Like many people, I first heard of Malala Yousafzai in October 2012, when headlines rang across the world that a fifteen-year-old girl had been shot by the Taliban. Initially, I reacted in a similar way to how I usually do when hearing of tragedies in the media: with a mixture of instinctive horror and sadness. Most of all, I felt frustrated at how helpless I was to do anything about it.
What I didn’t anticipate was how much Malala would come to inspire me: to appreciate the power of my education, and to become more courageous in speaking up for what I believe in.
When Malala miraculously recovered and went on to speak at the United Nations months later, I became more and more drawn to her activism. I am less than a year older than her and I found the stories of her and her classmates’ experiences particularly poignant. Her determination as she spoke of peace and the right to education was also endlessly compelling, and I wondered what had shaped her passion and character.
Co-written with Christina Lamb, I Am Malala is a memoir of her childhood in Pakistan, an expression of her mission to make quality education available to every child, and a recount of the lead-up to and aftermath of the shooting.
Earlier parts of the book detail the history of her family, her people and the political situation in Swat Valley and Pakistan. Later parts of the book then focus on the experiences which were evidently the most influential in Malala’s activism: the arrival of the Taliban in Swat Valley. Malala expresses her confusion and distress as they criticised girls for going to school; of films, music and dance being banned; of the bombings, violence and havoc surrounding her.
“It was school that kept me going in those dark days,” Malala writes – though this was far from a safe haven. She and her classmates were afraid to wear their school uniforms, they hid their school books, and were surrounded by frequent school bombings (with around 400 schools destroyed by the end of 2008). Caught between the army and the extremists, fear and tension pervaded. Then, the Taliban forced all girls’ schools to close. As the conflict escalated, Malala’s family was eventually forced to leave Swat Valley.
Having grown up in Australia, the thought of my education being taken away, or of struggling to go to school, was almost unthinkable for me. Yet reading about Malala’s experiences – which she interweaves with charmingly familiar stories about her favourite school subjects, performing plays and competing in exams – prompted me to imagine myself in her position. How would I be different?
Without my high school education, I wouldn’t currently be studying in university, hoping for a fulfilling career, the way I can now. Malala and her classmates understood this: “Though we loved school, we hadn’t realised how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading and doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time, it was our future.” Education opens up opportunities, and it’s little wonder it has an important role in breaking the cycle of poverty.
But on a more personal level, education has always been about more than an aspirational pathway, or the acquisition of knowledge. I thought of my passion for literature, my ability to express myself and communicate through storytelling, and how my own understanding of the world informs this – and realised what a huge part of my identity would be missing if I had never gone to school.
So Malala remained defiant. Inspired by her father, and frustrated that there were few people speaking up, she agreed to write a diary about her life under the Taliban for the BBC when she was eleven – one of her very first acts of activism. Through this came a realisation:
“I began to see that the pen and the words that come from it can be much more powerful than machine guns, tanks or helicopters. We were learning how to struggle. And we were learning how powerful we are when we speak.”
It has always been Malala’s words – written or spoken – which left the most powerful impact on the world. And while terrorist attacks are met by violent retaliation from world leaders – something Malala knows only too well, having lived under the conflict in Swat Valley – Malala herself advocates for peace, using books and pens as her only weapons. Her story impressed upon me how simple an act it was which had started it: the choice to speak up.
Having been a youth ambassador for The Salvation Army the past few years, I’m no stranger to humanitarian issues or to advocacy. I’m passionate about the issues we’ve focused on, regarding youth homelessness, human trafficking, and refugees; and am proud of my peers for the work we’ve done to support those in need. Seeing the attitude changes that result from talking to and sharing stories with others is one of the factors that particularly motivates me throughout this.
I remember late last year, when we created a launch event for the Couch Project: a campaign which aims to fundraise for homeless youth and raise awareness of how prevalent such a situation can be. Initially, I’d been nervous about how the event would be received, and whether everything we’d put into it would be worth it. So it was fulfilling afterwards when I spoke to a friend who’d come along without knowing the message we were aiming to convey. When she listened to the panellists, she was surprised at some of their stories of experiencing homelessness. It reinforced to her that homelessness could affect anyone, and that it was misleading to judge by the someone’s appearance.
Despite seeing these impacts, I’ve often hesitated from raising my own voice. Unlike Malala, I’ve never had to fear being physically attacked for speaking up for what I believe in. But the implicit expectation that it would have little impact, the idea that my voice would be drowned out, or my own misplaced sense of self-consciousness, have often led me to shy away from the simple power of speaking up despite how much I might care about a cause.
And yet, small an act as it may sound, it was this which distinguished Malala when she began writing her diary, or when she and her classmates gave interviews to the media. The extremists found this threatening, and it was her act of speaking up which ultimately drew attention to all the out-of-school children around the world. By compelling others to listen and empathise, peaceful protest ultimately prevails above violence – which, if it ever solves anything, only does so temporarily.
Knowing this, I’m inspired to remember Malala’s words every time I feel helpless to change the injustices that I see. She’d felt the same way when she was just one girl in Pakistan struggling to go to school; when she just wanted education for herself and her friends; when she wanted an end to the conflict in Swat Valley, but it seemed like she could do little. When she took the courage to speak up, it became clear: “when the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”