Malala’s story and the light of learning
WASHINGTON, DC—The story of Malala did not begin when a 16-year-old boy jumped into a school van in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, asked who among the girls aboard was Malala Yousafzai, and then shot at her three times, hitting her on the head.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father who represented her at the launch of a college-level resource guide based on her autobiography, said he did not believe that Malala’s shooting and all the events that followed were an “accident.”
“How did we get to that point?” he asked at the launch, held at the George Washington University in this city, whose Global Women’s Institute with Little, Brown and Company developed the guide based on “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.”
The series of “unfortunate events” is “a long story,” Yousafzai said, dating back 30 years and, even before then, to the halcyon days when the Swat Valley, “Pakistan’s most beautiful spot,” was a princely state before being incorporated into the Pakistan Republic.
But the struggle in Afghanistan, first against the invading Soviet army, then the takeover of the conservative Taliban forces, spilled over onto the valley, leading to the day a lone gunman shot up a school bus filled with schoolgirls.
Malala was 15 in 2012, but even then she was already fairly known in Pakistan, speaking at various affairs and writing a blog on the need for education for girls, a cause frowned upon by the Taliban who didn’t believe girls should be going to school.
The world rallied around Malala, who was flown to the United Kingdom where doctors successfully operated on her and where she and her family live today. Earlier this year, it was announced that Malala, now 17, had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest laureate in the Prize’s history.
Fittingly, Malala was in school when the news broke, in chemistry class when a teacher announced the honor given her. “But she chose to stay in school to finish her lessons,” her father recalled, and when he and Malala’s mother greeted her at the gate with tears in their eyes, they found their daughter calm and composed.
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“You know what the most beautiful sight is in the world?” Yousafzai asked. “It is that of a child walking down the street with a school bag and on the way to school.” He certainly knows what he’s talking about, having founded a school in the Swat Valley after obtaining his master’s degree in English.
When the Taliban began enforcing their “ban” on girls going to school, Yousafzai said he asked Malala, his eldest child, why she continued to speak out on the need to educate girls. “Why not?” was her simple answer.
“This is the story not just of one family of five,” Yousafzai said (Malala has two other siblings). “It is a story of families all around the world, of 57 million children who are out of school, half of them in conflict areas—in Jordan, in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan.”
To this end, Yousafzai serves as the cofounder and chair of the Malala Fund, raising money to protect the right of girls to an education, and also as the United Nations’ special advisor on global education.
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At the first panel following his keynote speech, Yousafzai was joined by Catherine Russel, who serves as ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues for the Obama administration.
Russel spoke on how Malala’s crusade for education for girls is a response to the status of girls worldwide, who “start falling off” as they finish their elementary studies and are not able to finish or even start a secondary education due to such factors as “violence (at home or in school), early marriage, the need to work,” or simply “not being valued” by their families.
“We need a holistic approach,” asserted Russel. To which Yousafzai said one area he is concentrating on is “working with the fathers of tomorrow,” teaching young men to recognize and respect girls’ “dignity, honor, and freedom” and “respect the rights of their daughters.”
Russel stressed that promoting and protecting the rights of girls not just in the United States but around the world have been a policy cornerstone of both the Clinton and Obama administrations. It is simply good governance, she stressed. Or as US Secretary of State John Kerry put it: “You don’t play a game and leave half your team on the bench.”
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The Resource Guide to Malala’s memoir has been described as “a window into complex issues of politics, history, human rights, religion and tradition through the lens of one girl’s story.”
In some way, “I Am Malala” may be considered the contemporary version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which, upon its publication and release, gave the world a glimpse into the life of a teenage girl caught in the darkness of the Nazi regime, while shedding light on the thoughts and feelings of a girl emerging into the light of womanhood, a life tragically cut short with the discovery of her and her family’s hiding place and her death in a Nazi concentration camp.
We can thank the fates for saving Malala from such an end. But we would not honor her life if we “read” her story only as one of survival and prevailing against violence. Instead, we should join her cause—the need to provide education for young people, but especially girls—because without the light of learning, we would surrender the world to the forces of darkness that sought to silence Malala and snuff out her promise, as well as that of all our girls.
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