Malala Yousafzai: A fearless advocate for education

By Madison Teuscher

Malala Yousafzai is unlike most teenagers her age—at the age of fifteen, she was shot by Taliban militants on her bus ride to school. These militants sought Malala—an outspoken supporter of girls’ education in her region, country, and the world. Their act of violence has brought forward the incredible story of a young woman whose shining spirit accompanies her bright vision for what the world can be—a place where education is a universal right for all children.

Malala Yousafzai smiles at the camera, wrapped in a bright blue and yellow headscarf.
Malala Yousafzai is a worldwide symbol of courage, optimism, and change.

The Pakistani region of Swat is characterized by clear rivers, tall mountains and lush valleys. This peaceful, paradise-like valley is where Malala Yousafzai called home, along with her mother, two brothers, and father. The affectionate family gave the young Malala a place to thrive. Since her birth, Malala has been celebrated by her parents, rather than rejected—or killed—like so many Pakistani girls.

Ziauddin, Malala’s father, has been a long-time supporter of education. During Malala’s childhood, he opened the Khushal Public School, and encouraged girls and boys alike to choose to rise above the cultural dogma that banned girls from receiving an education. His visions and goals led Malala to have aspirations beyond the norm—she said, “I didn’t want my future to be imprisoned in my four walls and just cooking and giving birth.”

In 2009, the Taliban released an edict declaring that all private schools in Swat be shut down, and explicitly banning girls’ education. Malala, along with many fellow classmates, chose to continue going to school, even amid the fear of the Taliban’s advances. Under the pen name ‘Gul Makai’, a heroine from a Pashtun folk tale, she wrote a diary about how the education ban has affected her and her classmates. This diary was published in BBC Urdu, when Malala was only eleven years old.

Street art depicts Malala Yousafzai as "Rosie the Riverter".
Malala and “Rosie the Riverter” are fused together in street art.

Malala began gaining media attention following the diary’s publication. She appeared on several radio talk shows and publicly advocated for female education on television. Her efforts earned her a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and an award for the Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize.

Unfortunately, the response was not entirely positive. She began to receive death threats—published in newspapers, online, or slipped under the door of her home. Even when presented with the very real possibility of her death, Malala still continued the quest for education, saying, “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.”

While on the school bus home on October 9, 2012, Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. The gunman asked the group of female students, “Who is Malala?” and fired a shot through the left side of her head, into her shoulder. She was rushed to a military hospital in Peshawar for immediate treatment. For further care, she was transferred to Birmingham, England, where she now resides.

Incredibly, Malala suffered no brain damage from the gunshot wound. She continued to advocate for girls’ education, releasing an autobiography in 2013, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, a moving book that illustrates Malala’s experiences firsthand.

Malala Yousafzai stands behind a microphone, wrapped in a purple headscarf.
Malala Yousafzai speaks about systemic gender inequality at the 2014 “Women of the World” conference.

Malala’s quiet and humble confidence radiates through all of her actions, from her address to the United Nations on her 16th birthday, to the acceptance of her Nobel Peace Prize, and to her numerous travels around the globe in support of universal education. One Pakistani schoolgirl said, “She is just my idol, I look up to her so much… it’s like she doesn’t even know what revenge is, she just believes right can win.” Her compassionate, crooked smile tells the greater story of the evils she has confronted. Speaking to the United Nations, she said, “They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. And out of the silence came thousands of voices…today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”

Malala’s experiences and activism have made her a global icon of hope and courage for people in all circumstances. In response to Malala’s assault and continued perseverance, another 13-year-old Pakistani school girl said, “If she can do that, we can do anything.”

Malala is a symbol of the spirit of optimism, determination, and the power of an individual.

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