Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
“Every child deserves the right to go to school… it’s every child’s right to have an education.” – Malala Yousafzai
On her 16th birthday, July 12, 2013, Malala Yousafzai, stepped up on a block to reach the microphone at the United Nations. She had reason to celebrate almost one year after the attack on her life by the Taliban in her native Pakistan. Her crime? Advocating for girls’ right to an education.
“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died; strength, power, and courage was born,” she said. “I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same, my hopes are the same, and my dreams are the same.”
Today, at 18, Malala Yousafzai still speaks out with the same power behind her voice and the same dream, to see all girls around the world receive at least 12 years of education. Her inflection during public speeches has a rhythm that reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The words have their own motion and the passion shines through. She knows where to pause and where to speak louder because she has been writing and speaking to the media about the right of education for girls since the age of 11. Malala was thrust into the international spotlight in 2012 after the Taliban shot her in the head on her way home from school. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years later and continues her activism in exile in Birmingham, England, where her family was relocated for their safety.
I had the honor of hearing Malala speak on a more intimate platform, without the cameras, during a recent telephone interview with a group of bloggers. I imagine Malala was in her hotel room, next to a box of tissues (recovering from a cold), as she answered questions before the New York City premiere of her documentary, He Named Me Malala.
Malala was introduced on the call as “our fearless leader,” an appropriate description for someone who knew of threats against her life, was nearly killed, and still continues to raise awareness. “If we stopped speaking about education, then we are never going to see the change,” she said. “Change does not come itself; it’s we who bring it.”
During the interview, I’m reminded that Malala has family experiences like all of us. She enjoys time with her family yet fights with her brothers who, she complains, never let her go into their room. It’s a lot of responsibility to be the oldest sibling, she says. Her tone is lighter when she speaks of her brothers; she almost imitates her “strong” voice when she jokes that we should pray for brothers all over the world.
She also speaks highly of her parents; describing her mother as a strong woman who taught her to always tell the truth no matter the consequences. Her father, an educator who founded the school Malala attended in Pakistan, taught her that women should have the right to go to school, to be independent, and to have their rights respected. When losing hope, she says, her father encourages her, and vice versa. “He did not clip my wings and he has allowed me to go forward,” she says.
Malala says one of the best days of her life was her 18th birthday when she opened a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. She wants more people to highlight the current refugee crisis, she says, because children are missing the crucial stages of their schooling. In the film, and in her book, I Am Malala, she talks about the children who are forgotten, saying, “The world easily moves on to other issues.”
In her travels around the world, she makes the most of the media attention, shining a spotlight on the lives of children deprived of basic necessities, including education. Her message is consistent: “Think about your own children.”
After waking from a coma following the gunshot, she believes she has nothing to fear. I admire her ability to speak her truth with confidence and strength when talking to world leaders. She is not interested in a photo opportunity or an autograph, but she wants to be heard.
Yousafzai co-founded the Malala Fund with her father to ensure that young girls around the world receive 12 years of safe, quality education. When she began as an education activist, she says, “I did not know how much impact it would have, but I said, ‘It is my responsibility to just do it.’” Ten years from now, she sees herself finishing her education and continuing her work with the Malala Fund. She hopes the world will be a more peaceful place and that every child will be going to school by that time. If not, she said, it will not be the end of her mission.
The difficult days where she may need an extra push, she leans on the support of people reminding her she is not alone. She reads every letter and card she receives. Many include photos of children holding banners that say: “I am Malala.” “It makes me believe that this dream that I have -- that every child goes to school -- will come true,” she says.
Listening to Malala felt like getting a pep talk from my best friend. I hung up the phone with her words replaying in my mind: “Women can do it; they should not be stopped!” She speaks with such certainty and conviction that I, too, believe I can bring about change.
Malala’s bravery and her decision to stand up for girls everywhere earned her a place in the history books that – hopefully, one day -- every girl will get to read.
Children interested in raising awareness in their schools and communities can join the Students Stand With Malala campaign. Teachers can download a free curriculum and parents can download the discussion guide. The film, He Named Me Malala, is in theaters now.
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