Malala Yousafzai’s Incredible Journey: From Activist to Global Icon

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Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai (Urdu: ملالہ یوسفزئی, Pashto: ملاله یوسفزۍ, pronunciation: [məˈlaːlə jusəf ˈzəj]; born 12 July 1997) is a prominent Pakistani education activist and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, having received the award at 17 in 2014. She is renowned as the youngest Nobel Prize recipient in history, the second Pakistani, and the only Pashtun to be honored with this prestigious accolade. Malala is a fervent advocate for the education of women and children, particularly in her hometown of Swat, where the Taliban had previously imposed bans on girls attending school. Her advocacy has transcended borders, evolving into a global movement, and she is celebrated as Pakistan’s “most prominent citizen,” according to former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

Born to a Yusufzai Pashtun family, Malala is the daughter of education activist Ziauddin Yousafzai. Named after the Afghan folk heroine Malalai of Maiwand, she grew up influenced by her father’s ideals and the humanitarian work of figures such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Barack Obama, and Benazir Bhutto. In early 2009, at the age of 11, Malala began writing a blog for BBC Urdu under the pseudonym Gul Makai, detailing her life under Taliban rule in Swat. Her story gained further attention when journalist Adam B. Ellick produced a New York Times documentary about her life amid the Pakistani military’s Operation Rah-e-Rast against militants in Swat. By 2011, she had earned Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize and received a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize from activist Desmond Tutu.

Malala’s activism made her a target for the Taliban, and on October 9, 2012, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while riding a bus home from an exam. Despite critical injuries, she recovered after being transferred to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, UK. This attack provoked a global wave of support, with widespread condemnation of the Taliban from governments, human rights organizations, and feminist groups. Despite further threats from the Taliban, the international community rallied around Malala, underscoring the importance of her cause.

Following her recovery, Malala intensified her activism for education. Now based in Birmingham, she co-founded the Malala Fund with Shiza Shahid, a non-profit organization advocating for girls’ education worldwide. In 2013, she co-authored the memoir “I Am Malala,” which became an international bestseller. Her efforts were recognized with numerous awards, including the Sakharov Prize in 2013 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, which she shared with Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. Malala’s story was also featured in the Oscar-shortlisted documentary “He Named Me Malala” in 2015. She has been consistently listed among the world’s most influential people by Time magazine and received honorary Canadian citizenship in 2017, becoming the youngest person to address the House of Commons of Canada.

Malala completed her secondary education at Edgbaston High School in Birmingham from 2013 to 2017. She then attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), graduating in 2020. In 2023, she was honored as the youngest-ever Honorary Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford.

Early Life


Childhood

Yousafzai with her father (left) and Martin Schulz in Strasbourg, 2013

Malala Yousafzai was born on July 12, 1997, in the Swat District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, into a lower-middle-class Sunni Muslim family of Pashtun ethnicity, belonging to the Yusufzai tribe. She was born at home with the help of neighbors, as her family could not afford a hospital birth. Her name, Malala, meaning “grief-stricken,” was inspired by Malalai of Maiwand, a renowned Pashtun poet and warrior woman. Malala grew up in Mingora with her parents, Ziauddin and Toor Pekai Yousafzai, her two younger brothers, Khushal and Atal, and their two chickens.

Fluent in Pashto, Urdu, and English, Malala received most of her education from her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who was a poet, school owner, and education activist. He ran a chain of private schools known as the Khushal Public School. Initially aspiring to be a doctor, Malala’s ambitions shifted towards politics under her father’s encouragement. Ziauddin recognized her unique potential, often engaging her in political discussions late into the night.

Malala’s activism began early, inspired by the twice-elected, assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In September 2008, she delivered a speech in Peshawar questioning the Taliban’s right to deny her education, a speech that was widely covered by regional media. In 2009, she joined the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s Open Minds Pakistan youth program, which aimed to foster constructive dialogue on social issues through journalism and public debate among students.

Malala Yousafzai’s unwavering commitment to education and human rights has made her a global icon and a source of inspiration for millions. Her journey from a remote valley in Pakistan to the international stage underscores the power of one voice to effect profound change.

As a BBC Blogger

From left to rightMartin Luther King Jr.Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah have influenced Yousafzai.

In late 2008, Aamer Ahmed Khan of the BBC Urdu website and his team devised an innovative method to report on the growing influence of the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley. They decided to have a schoolgirl anonymously blog about her life under Taliban rule. Abdul Hai Kakar, the BBC’s correspondent in Peshawar, contacted a local schoolteacher, Ziauddin Yousafzai, to find a suitable candidate. However, most students’ families deemed it too dangerous. Finally, Ziauddin suggested his daughter, Malala, who was just 11 years old at the time.

During this period, Taliban militants led by Maulana Fazlullah were asserting control over Swat, imposing bans on television, music, and girls’ education, and forbidding women from going shopping. The gruesome display of beheaded policemen’s bodies in town squares added to the atmosphere of fear. Initially, a girl named Aisha from Ziauddin’s school agreed to write the blog, but her parents quickly withdrew their consent, fearing Taliban reprisals. With no other volunteers, Malala, then in seventh grade, took on the task.

“We had been covering the violence and politics in Swat in detail, but we didn’t know much about how ordinary people lived under the Taliban,” said Mirza Waheed, former editor of BBC Urdu. To protect Malala’s identity, the BBC editors insisted she use a pseudonym. Thus, her blog was published under the byline “Gul Makai,” which means “cornflower” in Pashto, inspired by a character from a Pashtun folktale.

On January 3, 2009, Malala’s first entry was posted to the BBC Urdu blog. She wrote her notes by hand and passed them to a reporter, who then scanned and emailed them. Her blog entries provided a poignant insight into her life during the First Battle of Swat, as military operations escalated, fewer girls attended school, and eventually, her school was forced to shut down. On that first day, she wrote:

“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast, and I went off to school. I was afraid of going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending school. Only 11 out of 27 pupils attended the class because the number decreased because of the Pakistani Taliban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to Peshawar, Lahore, and Rawalpindi with their families after this edict.”

The Pakistani Taliban had decreed that no girls could attend school after January 15, 2009. By then, they had already destroyed over 100 girls’ schools. The night before the ban took effect was filled with the sounds of artillery fire, waking Malala several times. The following day, she read excerpts from her blog published in a local newspaper for the first time.

Malala’s blog documented the harsh realities faced by her community and brought global attention to the plight of girls in Swat. Her courageous entries provided a stark, personal narrative of life under Taliban rule, capturing the world’s attention and laying the foundation for her future as a renowned advocate for education and women’s rights.

Banned from School

Following the edict issued by the Pakistani Taliban, many more local schools were destroyed. On January 24, 2009, Malala Yousafzai wrote in her blog:

“Our annual exams are due after the vacations, but this will only be possible if the Pakistani Taliban allow girls to go to school. We were told to prepare certain chapters for the exam, but I do not feel like studying.”

She expressed her frustration with the situation, noting the inadequacy of the military’s response:

“It seems that it is only when dozens of schools have been destroyed and hundreds of others closed down that the army thinks about protecting them. Had they conducted their operations here properly, this situation would not have arisen.”

By February 2009, girls’ schools remained closed. In solidarity, private schools for boys decided not to open until February 9, and notices appeared indicating this decision. On February 7, Malala and her brother returned to their hometown of Mingora, finding the streets deserted and enveloped in an “eerie silence.” She wrote in her blog:

“We went to the supermarket to buy a gift for our mother, but it was closed, whereas earlier it used to remain open till late. Many other shops were also closed.”

