Malala: The Girl That Took A Shot For Women’s Education

On Monday 19, January 2009, the brief journal of a mysterious girl named Gul Makai was published on the BBC’s newspaper. This brave young Pakistani girl wrote about her daily life struggles to let the whole world know about the outcome of terrorist activities carried out by a Taliban group in Pakistan. What Gul Makai did not know was that her life was going to change drastically and her real name would have an impact on the world’s history.

Malam Jabba Ski Resort and Hotel in Swat Valley, Pakistan after it was destroyed by Taliban militants. | Courtesy of Alamy

Swat Valley is a region located in the north of Pakistan. It is not a wealthy area but people lived peacefully and happily in their land known for its beautiful landscape. Everything changed there in 2008 with the arrival of the Taliban, a group of Islamic radicals fighting violently to impose their interpretation of the Quran.1 One of the many souls involved in the chaotic situation was young Malala Yousafzai: “I was ten when the Taliban came to our valley.”2 Malala was the daughter of a school owner and educational activist. She was always encouraged to study, to read books, to learn, and to speak her mind. She would stay up later than her younger brothers only to discuss topics such as politics or education. She wanted to be a doctor and save lives, but her father always encouraged her to be a politician, which, in the end, she accepted to pursue. When the Taliban announced that girls were no longer going to be able to go to school and get an education, Malala’s life turned upside down, along with another fifty thousand girls’ lives.3

The Taliban were strange-looking men with long beards and camouflage vests. They were headed by Maulana Fazluhlla, a young man that used to be poor in his childhood but was smart enough to climb the stairs of power by marrying the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) leader. TNSM is a Pakistani militant group fighting to enforce Sharia law. Fazlullah established a radio station that soon became known as Mullah FM. At first, he would claim to be an Islamic reformer, an interpreter of the Quran. People liked him since he would encourage traditions and good habits among the young people. Then he started saying people listening to music and watching TV were the reasons why God was mad and there had been an earthquake and shortly after people starter getting rid of their TVs and music CDs. Malala’s family was different. They were educated people so they never listened to any of the Taliban warnings. The problem was that a lot of other people did, even when they started saying women were meant to stay at home and only whenever it was necessary for them to go out, they should wear a veil. Soon after this, one of the teachers at Malala’s school informed her father that he couldn’t teach girls anymore because the Taliban didn’t like it. Her father had an opinion about that: “I agree that female teachers should educate girls,” he said. “But first we need to educate our girls so they can become teachers!4 Soon enough female education centers were not acceptable according to the Taliban and girls started dropping out of school, but not Malala. Fazlullah started preaching against women’s education and insisting that whoever did would go to hell. Everyday a new edict would come down.

Fazlullah began holding a local court, since the judicial system in Pakistan was so inefficient. People would go to the Taliban to solve their problems with others, and so they started making justice themselves. People would be beaten up and shot in the middle of the street, and so the fear began. A year after the radio started the Taliban started preaching and acting more radically. Eid marks the end of Ramadan, and it is celebrated with an animal’s sacrifice. Fazlullah made an announcement in the radio: “On this Eid two-legged animals will be sacrificed.” Malala said, “We soon saw what he meant.”5 The Taliban started killing politicians and activists. Right after Eid, when Malala and her family where coming back from visiting their family in the countryside, her father received his first threat. A note had being stuck on the school’s gate warning him to quit his western education system. After taking some precautions, education at Malala’s school kept going, with the disapproval of some and the support of others. “You can stay there accepting everything from the Taliban or you can make a stand against them,” said one of his father’s friends.6 The situation got so out of hand that the government didn’t seem to know what to do. When everyone thought they were not going to do anything, the army arrived in Swat making noise with jeeps and helicopters. Civilians ran into their homes and Malala’s family didn’t leave for days. “Later the curfew took over our lives,” Malala said.7 By the end of 2007, the military had gotten rid of the Taliban in Swat, but 2008 seemed to be much worse, with all the bombs and the killings. Fazlullah’s men began blowing up schools during the nighttime almost every day. During that year Swat created an assembly made up of elder men called Qaumi Jirga, which was meant to challenge Fazlullah. Although Malala’s father was not an elder, he was great speaking to the crowds, so he was chosen as a spokesman. Every day he would give seminars to the media challenging the Taliban.

