Malala Yousafzai: A Story of Courage

By Narrelle Gilchrist.

A bus drove through the streets of Pakistan’s Swat Valley, filled with high school students riding home after an exam. Voices filled the air with a traditional Pashtun song cherishing the beauty of their homeland. Suddenly the bus screeched to a halt, forced to stop by two men. The men boarded the bus; one of them had a gun strapped to his waist. “Who is Malala?” he asked. Several girls, terrified, glanced in Malala’s direction. The man fired three shots, and Malala, a fifteen year-old girl, slumped over, covered in blood. In the hours that followed, doctors rushed to save her life. Miraculously, against all odds, she survived.

Malala’s survival of the shooting was a miracle, but what is even more extraordinary are the events that prompted the shooting and that have followed it. Why would anyone target such a young and innocent girl? Who would do such a thing? The answer is the Taliban. These cruel-hearted men have done such things time and again, targeting innocent civilians whose only crime is living their lives. The attempt on the life of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani student, is only the latest addition to the list of atrocities committed by the Taliban.

Malala was born in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 1997. Swat Valley, once a peaceful, idyllic area, became a battleground after the Taliban took control in 2008. Schools became places of violence rather than learning as they gradually shut down. Those that remained open barred girls from attendance. In 2008, a BBC correspondent approached Ziauddin Yousafzai, a school owner and educational activist, about the possibility of a schoolgirl blogger writing about the worsening conditions under the Taliban. After many families rejected the concept out of fear, Ziauddin suggested his own eleven-year-old daughter, Malala. Under a pseudonym, Malala wrote a blog cataloging her thoughts and experiences in the tumultuous region. She often detailed day-to-day, ordinary experiences that many could identify with, such as her affinity for the Twilight novels and her concerns over her hair after her mother cut it. Her accounts of daily life, however, often included fear as she described the bombings of schools and the eventual impact of the Taliban’s edict banning girls’ education. She recounted walking past headless bodies put on display in the square every morning as a reminder of the dangers of disobeying the Taliban.

One night in 2009, Shabana, a young dancer, was brutally murdered by the Taliban for having an “immoral character”. Shortly afterward, Malala’s teachers warned her against doing anything to anger the Taliban, such as reading or wearing colorful clothing. In one blog entry, Malala wrote about a sixteen year-old boy who became a suicide bomber after being brainwashed by terrorists. In 2009, the New York Times produced a documentary titled Class Dismissed depicting Malala’s life and activities in the changing region while advocating for the right to education. The documentary, along with Malala’s blog, provided a unique perspective into the cries of innocent civilians under the violent, martial rule of Islamic extremists. In March 2009, shortly after the documentary was produced, Malala’s family was forced to leave Swat and became refugees for several months as the Pakistani Army fought back against the Taliban. Her father remained very active during these months, championing the cause of education, and received a death threat over the radio. Inspired by his activism, Malala, who had formerly wanted to be a doctor, began to aspire to become a politician so that she could confront the challenges facing her people.

After her return home, Malala began to attract international attention when she was revealed to be the author of the BBC blog. She began to advocate for girls’ education on television. In 2011, Malala was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and won Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, which was later renamed the Malala Prize in her honor. However, as Malala’s fame grew, so did the danger. Death threats came in the newspaper, under the door, and via Facebook. In the summer of 2012, a group of Taliban leaders decided unanimously to kill her.

On October 9th, 2012, Malala was shot in the head and neck by a Taliban shooter. Two other students were also wounded in the attack. Malala spent several days in a hospital in Peshawar before being flown to Birmingham for further treatment. After a month-long battle, she survived her injuries. Malala’s would-be assassin, who has been identified as a twenty-three year-old chemistry student, has not been found. Shortly after the shooting, the Taliban reiterated their pledge to kill Malala.

