Malala Yousafzai is a prominent and passionate advocate for girls’ education and women’s rights. Her fervent mission to help more girls attend school is fueled by many sources, including the oppression of women in her home country of Pakistan, the consistent activism and support of her family, and an attempted assassination by the Taliban in 2012. After surviving this shooting, Malala ramped up her international advocacy and started a nonprofit called the Malala Fund, which is still going strong today.
Malala was born July 12, 1997, in Mingora, Pakistan, which is the largest city in the Swat Valley. She grew up with her parents, Ziauddin and Tor Pekai Yousafzai, and two younger brothers. Malala’s parents named her after Malalai of Maiwand, a well-known Afghan warrior and heroine. Her father was a passionate educator who started several schools and who campaigned for gender equality in education throughout his life. He imbued Malala with a reverence for learning that would eventually lead her to become an international humanitarian.
On Women’s Equality and Power
There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both: that of women.
When Malala was 10 years old, the Taliban rose to power and severely restricted women’s lives in Pakistan. But gender imbalances were already ingrained in the cultural landscape during Malala’s early childhood. For example, the birth of a girl was not typically celebrated in Swat. In defiance, Malala’s father asked his neighbors to throw fruits, sweets, and coins into his daughter’s cradle, a tradition usually reserved for boys. Ziauddin even drew Malala’s name onto a family tree that had previously only recorded the male lineage of the family. When interviewers would later ask how he supported his daughter’s strength and optimism, he often replied, “I didn’t clip her wings.”
On the Right to an Education
Education is our basic right... In the Quran it is written, God wants us to have knowledge. He wants us to know why the sky is blue, and about oceans and stars.
Malala followed in her father’s footsteps, visiting his schools from a young age and absorbing his passion for scholarship and social activism. When she was old enough to begin her education, she attended a girls' school that her father started and ran.
Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.
When the Taliban invaded Malala’s hometown, restrictions were placed on many of her favorite activities, such as dancing, watching TV, and listening to music. Most significantly, girls were forbidden to receive an education. The Taliban violently enforced its restrictions on citizens and began to attack educational institutions. By 2008, it had destroyed over 400 schools.
On the Courage to Speak up
If people were silent, nothing would change.
Both Malala and her father courageously opposed these crimes. Ziauddin traveled to the capital of Pakistan to speak with international media outlets. Meanwhile, Malala wrote for the BBC about their struggles, under the name “Gul Makai.” In response, Taliban threats to Malala’s family and their community of social activists increased.
On Surviving an Attempt on Her Life
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.
Shortly after the Taliban issued a specific death threat against Malala, her school bus was stopped on the way home and boarded by armed men. They asked for her by name and, when her peers looked in her direction, she was shot in the head. Two of her schoolmates were also injured.
Malala was transported to a military hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, and then to Birmingham, England, to receive treatment for severe injuries. Pakistan’s president provided her father with a diplomatic passport, which allowed Malala’s family to live in England without seeking asylum. Malala had gained some global acclaim for her activism by this time, and the shooting led to an international outpouring of care and concern, and garnered increased support for the cause of girls’ education.
On Telling Her Story
I often say that I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is the story of many girls. I think realizing that you’re not alone; that you are standing with millions of your sisters around the world is vital.
Malala began to attend school in England. But she didn’t forget the many girls who were still unable to pursue an education; the Taliban attack only deepened her commitment to this cause. In 2013, on her 16th birthday, Malala spoke about her beliefs and work to the United Nations in New York. In response, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pronounced Malala’s birthday “Malala Day,” describing her as "a brave and gentle advocate of peace who, through the simple act of going to school, became a global teacher.” In 2014, she became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala has received many other acknowledgments and awards, including the International Children's Peace Prize and Pakistan's National Youth Peace Prize.
Malala has also written several books, including multiple children’s books, a book about refugee girls, and her internationally best-selling autobiography, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.
On the Power of Education
One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.
In 2013, Malala and her father launched the Malala Fund, with a goal to help every girl experience 12 years of free, safe, and quality education. They focused specifically on Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey. Through the fund, Malala advocated for the safe return of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, opened a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon, and more. The nonprofit uses grantmaking, research, and advocacy to support local girls and community-based activism, and to challenge limiting gender norms in society.
On the Future
We want schools and education for every child’s bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education for everyone.
Malala studied philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford, where she graduated with honors in 2020. Her Malala Fund continues its vital work, and has invested $22 million in education across eight countries. With more than 100 million girls still out of school around the world, Malala’s fight for equitable access to education is far from over.
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