Since Malala’s father was a brave activist willing to do anything to make everyone aware of the injustice in Pakistan, he was contacted by the BBC. They were looking for a young female student that could describe to the world how life was for young women living in Taliban territory. At first, there were several candidates; sixteen- and seventeen-year-old  students from Malala’s school. In the end, all of them backed down; some were scared of the repercussions their actions would have if the terrorists found out, and others were forbidden to do so by their families. When Malala heard of the offer from the BBC, she volunteered for the task. Just like that, young thirteen-year-old Malala became the voice of all Pakistani young women. Since using email or any form of written communication was not safe, the reporter from the BBC would call Malala to her mother’s cell phone and they would converse about what happened throughout the day. Malala would talk about her dreams at night; nightmares in which the Taliban and the military invaded her town with helicopters, or observations while walking in the street; the way some men would look at her for going to school after the edict emitted by the Taliban, or how sad she was for not being able to wear her uniform to school, since it would draw too much attention and it was dangerous. The third of January of 2009 the Diary of Gul Makai was published in the newspaper telling Malala’s short stories. Everyone paid attention to the journal. One of Malala’s classmates even printed a copy to take it to school and show to everyone. They all wondered who that mysterious Gul Makai might be. Malala wanted to scream at the top of her lungs and tell the world she was the one everyone was talking about, that she was the one with a double identity, but she knew she had to keep it a secret for her safety and her family’s.8 

The fourteenth of January of that same year was the deadline for schools to close. Many had already been blown up by then, and Malala was holding on to hope, waiting for some major event that would turn things around allowing her to go back to school, but no one stood up or raised their voice to help her. Instead, she found her home packed with video cameras when she woke up next morning. At first, she felt intimidated while being recorded all the time, but when the interview began and she started speaking her mind, all her fears faded. Malala had previous experience with talking in public, so when she realized all she had to do was what she already knew, she showed a more mature young woman. She would talk about the Taliban blowing up their schools, even though they had already closed them; about the public floggings and people supporting it for fear to oppose them; the war taking place in their streets. Malala wanted to show the world how hard and unfair life was in Swat Valley.9 Soon after, girls stopped going to school the people started complaining. There were public riots and people speaking on TV. By March of the same year girls up to fourth grade were allowed to go to schools so older ones like Malala risked their lives and kept going to school pretending they were younger so that they could get an education.

October ninth of 2012 started as any other day. Malala’s father didn’t go to the school that day. He was giving one of his speeches outside of town when he received a phone call that made him drop everything: the Taliban shot a bus coming from school. His first thought was “Malala could be in that bus” and his instinct, unfortunately, happened to be pretty accurate. Coming back from school, Malala and her classmates were sitting in the back of an old truck getting a ride back to their homes, since it was very dangerous to walk all the way. From what happened to be the middle of nowhere, they started hearing gun shots. Two of Malala’s friend were injured and started bleeding. She didn’t get to realize what was happening or what happened next: she was shot in the head.10 People started screaming, running away, horrified towards the unexpected event. Immediately after, she was transported to the military hospital in Peshawar. There, Coronel Junaid Kahn performed her surgery, and she was kept alive. Malala entered a coma and no one knew whether she would be able to wake up from it. After surgery, her vital signs became weaker and because of it, and thanks to Dr. Javid Kayani, a British doctor that happened to be in Islamabad when she was shot, she was transferred to the University Hospital of Birmingham, all the way in the United Kingdom. The day she woke up in the hospital was October sixteenth, a week after the shooting. When she first regained conscious, all she could think of was whether her father had also been shot since he was better known as education activist. Her family couldn’t afford that kind of medical treatment, so she asked several times to be released as soon as possible.

Malala at the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust | Courtesy of Time Magazine

Slowly she learned what had happened to her and relearned how to speak and write. It wasn’t until about a month after she was moved to Birmingham that her parents and siblings were allowed to travel too. In the meantime, Malala received visits from famous artists and politicians, along with hundreds of presents and letters wishing her a quick recovery from people from far away places. Journalists and big news channels were giving constant updates on her recovery. She didn’t realized back then that the world had its eye on her. The Taliban turned her personal protest into a social issue that was being heard all around the globe. While all of this was happening, the interior minister of Pakistan went to visit Malala and her family and revealed the identity of her aggressor. Ataullah Khan was a member of the Taliban who had earlier been arrested during the military operations taking place in Pakistan during 2009, but he was released several months later. The minister announced there was a $1 million bounty on his head, but Malala doubted he would be found.11 

Pakistani students carry placards with the photograph of child activist Malala Yousafzai during a protest against the assassination attempt by the Taliban on Malala in Lahore on October 16, 2012 | Courtesy of Getty Images

Malala fully recovered eventually. Her family now lives in Birmingham, where she and her siblings are getting a good education. Malala received many prizes and is recognized as a world-renown social activist that fights for women’s education. She has written a book where she talks about all her experiences and shows the perspective of a girl in a world of war.12

“I’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever. When I received prizes for my work at school I was happy, as I had worked hard for them, but these prizes are different. I am grateful for them […]. I don’t want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but as the ‘girl who fought for education.’ This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.”13

  1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Taliban.”
  2. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 111.
  3.   Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Malala Yousafzai”, by Alex Schnee.
  4. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 118.
  5. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 121.
  6. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 122.
  7. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 130.
  8.  Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 154-164.
  9.  Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 160-161.
  10. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 241-242.
  11.  Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 290-301.
  12. Matt Doeden, Yousafzai: shot by the Taliban, still fighting for equal education (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2015), 51-53.
  13. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013), 309.
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