By Emmanuel Ojeifo
“The Taliban tried to kill her for going to school; they only made her stronger. Her name is Malala… the bravest girl in the world.” – CNN commercial (Thursday, October 10, 2013)
In a world full of so much bad news, here is an absolutely uplifting story that should be told and re-told to every generation of young people. If you haven’t heard of Malala Yousafzai, take a moment now to familiarise yourself. Malala is a Pakistani teenager who escaped death at the hands of a Taliban soldier for her courage, eloquence and outspoken stance on education and the protection of women and children’s rights. If the Taliban soldier who shot her in the head wanted to silence her, he failed woefully. Rather than silence her, he transposed her to global stardom.
The story of the 16-year-old Malala is one of the most remarkable stories of human survival in the face of adversity. If she had won the Nobel Peace Prize this year (for which she was overwhelmingly nominated), it would have gone a long way to confirm her as a global heroine and an inspiration for millions of children who are passionate about their desire to go to school.
In any case, even without winning the prestigious prize, Malala remains a beacon of hope and a challenge for a generation of young people who are steeped in hopelessness and waiting for outside help when they can unleash their potentials to create a decent future for themselves and for others.
On October 10, 2012, Malala was in the back of an open truck on her way home from school with other students when a Taliban gunman asked for her name and shot her in the head. The bullet exited her brain, but affected her facials. Many of those who heard the story of what had happened felt that she would die. The thought of that eloquent spirit unable to speak or think or hear was unbearable.
But she didn’t die. In the days immediately following the attack, she remained unconscious and in critical condition, but later her condition improved for her to be flown from Pakistan to Britain. When she awoke, she found herself in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her doctor said she never cried, not once. The eloquence came back, reborn fearlessly in one who had cheated death.
Since then, Malala has become a global celebrity, going round the world with her gospel of gender equality and education. In January this year, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international satellite radio acclaimed Malala as “the most famous teenager in the world.” Using the slogan, “I am Malala,” UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, launched a UN petition demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015, a petition which helped lead to the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
Her public profile rose even further when she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize in December 2012. In April 29, 2013 edition of Time magazine, Yousafzai was featured on the magazine’s front cover and as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”
On July 12, 2013, on her 16th birthday, Malala spoke at the UN calling for worldwide access to education. The UN dubbed the event “Malala Day.” It was her first public speech since the attack, leading the first ever youth takeover of the UN, with an audience of over 500 young education advocates from around the world. In her speech, Malala impressed everyone when she spoke about her inner conviction and burning passion for reform.
“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions,” she said, “but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born. I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”
Interestingly, even before the Taliban thugs bungled an assassination attempt last year, she was a towering presence in Pakistan. Since she was 12 she has been a blogger. First she blogged anonymously for the BBC, describing the horrors of life under the Taliban, then she went public with her campaign to get more girls into school. In a conservative country such as Pakistan, she risked not only death at the hands of the terrorists, but also the anger and condemnation of a patriarchal society which prefers its women uneducated and in the kitchen.
Throughout her public expeditions, Malala has articulated her message with impressive clarity and simplicity, free of the well-meaning thrash that so often passes for advocacy in today’s world. A few weeks ago, Malala brought her wisdom to New York City and appeared on The Daily Show to promote her new memoir, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.
In the talk show, Malala shared her story, her future and her dreams. Every young person should try to watch the entire cut of Malala’s interview, but this quote in particular is worth being highlighted. In response to host Jon Stewart’s question on how she felt when she found out that the Taliban had made her a target, she had this to say – a remark that not only left Stewart completely speechless, but also earned her a standing ovation.
“I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’
Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’” Immediately, her inspiring comments went viral on the Internet, with one of the interview clips reaching over 700,000 hits in less than 24 hours.
This is a remarkable story of courage and heroism in a world where millions of young people are afraid to take a stand for what they believe to be right. Through her extraordinary heroism, Malala is teaching the world that bravery is not about age or size, but about the education of the human spirit. In a country like Nigeria where the educational sector is in coma and where millions of young graduates are clueless and unemployable, the heroic example of Malala has humbled our pride by teaching us that the best revolutions in history are not those started with guns and armies but with a tiny voice of courage which echoes in the depths of the human spirit.
Now, even if Malala never ever wins the Nobel Prize, by being so extraordinary, in her courage and her eloquence, this 16-year-old has won the hearts of millions of people world over. No prize could be greater than this.
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria.