One lifetime is painstaking short for most people. Everyone struggles to leave their mark on the world, to do something that they will be remembered by. However, some people were just born special, knowing exactly what they see in the world and with enough courage and conviction to change it. Malala Yousafzai is one of those people. Most adolescents and teens in the West wish nothing more than a snow day or summer vacation to grant that sweet reprieve from school, but for Malala Yousafzai, all she wanted to do was go to school. A dream that many women and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan share, but it is one that this young girl dared to fight for and almost paid the ultimate price for it.
Yousafzai was born into a Sunni Muslim family, where her parents gave her the name of Malala, which means "grief-stricken." Like many parents, it was likely that they believed their child could do great things, which is why they named her after Malalai of Maiwind, a famous poet and warrior woman from Southern Afghanistan who died a martyr. Malala Yousafzai grew up fairly normal in the Swat Valley in her family's house in Mingora with two younger brothers and two pet chickens. Before the Taliban wrestled a hold over the Swat Valley, Malala attended school but the majority of her education was due to large part by her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is a poet, school owner and educational activist.
In 2008, the Taliban influence began to heavily spread in the Swat Valley. In their wake they banned television, music and the education of women not to mention their more violent approach of public beatings and beheadings of local leaders and activists. This appalled both Malala Yousafzai and her father. It was in 2008 that she first began taking up the flag of educational activism that her father had held for so long. Ziauddin Yousafzai took his daughter to Peshawar to speak at a local press club in response to the Taliban ban on education. She dared to aggressively question the Taliban in a country where many fear something as simple as bumping into them in the streets. Malala Yousafzai boldly stated, "How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?" It was a question that would echo on television screens and within newspapers throughout the region.
The Fight for Education
Later in 2008, Aamer Ahmed Khan of the BBC Urdu website was looking for a way to get new coverage of the Taliban's growing influence in Swat when he came up with a daring idea: Why not find a schoolgirl and ask her to blog anonymously about her life? Through correspondents, he was put in touch with Ziauddin Yousafzai, but he could not find any school girls willing to take the risk. At first, a young girl named Aisha offered to keep a dairy, but her parent stopped her, echoing the reasons that both Khan and Yousafzai had heard so frequently, "it is too dangerous, too big of a risk." Finally Zaiuddin Yousafzai offered up his own 11-year-old daughter. Malala Yousafzai eagerly agreed to write the blog, taking on the byline of Gul Makai, a name of a character from Pashtun folklore.
She commenced to record her thoughts on the First Battle of Swat, on how fewer and fewer girls showed up to school and how finally the school was shut down. The schools for boys remained open, but girl's schools were not only shut down but destroyed. While out of school, Malala wrote in her blog that she continued to study for exams even though the fierce fighting between the Pakistani Army and the Taliban in the area left many displaced, dead and most businesses closed. It was shortly after a peace deal was forged that Taliban leader in the area Maulana Fazlulla announced that he was lifting the ban on women's education, but girls would have to wear burqas. Malala wrote immensely about how she hated covering her face when men could walk around freely and how her mother could not leave the house without the company of a male relative, even if it was a five-year-old boy. Not even a week after the peace treaty was signed, the shelling started up again, sending fear into the locals that this brief peace was just a break in the fighting. In May, the Second Battle of Swat began and while her father went to protest in Peshawar, Malala Yousafzai was sent to the countryside to live in safety with relatives. Due to her father's ardent activism, he received death threats over the announcements on FM radio by the Taliban, still he held firm in his beliefs, Malala states how inspired she was by this. It was for the first time that she stated that her dream was not to become a doctor, but a politician, stating,
"I have a new dream ... I must be a politician to save this country. There are so many crises in our country. I want to remove these crises."
Finally, after the Pakistani Military pushed the Taliban out of the Swat Valley and into the countryside, the family reunited in their home. However, most of the homes were looted and damaged by artillery strikes. Malala Yousafzai even managed to get in touch with United States President Barack Obama's special representative in the area, Richard Holbrooke, and pleaded to him to help her in her fight for education. This led to suspicion with local Swat Valley residents, stating that Malala was a conspiracy by the United States government to encourage their young girls to question age-old traditions and foster United States dominance.
The Ultimate Sacrifice?
While not all people took to the activism of Malala Yousafzai and her father, the public platform in support for women's education quickly grew from 2009 and onwards. As the platform grew, Malala continued to speak out. When Malala was 14, she received death threats from the Taliban for her efforts. She was concerned for her safety; however her family was confident that even the Taliban would never harm a child. However, on October 9th 2012 when Malala was on her way home from school on a bus full of her classmates, a masked man boarded and demanded to know which girl was Malala. No one spoke, but her classmates had unknowingly given her away by looking in her direction. The gunman opened fire, injuring two girls and hitting Malala in the left side of her head and in the neck.
This attack left her in critical condition, but not dead. She was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar where they removed a portion of her skull to treat the dangerous swelling of her brain. She was placed in a medically-induced coma and transferred to Birmingham, England for further treatment. After she was brought out of the medically-induced coma, she required several surgeries to repair a facial nerve that had left the entire left side of her face paralyzed. However, thankfully, this girl with the willingness to fight for the ability to learn didn't suffer any brain damage.
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Malala Yousafzai has been showered with accolades and honors for her fight and near sacrifice for women's education. She has received the National Youth Peace Prize, nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize, received a Sitara-e-Shujaat which is Pakistan's third-highest award for civilian bravery, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. Most recently she gave a speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday.