My first inspirational girl is Malala Yousafzai. Malala is the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in her campaign for girls’ rights, especially fighting for girls’ right to education. She is best known as the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. Malala grew up in Swat, a town in Pakistan, and now lives in Birmingham with her family. Malala and her story inspire me for many reasons. Mainly I am in awe of her passion and drive, and especially her ability to stare down the face of adversity and keep persevering to fight for women and girls’ rights. Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech drives home how important education is to her as well as millions across the world. There’s a reason education is a basic human right; it drives and empowers us to achieve and to excel to reach our dreams.
I chose Malala for a couple of reasons. My passion for feminism and human rights is rooted in girls’ rights, as they occupy a vulnerable intersection between gender and age which often renders them invisible on the international stage. I recognise, however, their power; given agency girls have the potential to shape the world and unlock problems of education, poverty and violence. Malala recognises their agency and demands that we do not pity those who do not have a voice, but instead take action and stand up for the voiceless and demand change. For Malala, the classroom is where we grow our futures, where we can achieve great things.
“One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”
Girls especially are deprived of education because of the repressive societal structures which encourage violence, child marriage or child labour. Malala describes her friend who dreamt of becoming a doctor, but at 12 years old she was forced to get married and had a son at age 14. She will never be able to achieve her dream because she is a girl. This story isn’t unique to one girl or one region; it’s a familiar story for many girls around the world. Many girls don’t finish secondary education due to pregnancy or are forced to stay at home to look after the family. This reinforces the vicious cycle of poverty, as these girls do not have agency or livelihoods to contribute positively to society or change their situation. There’s a reason education is a basic human right; it equips us with knowledge and understanding to change the world and learn from our previous mistakes.
I know for me, education has been a love-hate relationship. I love to learn but always hated the essays and exams that go along with it. However, if it wasn’t for education, I wouldn’t be on this path and writing this blog. I usually talk about how difficult my masters’ degree was, but without it I wouldn’t have discovered feminism. I remember reading about women’s rights and human rights and realising why feminism needs to exist. It was that moment I became a feminist and recognised what drove my passion for equality. I now recognise education’s ability to shape a person and light a spark of inspiration which can snowball into something amazing.
Malala’s story also has a strong message about support, unity and love. This is captured in her acceptance speech:
“Thank you to my father for not clipping my wings and letting me fly. Thank you to my mother for inspiring me to be patient and to always speak the truth”
Malala’s father, Ziauddin, is the main reason why I love and am in awe of Malala so much. I read a lot about the Middle East, both fact and fiction, and the father is usually a repressive figure who is not willing to stray from the status quo. Ziauddin is different. From the moment Malala was born, he refused to honour the Pashtun tradition of hiding away the girl child and chose to celebrate her as he would a boy child. He knew there was something special about Malala, and even choosing her name was a sign that she was destined for greatness. Malala’s name is taken from Malalai of Maiwand whose few lines of poetry to the disenfranchised army inspired them to defeat the British. He always encouraged Malala to speak out and set an example for her with his own activism.
We need to be the change we want to see in the world. Ziauddin is himself an activist and spoke up against the Taliban even when it was dangerous to do so. He always fought for what he believed in. He saw growing up that his sisters and mother were uneducated and wanted to change this, as he saw you could change your life through education. Malala was inspired to do the same, and was encouraged by her father to do so. He continually supported her and didn’t want to stop her from doing something she was passionate about. Ziauddin said that he is proud to be known as the daughter of Malala, something many Pashtun men would not be willing to admit.
“Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do.
I did not clip her wings, and that’s all”
We can all learn a valuable lesson from Ziauddin and Malala about support and unity. When we’re fighting for something we believe and the odds are against us, we cannot solely rely on ourselves for support. So often when I speak with men about feminism I inevitably hear “but what about men”, as if there’s no space for them in the debate. Ziauddin shows that there’s a valuable place in being a role model, and encouraging and supporting the next generation and those around us to demand change in the world. Malala wouldn’t be who she is without a strong figure like Ziauddin to show her how to fight like an activist, how to speak out when the going is tough and how to constantly stand up for what you believe in. If we are to truly move forward, we need to unite together and support each other. Change happens when we work together, not when we fight each other.
As Mahatma Gandhi said: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.
Read Malala’s speech here: http://www.girleffect.org/what-girls-need/articles/2014/12/malala-yousafzai-dedicates-nobel-peace-prize-to-girls-education/
I also read “I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban” which I highly recommend.