to repair the damage done to the nerves in her face which had been paralyzed. Fortunately there was no brain damage found and after several months in the hospital, Malala was released in January. Two months later she began high school in Birmingham, England where she and her family remain.
Empowering Women through Education
Named after a Pashtun heroine, Malala has more than lived up to the name which literally means “grief stricken.” After such violence, how many of us would have given up? How many of us would have just accepted the new reality in Pakistan where women are subjugated permanently by denying them the right to an education?
Since her ordeal Malala has become a global celebrity giving speeches in front of the United Nations, the World Bank, and traveling around the world to support the cause of which she has said is “the cause to which I want to devote my life.”
Now only 18 years old, Malala has written an autobiography entitled I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban while still living under the threat issued by the Taliban to this very day. Her foundation, the Malala Fund is funding her mission to build schools anywhere that girls and women are denied an education.
In 2013 Time Magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people. In 2014 she became the youngest Nobel Prize winner ever. The list of acclimations goes on and on including:
- In 2012 she was awarded the Pakistan National Peace Award, now named the National Malala Peace Prize.
- In response to the attack, the Pakistani National Assembly ratified the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill just weeks after the shooting.
- In 2013 she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.
- This month a documentary about Malala’s life produced by the same famed director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman will be released.
Even with all of that the struggle still continues. She is still a target of the Taliban in Pakistan who have continued to destroy girls’ schools throughout the country. By both bombings in the rural areas of Pakistan and poison attacks by neighboring Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, the work continues and the threats have not ceased. Those claiming responsibility for the attack on Malala saying, “Malala is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity.”
Malala Yousafzai and the Law of Service
Just like all truly great change makers, Malala does not seek fame and fortune. Instead of using her public profile to benefit herself, she has poured every dime into continuing to ensure that women and girls everywhere have a chance for a better life through education.
“Now I want to show it to children, to people around the world,” speaking of her blood stained school uniform which is now part of the Nobel Peace Prize exhibit, “This is my right, it is the right of every child, to go to school. This should not be neglected.”
On her 18th birthday, now known as Malala Day, she used it to highlight the plight of girls fleeing Syria for Lebanon where she opened the doors to another school for girls set up using money donated to the Malala Fund. There she called out leaders around the world to “invest in books instead of bullets.”
In every life, there come opportunities to stand up and speak out against the ills of society that are happening all around us. The thing that separates people like Malala from the rest of us is our willingness to sacrifice our own comforts for the sake of others.
“I speak not for myself but for those without voice… those who have fought for their rights… their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated.” – Malala Yousafzai
Like those before her, Malala embodies the law of service and is an inspiration for good willed people of all ages to do more for their fellow man and woman. “Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward.” – Malala Yousafzai