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In the 1880’s a teenage Pashto woman named Malalai used her poetically powerful words to rally the Pashtun army against the invading British army at the battled of Maiwand. After encouraging the soldiers with her words, she ran to grab the Afghan flag as its former bearer fell, putting herself in the line of fire to save her country. It is only fitting that the parents of Malala Yousafzai chose to name their newborn daughter after such a powerful young woman. Malala herself has become a young national hero, known also for her powerful voice and her courage to stand up for freedom and human rights.
Her father Ziauddin Yousafzai is a beloved community leader, school director, and activist in Pakistan’s picturesque Swat valley. Born in 1998, Malala grew up in a family that valued education, intellect and community service. Through the years she has not only applied herself to increasing her education, but to also advocating for the education of others.
In 2007, Taliban militants began asserting control over the snow-capped mountain valley, imposing strict religious rules, limits on women’s rights and harsh public beatings and killings for anyone who stepped out of line. In January 2009, the Taliban militants declared a ban on all education for females. Malala’s father ran one of the many schools in the region that instructed young girls. While many schools closed down due to the threats and public killings, Ziauddin resolved himself to continue. He wanted to set an example for his people by standing up for the rights of girls to be educated, even while his friends and extended family began to flee. His daughter Malala chose not to give into her fears, but to overcome them by setting an example. With the sounds of gunfire and helicopters overhead, Malala and the other brave girls would travel alone to school, dressed in plain clothes so they wouldn’t be identified and punished as female students.
“They cannot stop me; I will get my education if it is in home, school or any place.” –Malala Yousafzai
Malala, like many young girls dreamed of becoming a doctor to take care of the sick and injured. She knew that becoming a doctor required a strong education, so she dedicated her time to studying the math, science and becoming fluent in English.
Malala’s father had long observed how she was a natural leader among her peers, and comfortable speaking up for the needs of others. He encouraged Malala to consider a career goal of becoming a politician, which she originally resisted. However, as the injustices of the Taliban continued to pile up around her, Malala realized that she could use her voice, her intellect and her actions to bring about change to her valley. The 11 year old Malala began writing a blog documenting life under Taliban rule and the atrocities taking place. As her blog became popular on the BBC, the Pakistani military began to take interest in the defending region.
In the summer of 2009, the Pakistani military came to the aid of the valley in an effort to destroy the Taliban forces. Malala, her parents and two younger brothers were forced to evacuate along with over a million of the valley’s residents. For three months, the Yousafzai family was exiled from their home. Malala’s father traveled to the capital city to meet with other exiled leaders to organize protests and raise awareness for their needs in the Swat valley.
After the main fighting moved out of the valley, Malala’s family return home, the Yousafzais found the school trashed, dead bodies in the streets and much of the city destroyed by the fighting between the military and the Taliban.
After her experience blogging, Malala was fully aware of the importance of her voice. With amazing courage, she began to do what many adults were afraid to do, speak publicly for the rights of children and the rights of girls to get an education. She went with her father and other community leaders to meet with the American representative to the region to plead their case.
“I have a new dream . . . I must be a politician to save this country. There are so many crises in our country. I want to remove these crises.” -Malala Yousafzai
Though many of the 200 schools in the region had been destroyed and abandoned, Malala’s father decided to re-open his school. Malala returned to school and organized with other courageous youth to protest the ban on education so that other girls like her could pursue their dreams and goals.
By 2011 the Taliban had regained prominence in the area and returned to their tactics of public humiliation and punishment. Malala’s father had been publicly threatened over the Taliban radio broadcasts, yet he continued undeterred. Malala boldly followed in her father’s footsteps, boldly speaking out in public, on TV, and as she chaired a children’s assembly hosted by UNICEF.
Because of her courageous efforts and risks, Malala was nominated for the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize. She also won the first ever Pakistani National Peace Prize for her efforts to inspire her nation. Malala didn’t let the public praise go to her head, but continued in her efforts of uniting others to stand up against the terrorists. She also began to organize plans to launch an organization to find ways to make it easier for poor girls to achieve their educational dreams.
“I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.” —Malala Yousafzai
In the months that followed, many community leaders began to be targeted, assaulted or killed by covert Taliban attacks. Malala’s family wondered if she would be in danger because of her recent publicity, but assumed that grown men, even the Taliban, would follow their religious beliefs and not harm a young girl.
Sadly, the family’s hopes would be proven false. On October 9th 2012 Malala was returning home on a school bus with other students. A man boarded the bus and called out for Malala. When she was identified, he shot Malala and the student who identified her and fled the scene.
With a bullet in her neck and one in her head, Malala was rushed off to emergency surgery. The Taliban publicly boasted about their assassination attempt by stating that Malala and her father will die at their hands. Malala was flown to England to receive further treatment where she recovered. She has recently been traveling encouraging support for female education despite further threats by the Taliban. In 2013 she became the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.