Malala Yousafzai: An Inspiring, and Problematic, Symbol, and What She Can Teach Us

Danya Levy, ‘15

Malala Yousafzai was born on July 12, 1997, only two days after my birth, in the Swat district of northwestern Pakistan, a place she would later describe to John Stewart as a “paradise on earth,” with lush green hills, mountains, and crystal clear water. In 2004, the Taliban first came to Swat Valley. As she tells it, the real brutality began in 2007; since then, over 400 schools have been attacked. At the peak of violence, two or three people were slaughtered every night.

With the encouragement of her father, a strong advocate for girls’ education, Malala began to speak out, recognizing it as her mission to inform the world of the horrors occurring in her paradise. She spoke out using every media outlet she could find, asking why the Taliban could take away her right to education. In her earliest anonymous blog posts, her resolve and determination to fight for what she believes in already shine through.

The New York Times reporter Adam B. Ellick met Malala in 2009, when she was set on becoming a doctor. (She has since changed her mind, opting to be a politician instead.) As Ellick later wrote, “I spent six months making two documentaries about her life that helped bring her brave campaign to the world, transforming her into a public figure.”

As Malala’s audience—and power—grew, and she continued to speak out, the Taliban took more and more notice. Malala first found out that she had been targeted directly when an acquaintance informed her and her father that upon searching her name on Google, news of the threat came up as a result. At first, Malala felt disbelief; she was more worried about her father than herself, thinking that the Taliban were not cruel enough to kill a child. (She was 14 at the time.)

As she would later explain on the Daily Show, now a bubbling 16-year-old girl that no one would ever know had been shot in the head, at the time of the death threats, she asked herself what she would do if the Taliban came. Her first thought was to hit her assassin with a shoe. But then, she stopped herself, thinking, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with that much cruelty … you must fight others, but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.” She would explain, she decided, that she wanted education even for her killer’s children, and then let him do what he wanted.

On October 9th of last year, members of the Taliban boarded Malala’s school bus and shot her in the head. Malala was airlifted to a military hospital and operated on immediately. Offers to treat her came from all around the world. After months of surgeries, drugs, and painful rehabilitation, she was able to make a full recovery without brain damage.

And what a recovery it has been. Since the assassination attempt, Malala has, once again, stepped into the public spotlight. Angelina Jolie and Laura Bush have written about her. She has met the Queen of England, been interviewed on countless media outlets, and sat in the Oval Office with President Obama, the First Lady, and their daughter, Malia. Malala was awarded the top European Union human rights award, and was nominated (and denied) the Nobel Peace Prize. She has also released a memoir, I am Malala.

It is undeniably difficult to not be rendered speechless, even tearful, by Malala’s story, by seeing this incredible strength coming from a 16-year-old girl who has defied all odds. Summarizing concisely the emotions being felt by his audience, John Stewart responded to her story by saying, “Let me ask you, I know your father is back stage, and he is very proud of you…but would he be mad if I adopted you?”

Finding fault with Malala and her story is a task that proves to be quite difficult. What makes some people uneasy, though, is her reception in the West. In the Washington Post, Max Fisher denounced the American fuss over Malala as feel-good “slacktivism,” and claimed that the Nobel committee did her a favor in giving the Peace prize to someone else. “The hard truth we don’t want to acknowledge,” he explains, “Is that the world’s most difficult and intractable problems, from gender violence in India to civil war in Syria to discrimination against girls in Pakistan, are not camera-ready. They do not cry out to be adopted by Jon Stewart or given a hug by Queen Elizabeth II. The solutions, if they even exist, are not slogans and they don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy.”

It seems clear that Malala’s story, in addition to being absolutely inspiring, incites a lot of difficult questions. Did the journalists who brought her to prominence play a part in her attempted assassination? In fawning over her, are we simply reducing the problems of Pakistan, and the Middle East, into an issue of good guys versus bad guys—in which we support the good ones? In pouring money into Malala’s cause, are we ignoring, and simplifying, the more fundamental problems that plague her nation?

Adam B. Ellick, the Times journalist, did express remorse and frustration with the role he may have played in Malala’s pain. “While giving people a platform to the world,” he wrote of his profession, “We do everything we can to avoid situations in which our reporting turns people into targets. But most of the time, we just don’t know what will happen. My reporting certainly heightened the family’s status, and sparked their appetite for recognition.”

Malala does bring some much-needed complexity and attention to the discussion of the role of the United States in Pakistan. While talking with President Obama, she raised the issue of drone strikes, which he supports, saying that they fuel terrorism. Often, if we really pay attention, she can teach us much more than the often simplified narrative that is presented to us. And her renown may help break down stereotypes of her region.

Despite the drawbacks of her newfound fame, the broad appeal of Malala’s story has undeniable benefits. Watching this girl, born two days after me, overcome great odds to travel the world spreading a message of dialogue and peace, I can’t help but feel inspired to do bigger and better things. Hearing her story makes me feel grateful for the public education I have, and, perhaps more importantly, the political and social stability that I enjoy as a resident of the United States. This tale of Malala’s paradise, and the horrors that have unfolded there, both give us healthy perspective on our own lives and motivate us to solve the problems that plague our world—cheesy as it may sound.

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