Upon arriving home, they discovered their house had been robbed and their television was stolen. The reopening of boys’ schools soon followed, and the Pakistani Taliban lifted restrictions on girls’ primary education where co-education was present, but girls-only schools remained closed. Malala noted the stark difference in attendance:

“Only 70 pupils attended out of the 700 who were enrolled.”

On February 15, gunshots rang out in the streets of Mingora, causing alarm. However, Malala’s father reassured her:

“Don’t be scared—this is firing for peace.”

He had read in the newspaper that the government and militants were set to sign a peace deal the next day. That night, as the Taliban announced the peace deal on their FM radio station, another round of more intense gunfire erupted outside.

On February 18, Malala spoke out against the Pakistani Taliban on the national current affairs show “Capital Talk.” Just three days later, Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, announced on his FM radio station that the ban on women’s education was being lifted. Girls would be allowed to attend school until exams were held on March 17, but with the stipulation that they had to wear burqas.

This period marked a significant chapter in Malala’s life, showcasing her resilience and commitment to education despite the oppressive conditions imposed by the Taliban. Her courage to speak out and the subsequent partial lifting of the ban highlighted the impact of her advocacy, even in the face of grave danger.

Girls’ Schools Reopen

On February 25, Malala Yousafzai wrote in her blog about the return to a semblance of normalcy at school: “My classmates and I played a lot in class and enjoyed ourselves like we used to before.” By March 1, attendance in her class had risen to 19 out of 27 pupils, indicating a slow but promising return to regular school life. However, the threat of the Pakistani Taliban still loomed large over the area. Shelling persisted, and relief supplies intended for displaced individuals were often looted.

Just two days later, on March 3, Malala described a skirmish between the military and the Taliban. The sounds of mortar shells were once again heard in her community. She expressed the ongoing fears of the local people: “People are again scared that the peace may not last for long. Some people are saying that the peace agreement is not permanent; it is just a break in fighting.”

Despite the unrest, Malala continued to focus on her education. On March 9, she wrote about excelling in a science exam and observed a notable change in the Taliban’s activities: they were no longer searching vehicles as they had done previously. This relative calm offered a brief respite for the community, though the future remained uncertain.

Malala’s blog entries during this period provide a vivid account of the precarious balance between hope and fear experienced by students in Swat. Her last blog entry for the BBC Urdu was posted on March 12, 2009, marking the end of a significant chapter in her early activism. Through her writing, she shed light on the resilience of young girls determined to pursue their education despite the constant threats and challenges posed by the Taliban’s presence.

As a Displaced Person

See also: Second Battle of Swat

After Malala Yousafzai’s BBC diary ended, she and her father were approached by New York Times reporter Adam B. Ellick to film a documentary. In May, the Pakistani Army launched Operation Rah-e-Rast (Second Battle of Swat) to regain control of the region. Mingora, Yousafzai’s hometown, was evacuated, resulting in her family’s displacement and separation. Her father traveled to Peshawar to protest and seek support, while Malala was sent to the countryside to live with relatives. “I’m bored because I have no books to read,” she said in the documentary.

During this time, after publicly criticizing militants at a press conference, Malala’s father received a death threat from a Pakistani Taliban commander over the radio. Her father’s activism deeply inspired Malala. That summer, for the first time, she committed to becoming a politician instead of a doctor, a career she had once aspired to:

“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.”

By early July, refugee camps were filled. The prime minister made a long-awaited announcement declaring it safe to return to the Swat Valley. The Pakistani military had pushed the Taliban out of the cities and into the countryside. Malala’s family reunited and, on July 24, 2009, they headed home. Before returning, they made a stop to meet with a group of grassroots activists invited to see Richard Holbrooke, United States President Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Malala pleaded with Holbrooke to intervene in their education crisis, saying, “Respected ambassador, if you can help us in our education, so please help us.”

When her family finally returned home, they found their house undamaged and her school had sustained only light damage. This period of displacement and uncertainty further fueled Malala’s determination to advocate for education and stand against the oppression imposed by the Taliban.

[To be Continued in Next blog]

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