Across the world, thousands of children, particularly girls, are being denied their fundamental right to education, whether that be due to war, political ideology or poverty. Sixteen year old Malala Yousafzai was just one of these; a Pakistani schoolgirl denied her right to an education by the Taliban.
Why? Because she was female.
But Malala wasn’t content to let things lie; she wasn’t content to live in silence. In 2009, at the age of 11 she began writing a blog about life under the Taliban for BBC Urdu under a pseudonym. In October 2012, when she was just 15 years old, she was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education and ‘secularism’.
Now, just one year later, Malala has become a symbol of hope for the girls and women who are being denied education all over the world, proving the old adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Instead of becoming just another victim of war and injustice, Malala has won several awards, including the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, and the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Taliban have inadvertently created a figurehead for education and women’s rights, the exact opposite of their intentions, proving that education, freedom of speech and speaking out against injustice will always wield more power than violence and oppression in the end.
However, along with the power that has been afforded Malala by speaking out, comes danger. Not only will she have to live under heavy security for the rest of her life (according to Pakistan’s interior minister), but she is also in danger of being used by one power or other to further their own cause, against her wishes. Certainly, there is a reason we know about Malala and not other victims such as Noor Aziz, the eight year old killed by a drone strike in Pakistan, or Zayda Ali Mohammed Nasser, dead at seven from a drone strike in Yemen. These and other atrocities committed by the West rarely make it into the media, and the USA’s dismissal of Amnesty International’s concerns about civilian casualties from drone strikes, along with the lack of interest in eight year old Nabila Rehman’s story (five out of 430 representatives showed up to the Congressional hearing where she talked about how her family had been affected by drone strikes, her grandmother killed in one around the same Malala was shot last year) show the hypocrisy of the West and the danger Malala faces of becoming merely a reason for continuing drone strikes, war and violence against countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
In her book ‘I Am Malala’, Malala herself speaks out passionately against drone warfare and other controversial actions carried out by the West, particularly the CIA. Her speech at the UN on her 16th birthday promotes peace and education as the means to beat ignorance and war.
A few weeks ago I finally watched that speech, and this is what became apparent to me.
If Malala had been shot in the head, and died, or shot in the head, and done nothing more to stand up for education and women’s rights, then she would have just been another statistic. Another victim; another tragedy. She would have been just one more life to tick off the Taliban’s list of victims. One more reason for Western powers to wage war against countries where terrorists and oppressive regimes hold sway.
Instead, she spoke up. She became a symbol of hope, for education for all, women’s rights, freedom and peace; against ignorance, violence, inequality and oppression. People hear statistics and tragedies on the news all the time – they may take a moment to process them, think about them, perhaps feel sad about the world in which we live – then they are, for the majority, promptly forgotten; added to the pile of ‘bad things’ that happen in our cynical world. Added to the pile of ‘bad things’ that we, as Westerners, cannot change because that’s ‘just the way things are’.
It takes someone to stand up; to talk about these human rights abuses; to not give up or back down, even after one has endured the greatest suffering; to make people sit up and take notice. Not only has Malala done this, but she has also turned her experience into a wholly positive action. As she said “Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
Her message of non-violent, peaceful progress and power through education and knowledge is one that I hope world leaders, at that conference and elsewhere, were listening to and will continue to listen to in the years ahead.
Written by Hannah Rixon