Contrary to the Taliban’s wish to silence her, the shooting propelled Malala to international fame. The media saw an outpouring of shock, sympathy, and indignation from world leaders all over the globe in the aftermath of the shooting. The international outcry culminated in the creation of Malala Day by the United Nations. Malala Day took place on her 16th birthday, July 12th, 2013, nearly a year after the shooting. On this day, Malala addressed an assembly of the United Nations, calling for worldwide literacy and education. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” she declared, “…The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them… They thought that the bullets would silence us…but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage were born… So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty, and terrorism, and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”[1] In October 2013, Malala published her memoir, I Am Malala, and became the youngest person ever to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Shortly after her speech, a senior Taliban official, Adnan Rasheed, sent Malala a non-apology letter for the shooting, saying he “wished it [had] never happened”, before attempting to justify the attack. According to him, the Taliban did not attack Malala for being an “education lover”, but because she was running a “smearing campaign to malign their efforts to establish Islamic system in Swat”. Rasheed asserted that he was not against education, only Western education, and firmly supported Islamic education, or, in other words, strict adherence to the Koran. “The world is heading towards new world order, I want to know what is wrong with the old world order?” he wrote, “They want to establish global education, global economy, global army, global trade, global government, and finally global religion… Is there any space for Islamic sharia or Islamic law to which UN call inhumane and barbaric?” Rasheed attempted to invoke hatred for America by citing drone attacks on innocent Muslims, but ultimately it was his last words to Malala that summarized his message for all who would read it. “I advise you to come back home, adopt the Islamic and [Pashtun] culture, join any female Islamic madrasa near your home town, study and learn the book of Allah, use your pen for Islam and plight of Muslim ummah, and reveal the conspiracy of tiny elite who want to enslave the whole humanity for their evil agendas in the name of new world order.”[2] Rasheed’s call for Malala to reduce her freedoms to include only those given to her by extremists perfectly illustrates the need for her call for universal education. The Taliban wants women to subjugate themselves in the name of Allah. If some women believe in strict interpretation of the Koran, they are more than welcome to follow it. But Malala believes that every woman should have the opportunity to choose how she wants to live her life. Every child must be exposed to all walks of life and to all possibilities, for one cannot make a choice in the halls of ignorance. Malala is speaking out for the right to choose, and that is why the Taliban is afraid of her.

We can support Malala by working to advance her cause of global education. People turn to terrorism and violence because of ignorance. Ignorance can be cured with knowledge, and education brings knowledge. An educated population is a more peaceful one. We must work to ensure that every child is given access to education, so that every person may have an opportunity to learn and to grow. Malala does not fight the Taliban with guns or swords. She fights them with words. She has shown us that education is the greatest weapon. In her autobiography I Am Malalashe writes “I began to see that the pen and the words that come from it can be much more powerful than machine guns, tanks, or helicopters. We were learning how to struggle. And we were learning how powerful we are when we speak.”[3] Words bring an end to ignorance. When words illuminate suffering, people respond by calling for change. Words rally people to act against evil. And when together people call for justice and freedom, that is power.

Malala’s spirit has reached all corners of the globe, and yet she is only sixteen years old. She is so young, and yet her impact has been so great and inspiring for so many. The attack on Malala was intended to silence her, to weaken her and make her afraid. But when they attacked her, they only made her stronger. The courage and conviction Malala has shown would be in vain if we did not learn from it and allow it to inspire us. In the end, the strongest way to defy the Taliban and show our support for Malala is to live our lives freely and to celebrate our diversity with equal rights and opportunities for all. Our pluralism is our greatest strength. As she continues to inspire us, Malala will remain a reminder to us all of why we must cherish our freedom and preserve our pluralism. Her spirit will never die; it will live on in each of us. No extremist can change that.


Works Cited

  1. Yousafzai, Malala. I Am Malala. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2013. iBooks file.
  2. Taseer, Shehrbano. “The Girl Who Changed Pakistan: Malala Yousafzai.” Newsweek. October 22nd, 2012. IBT Media Inc. December 24th, 2013.
  3. “Malala Yousafzai.” Wikipedia. December 20th, 2013. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. December 24th, 2013.
  4. “The Text of Malala Yousafzai’s Speech at the United Nations.” A World At School. Theirworld. December 26th, 2013.
  5. Khazan, Olga. “The Sad, Hateful, Insecure Non-Apology the Taliban Sent to Malala.” The Atlantic. July 17th, 2013. The Atlantic Monthly Group. December 25th, 2013.

[1] “The Text of Malala Yousafzai’s Speech at the United Nations.” A World At School. Theirworld. December 26th, 2013.

[2] Khazan, Olga. “The Sad, Hateful, Insecure Non-Apology the Taliban Sent to Malala.” The Atlantic. July 17th, 2013. The Atlantic Monthly Group. December 25th, 2013.

[3] Yousafzai, Malala. I Am Malala. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.) Ch 13. iBooks file.

Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics. 

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