Fearless Women in History: Malala Yousafzai
A Pakistani activist for the rights of women and girls, particularly the right to an education, Malala Yousafzai, Nobel peace prize recipient, is truly one of the most fearless women in modern history.
Born in 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan in the country’s Swat Valley, Malala always had a knack for politics. Her father, Ziauddin, would often let her stay up late to discuss political issues, believing that she would one day stand for office.
But when the Taliban entered Swat Valley and began terrorizing girls’ schools through bombing campaigns, the political became personal. Only 11 years old, she spoke out to a local press club in Peshawar, saying, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”
Seeing how her access to education could be ripped away only reinforced to Malala how precious it was. Her desire to protect not only her own education, but the education of girls around the world, launched her journey as a political activist -- one that would put her very life at risk.
Blogging as “Gul Makai”
In 2008, BBC Urdu was looking for a schoolgirl to anonymously blog about her life, and specifically about the impact the Taliban’s actions were having on girls’ education in the region. Another girl had agreed to write the blog, but dropped out at the last minute due to her family’s fear of Taliban retribution.
That’s when Malala, then only a seventh grader, fearlessly took on the task. To protect her identity, BBC staff insisted that she used a pseudonym.
So on January 3, 2009, her first post went up under the name “Gul Makai,” which means “cornflower” in Urdu.
As military operations began in Swat Valley, Malala continued to write, even as her school was shut down. After destroying over a hundred girls’ schools, the Taliban issued an edict that no girl was allowed to go to school. Weeks later, they partially reversed their position: girls could attend co-ed schools, but girls’ schools were still banned. Few girls went back to school for fear of violent retaliation.
After Malala finished her blog posts in March 2009, a New York Times reporter asked her to appear in a documentary. At this point, military actions and regional unrest forced the evacuation of Mingora, and Malala was sent to stay with relatives for several months. In late July, her family was reunited and returned home.
The documentary was published and Malala began sitting for major media interviews around the world. By the end of 2009, her identity as a BBC blogger was public knowledge. She was awarded the first National Youth Peace Prize by the Pakistani government.
In 2012, Malala began planning the Malala Education Foundation, whose mission would be to help economically disadvantaged girls to be able to attend school.
Attempted Assassination and Recovery
In the summer of 2012, a group of Taliban leaders unanimously agreed to kill Malala. On a bus ride home, a masked gunman shot her. The bullet passed through her head, neck, and shoulder, wounding two other girls in the process.
Malala miraculously survived and was airlifted to a Peshawar hospital where doctors removed the bullet from her head in a long, five-hour surgery. She then received specialized treatment in Europe at the expense of the Pakistani government.
After her recovery, Malala did not stop her activism. In fact, she has continued to speak out both for education for girls and the rights of women in general to this day.
Malala Yousafzai: Nobel Peace Prize Recipient
At age 17, Malala was co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of children and young people. She shared the prize with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India. Malala is the youngest Nobel laureate ever.
That same year, she also received an honorary doctorate from University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On her 18th birthday, she opened a school in Lebanon not far from the Syrian border for Syrian refugees, specifically teenage girls, funded by the nonprofit Malala Fund.
Although she accomplished more in her first 18 years than many have accomplished in a lifetime, Malala’s work of advocating for womens’ rights and education is far from over. Click here to learn about and support her continuing work.